Debunking the myths about migration and climate change

After years of alarmist predictions of hundreds of millions of climate refugees fleeing their homes, there is now a broad-based consensus that while the impacts of climate change will increase the number of migrants, it is not the only factor that drives people to move.

Blog by
16 November 2011

Many inhabitants of the city of La Paz in Bolivia live in extreme poverty. A persistent myth is that urban poverty is driven by large numbers of poor migrants (Photo: Lemurian Grove, Creative Commons via Flickr)

The recent report by the UK government on the Foresight project on Migration and Global Environmental Change brings together the contributions of 350 researchers from 30 countries and shows that there is no such thing as an ‘environmental migrant’. This is because while climate change and environmental degradation do and will affect growing numbers of people, migration is far more complex and cannot be attributed to a single factor.

While drought, floods and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns put a heavy toll on agriculture, small-scale farmers and pastoralists also face a range of threats, from land grabs to agriculture becoming less financially beneficial due to the ever higher cost of inputs – such as fertilisers. As discussed in this blog on land grabs in Mozambique some of these land grabs are happening through climate change mitigation initiatives, such as REDD, or for biofuel production.

Research by IIED’s partner TAMASHA also shows that in northern Tanzania growing numbers of young Maasai men are moving to the cities to supplement their families’ incomes from grazing livestock. They do this, in part, to compensate for the heavy losses of cattle due to drought and floods in the last two decades, but also because they are being forced to adopt new means of survival as foreign investors gain increasing control over Tanzania’s pasture land.

For people who have long lived in environmentally fragile areas, short-term mobility and diversifying sources of income are traditional ways of coping with both extreme and long-term environmental events. As discussed in this research, in Senegal, seasonal migration by farmers living in drought-affected areas is essential to ensuring the survival of their families and communities on their homelands.

But when local opportunities for non-farm work disappear, people are forced to move. In Bolivia’s Potosi region in the high Andes, this is what happened when the local mines closed as a result of structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s. When a catastrophic drought hit the region in 1982-83, local farmers could no longer rely on mining as an alternative source of income and were left with no other options than to leave.

Where do they go? Do migrants head for the cities as is often assumed by politicians and urban planners? Our partners’ work shows that, on the contrary, there is a great diversity in who moves where  and for how long. In many cases, and especially for poorer rural residents, migration is temporary and between rural areas, or to the local towns. Better educated and wealthier people do move to the cities, but their decisions to move are also much less affected by environmental change.

Myths: migration is the main cause of urban population growth and poverty

One persistent myth is that migration is the key contributor to urban population growth. In fact, natural population growth in cities causes most of it. Another is that poor migrants flocking to cities are the main drivers of urban poverty. In reality, while a large proportion of urban residents live in informal settlements that lack the most basic services, not all of them are migrants. In fact, in many cases migrants have higher levels of education and lower levels of unemployment than non-migrants.

Policies to reduce migration to cities are in place in 77% of African countries and 66% of Asian countries, reflecting a growing concern among governments in the Global South about ‘excessive’ rural-urban migration. But, for the reasons mentioned above, their focus on reducing the numbers of migrants to the cities is unlikely to reduce urban poverty or urban population growth, as many governments might hope.

Focusing on migration also potentially detracts attention from the need to address urban poverty in its own right and to adequately plan for the growth of urban populations. Without it, governments are consigning people to continue living in poor urban environments, often without sanitation or electricity and highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Clearly, a major shift in these perceptions is needed if we’re to change that.

Find out more

Read this new IIED report: "Not only climate change: mobility, vulnerability and socio-economic transformations in environmentally fragile areas in Bolivia, Senegal and Tanzania"