As representatives from governments, civil society, and the private sector meet in Geneva for the 14th Global Forum on Migration and Development to discuss ‘means of preventing or else better managing climate-induced displacement’, Shabaka considers the role of diaspora communities in mitigating the impacts of climate change – and the need for a more nuanced understanding of the linkages between the climate crisis, displacement, and international migration.
Climate change is the biggest challenge facing the world – and its populations – in the 21st century. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published regular reports setting out the science of anthropogenic climate change, and the critical need to address rising global temperatures linked to fossil fuel emissions in order to mitigate its impacts on ecosystems and communities.
The COP process has tried to bring together UN Member States to agree targets and policies to reduce fossil fuel emissions and plan for the effects of climate change, which will have disproportionate impacts in Global South countries. Rising average global temperatures are driving more extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels, which are affecting people’s livelihoods and causing internal displacement, as well as cross-border migration.
Diaspora communities around the world are already working to mitigate the impacts of climate change on local communities in countries of origin and heritage by helping build resilience to extreme weather events. They also provide critical migrant protection for those displaced by the impacts of climate change internally and across international borders. From devastating floods in Libya and Pakistan (which displaced over 8m people internally in the case of Pakistan in 2022), to severe droughts in the Horn of Africa in recent years, the diaspora continues to support their extended families and local communities in origin countries in terms of disaster risk reduction, supporting livelihoods, and protection of vulnerable people.
At the same time, it is important to provide a critical challenge to some narratives around the projected impacts of climate change on human mobility. While the impact of climate change on displacement is already being seen, much of this is internal displacement in response to natural disasters or extreme weather events, and is often temporary – when the crisis is over, people prefer to return to their homes and communities.
A major impact of climate change is on livelihoods, for example increased salination linked to rising sea levels in Bangladesh causing internal migration, but this is also consistent with existing patterns of rural-urban migration in-country. Rather than natural disasters or extreme weather events causing large-scale, long-term displacement across borders, the effects of climate change are arguably more gradual, with changes to water availability and agriculture and increased competition over natural resources already contributing to conflicts, from Syria to the Sahel region and Sudan.
Some states, especially low-lying coastal or island nations, are already on the front line of climate change, and planning for climate mitigation and even resettlement options for affected communities is therefore a priority. However, for those who move across international borders, most will stay in neighbouring countries. The predictions from some quarters that the 21st century will see a ‘great climate migration’, with hundreds of millions or even billions of ‘climate migrants’ trying to move countries, are likely to be wide off the mark. Such projections should not be used by politicians and policymakers to justify stronger borders to keep ‘climate barbarians at the gate’ at the expense of enabling safe and legal routes for displaced people or labour migrants affected by the climate crisis.
Although the impacts of climate change require increasingly urgent policy responses from governments, these need to be nuanced to be effective. More research is therefore also needed on the impacts of climate change on mobility in the coming decades, both in terms of internal and cross-border movements, and to define terms like ‘climate migrant’ and ‘climate refugee’, which are increasingly being challenged and have no legal standing yet in international law.
Crucially, it is important to involve displaced people, migrants, and diaspora communities affected by climate change in discussions on policy and programmatic responses to address the impacts of the climate crisis. This is one advantage of fora like GFMD, as this provides a space for states, civil society groups including representatives of migrant and diaspora communities, and businesses to propose potential solutions together to this century’s biggest challenge.
Shabaka urges all participants in the 14th GFMD to recognise the vital role played by migrant, refugee, and diaspora communities in mitigating the effects of the climate crisis in countries of origin, transit, and settlement, in particular in terms of mitigation and adaptation activities, resilience-building, and migrant protection.
We also urge participants at GFMD to ensure that migrant, refugee, and diaspora communities are included in discussions on substantive agreements and policies to address climate change, displacement, and migration.