What is environmental migration?

Proximity to water, Tuvalu. Photo credit: INABA Tomoaki
Proximity to water, Tuvalu. Photo credit: INABA Tomoaki


What is environmental migration? The point of departure here is what most people already know. Most people can relay the dictionary definitions of what is a “migrant” and what is “migration”. Most people also have a good understanding of what climate change is. These people thereby conclude that environmental migration is when people migrate because they’ve been displaced by environmental or climatic events, such as a flood.

And, mainly, these people would be correct.

But let’s break this notion down a bit more.

The term “environmental migration” is a highly politicised one. Breaking the notion “environmental migration” down helps us understand why this is so. If we begin with the above basic definition – a flood causes people to migrate and then they become environmental migrants – the following question arises: is anyone displaced by a flood or environmental disaster an environmental migrant? What is the difference between the people in Queensland that were displaced by the 2010-2011 floods and the people in Bangladesh displaced by 2010 floods? Were the Australians who were displaced environmental migrants, perhaps because they experienced loss and financial hardship? If not, why not? Is it because they received extensive financial compensation by the Australian Government? Does this indicate that being an environmental migrant has to do with the person’s financial situation as well as their misfortune of being displaced? Or has it less to do with their displacement and more to do with their social and financial security? And what is the role of the Government in this situation? Are Bangladeshis more likely to become environmental migrants because their Government is not always able to protect them from environmental disasters? Should the strength of the Government feature in determining who is an “environmental migrant”? We see we have conceptually come a long way away from the “flood displaces person and therefore they are an environmental migrant” definition. Yet, all of these questions are relative to the situation and, I argue, unanswerable at the macro level. We are no closer to finding an answer or a definition beyond the basic. Many academics and policy-makers struggle with these questions, and it is for these reasons, that the term “environmental migration” is contentious and politicised.

And what of movement? What about the people’s movement that renders them unique? Why does their financial situation and Governmental support only become relevant at the point they move due to an environmental disaster? What difference is there between a person whose home is flooded and thereby migrates as a result, and the person who (because they are sick, poor or old) is not able to move and thereby remains in the area? Should the person who moves be privileged over the person who does not move? We realise that the term “environmental migrant” does privilege the person who moves over the person who does not. Should it? Again, these questions are relative to the situation and unanswerable at the macro level.

After this short conceptual, almost philosophical, journey we arrive at a number of conclusions. An environmental migrant is termed as such because they have been displaced by an environmental event, such as a flood. Their level of Governmental protection affects their categorisation as an environmental migrant. Their financial situation also affects this. However, in order to be recognised as an environmental migrant, this person must move from their homelands. And if they were poor and without proper governmental protection, this is only recognised as concerning at the point they move due to environmental events. Furthermore, the concept “environmental migration” is relative to certain situations and difficult to define at the macro level. And, overwhelming, any answer that approaches the questions raised in this paper are highly political in nature, given that we are considering the mass movement of people.

These conclusions lead to further questions regarding the policy recognition of environmental migration. What policies or laws exist that recognise the above conceptual elements to the “environmental migration” phenomenon? The answer to that, dear reader, is in the next blog post.

Thanks for reading!

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