As climate displacement increases, migration myths fuel fears

Houses on the coastline of Guet Ndar, the fishing district of Saint-Louis in Senegal, have been destroyed by storms and tidal waves in recent years. (Stefano Fasano)

Wave by wave, Saint-Louis is slowly but steadily sinking beneath the rising ocean; the waters that once provided the northern Senegalese city with sustenance now threatening its very survival. Identified by the United Nations as the city most threatened by rising sea levels in Africa, the encroaching Atlantic is swallowing up to two metres of its coastline every year. Several thousand people have been forced to relocate inland due to storm surges and the inundation of Doun Baba Dieye, a nearby fishing community. For remaining inhabitants, life continues to grow more precarious.

Situations like this are becoming more common as the climate crisis worsens. As climate-induced displacement and migration increases, so too is anxiety and misinformation about it. In recent years, there has been an uptick in sensational and fear-mongering rhetoric among media outlets and politicians in the Global North asserting that climate change directly and automatically leads to mass migration, and warning, through dehumanising language, about the impending ‘floods’ or ‘waves’ of millions or billions of desperate climate migrants or climate refugees who threaten to drown Europe as they flee an uninhabitable Global South.

Apocalyptic predictions may grab people’s attention, but they obscure the complex reality on the ground and fuel deep-rooted xenophobia and racism in Europe by playing on anti-immigrant fears.

They also paint an inaccurate picture: what research on climate change and migration shows is very different from the alarmist narrative that has taken root.

Experts agree that climate change is affecting mobility. However, the relationship between these two things is not straightforward, as it is often portrayed, but complex, multicausal and context specific. Estimates of how climate change will impact mobility are also challenged by uncertainties about what the future climate will be like, how countries’ adaptive capacity will evolve and the way international migration policy will progress.

Evidence versus myth

Projections of millions or billions displaced in the coming decades overshadow the fact that climate-induced displacement and migration is not a far-flung future threat but a present reality. The number of internally displaced people worldwide is at an all-time high, with nearly 25 million people forced from their homes in 2019 due to sudden-onset disasters. As extreme-weather events, like typhoons, storms and floods, and slow-onset pressures, such as rising seas, land degradation and rainfall variation, become more acute, climate-induced mobility is expected to increase.

Treating ‘climate migration’ as a distinct migration category erroneously implies that climate can be distinguished from other drivers, because decisions to move are based on a multitude of factors that are deeply linked and influence each other in complex ways. For people dependent on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods, the environmental conditions and economic result are one and the same, because changes in rainfall or temperature can have severe economic consequences.

“If you don’t see all the different drivers as they work together — social, political, economic, environmental, and demographic factors —you are really missing the bigger picture,” explains Caroline Zickgraf, deputy director of the Hugo Observatory, a research centre at Belgium’s University of Liège dedicated to how the environment and climate change impact migration.

Another persistent misconception surrounding climate change and human mobility is the belief that the majority of people who migrate will leave their countries. Much of the recent attention towards migrants has focused on Africans trying to reach Europe. Although this type of long-distance international migration constitutes the most popular image of migration, evidence demonstrates it is not the most common. Yet this finding is frequently dismissed.

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In West and Central Africa, migration to North Africa or Europe accounts for just 10 to 20 per cent of movements, while the remaining 80 to 90 per cent of movements are internal to the region. “In recent years, Europe has been the fantasy of fewer and fewer candidates for migration because of the difficulties they encounter in finding regularisation [programmes], work and mobility,” says Aly Tandian, president of the Senegalese Migration Observatory and associate professor of sociology at Saint-Louis’ Gaston Berger University. African countries constitute the majority of destinations for West African migrants because of the lack of visa constraints and ease of overland travel. This enables people to be more mobile in search of opportunities, while the socio-cultural and linguistic proximity of many host countries creates a degree of familiarity, he explains.

Hind Aïssaoui Bennani, a migration, environment and climate change specialist with the International Organization for Migration in Dakar, Senegal, says the importance of labour migration is often overlooked, despite its significance throughout the region. Most labour migrants move in search of work in natural resource sectors, like agriculture, fishing and mining. “The environment is not only a driver of migration which obliges people to move, but it also attracts people,” Bennani says. However, she adds, climate change can also lead to immobility and trapped populations that cannot leave because they lack the resources or ability, and who are generally the most vulnerable.

Stoking fear

It is unknown how many people have been displaced due to climate change, and experts say it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict with precision how many people might be forced to move in the future due to how inherently complex migration and climate change each are. “There’s going to be a range of scenarios, based on what we do in terms of policy and climate action, but also in terms of how people respond in ways that are often non-linear. It’s not just climate change goes up and migration goes up,” says Zickgraf.

Last year, a report from the Institute for Economics and Peace claimed that 1.2 billion people would be displaced by ecological threats by 2050. The number went viral, and was covered by major news outlets around the world, but several leading migration experts have rejected the number, including Zickgraf, who says it lacks science and was arrived at through manipulation and misrepresentation of data. In comparison, a 2018 World Bank report that used scientific modelling techniques projected that without urgent climate action, 140 million people would move within their countries’ borders by 2050.

The ‘climate change causes mass migration’ narrative has been utilised by the left to draw attention to the humanitarian impacts of climate change and to galvanise climate action, while for the right and far-right it has served as a rallying point for the militarisation of borders and the pursuit of anti-immigration policies.

“The idea of using migration as a call to precipitate climate action and to draw attention to the human impacts of climate change, I think it’s very well-intentioned. But unfortunately, a lot of times, it plays into the security discourse,” says Zickgraf. “You’re looking for climate action, and what you’re getting is restrictive migration policies because you’re playing on people’s fears.”

Fears have not motivated people or governments to step up climate action but have further entrenched xenophobia and racism and contributed to the fortification of Fortress Europe. Moreover, presenting ‘climate migration’ as a security risk justifies funding schemes that try to prevent migration by keeping people in their place of origin, something which violates the fundamental human right to freedom of movement. As the climate emergency worsens, the so-called 2015 ‘European refugee crisis’ is increasingly being used as a harbinger of things to come. Through scare-tactic approaches, Zickgraf says, it is not the changes to the climate that are to be feared, but the “Other” – the people forced to move in response to these changes.

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Another issue lies with migration research itself, specifically whose research is valued and listened to. Tandian says that because in Europe the full spectrum of migration causes are not taken into account, analyses from Europe are limited in their understanding of migration issues on the ground in Africa. “In addition to this, Europe is often contracted to study migration issues, which partially impoverishes the results and policy decisions taken,” he says.

Mobility as adaptation

The ongoing tendency to portray migration from the Global South as an anomaly, a problem to solve or a threat to prevent ignores the fact that migration is not new. Throughout human history mobility has been an adaptive strategy for humans to deal with climatic or environmental changes. Nor is it always an escape from crisis. “Migration is about resilience and adaptation, and in West and Central Africa migration is already part of the solution,” says Bennani.

In some places we might have to, and should, facilitate migration pre-emptively, says Zickgraf, making sure that people migrate in the best conditions as a response to climate change. “What we really want is to enable choice, and if we only see migration as a bad thing, or that it’s always something to be prevented, then we miss all the benefits that can come from migrating out of areas that are vulnerable to climate impacts.”

Given that climate change weighs heavily on existing vulnerabilities and inequalities, and will disproportionately affect people in the Global South who have contributed the least to causing it, enabling mobility is not just an adaptation strategy, but an integral part of climate justice.

For the people of Saint-Louis and countless other places where climate change is already threatening lives and opportunities, mobility can reduce their vulnerability and allow them to secure a better life — a role that will only become more vital in a world increasingly shaped by climate instability.

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