28 Dec, 2021

"Migration means adaptation to climate events"

by Food&Migration, Ilaria Mereni

Interview with Roberto Sensi, Policy Advisor on Global Inequality at ActionAid Italia. Mr Sensi deals with issues raging from migration and development to international development cooperation, right to food and agroecology. He’s also ActionAid’s Right to Food Officer and has been Trade and Investment Policy Officer at MAIS, Movimento per l’Autosviluppo, l’Interscambio e la Solidarietà. 

Food&Migration: Migration and climate change have acquired a central place in the public debate. Although the two issues are often analyzed separately, it is increasingly clear that there is a relationship between these two phenomena. How would you describe the nexus between human displacement and climate events?

ROBERTO SENSI: Defining the relationship between mobility (which includes many kinds of movements, such as economic and forced migration) and climate events is very complex. First of all, we must say that we are talking about an indirect relationship, mediated by other structural and individual factors which can determine the eventuality and direction of the migration path and influence its outcomes.
In particular, within a given context, climate events compete with other important drivers such as overpopulation, unemployment, weak governance, violence, conflict, social and gender inequality and so on. Although migration and displacement are increasingly perceived as the result of the effects of climate change, human mobility is multi-causal and operates on different spatial dimensions, timelines and policies where environmental factors are most appropriately identified as threats or vulnerability multipliers which can increase pre-existing inequalities. 
Concerning sudden onset environmental disasters, it is possible to identify a less complex or questionable cause-and-effect correlation; but even in this case the existing inequalities and the dynamics of power play a decisive role in the migration process, influencing their destination, duration and conditions. 
Therefore, due to the complexity of the variables and their interdependence, a direct relationship between climate change and migration, as well as a prediction of these flows, is very problematic. Despite this, the growing number of documented cases of displacement and migration due to climate events leaves no doubt that climate conditions are currently a key driver and will increasingly be so in the coming years.

F&M: Does this type of human displacement affect only violent and sudden climatic events or also the long-term ones, the consequences of which manifest over extended periods of time, such as drought and desertification?

SENSI: Climatic events can be divided into two categories, each of which generates displacements and migrations with generally different characteristics.
The first includes sudden environmental disasters (sudden-onset), such as floods, landslides, storms, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, etc. In this case, migration is usually immediate but temporary, as people generally return to their place of origin as soon as the climate emergency ends. The second includes progressive environmental disasters (slow-onset), which develop over long periods of time, such as drought and desertification. In this case, the migration is generally not immediate and tends to be seen as a long-term solution.
In terms of the causal link between migration and climatic conditions, sudden extreme environmental disasters (sudden onset disaster) make it possible to identify a less complex and more direct cause-effect correlation. Nevertheless, even in this case, the existing inequalities and the dynamics of power play a determining role in the migratory path, influencing its destination, duration and conditions. For this reason, therefore, it is always necessary to analyze all the elements which can significantly affect the migration decision and evolution.

F&M: What is the position of international legislation and policies with regard to those who migrate because of climatic disasters or land degradation? Is there any form of protection to protect these people?

SENSI: To date, from a legal point of view, international law has not yet defined the status of those who leave their homes for climatic reasons, especially because of the difficulty of distinguishing them from other drivers. For this reason, these people are not included in the United Nations (UN) Convention on Refugees of 1951. 
Nevertheless, as far as climate migrants are concerned, a context of soft-law has developed, which includes instruments, guidelines and policies that can guide governments in the recognition and management of the phenomenon. Some examples are the Nansen Initiative, with the aim of building consensus among States on how to face the phenomenon of cross-border mobility associated with extreme environmental phenomena, and the Task Force on Displacement, created to explore possible climate and mobility measures to be included in national adaptation plans. 
Moreover, it should be noted that today there are many more tools and initiatives for managing cross-border flows as compared with internal migration, although we know that human mobility is mainly domestic. Having said that, the adoption of legal protection mechanisms at the international and national level is urgent in view of an increasing number of displacements caused by environmental factors. In this regard, recently, something has started to change and some decisions by the UN Human Rights Committee have opened the doors to the possibility of requesting asylum for reasons related to the effects of climate change. Even if some steps have been taken, the road is still long and much more needs to be done.

F&M: A paper published by ActionAid analyzes the theme of climate migration. In particular, the document focuses on the phenomenon of migration as adaptation to climate events. What does it mean?

SENSI: The concept of migration as a form of adaptation appeared firstly in a seminal study in 2011, which depicted mobility as a proactive way to build resilience and reduce vulnerabilities.
Therefore, considering migration as an adaptation strategy means giving it the capacity to strengthen people’s resilient response to climate change, and also insisting on individual capacities to respond strategically to environmental challenges through the potential of migration. Those who support the concept of migration as adaptation see mobility as an opportunity to provide adaptive responses through the diversification of livelihoods, family risk and the use of remittances.
However, with the emphasis on migration as a form of adaptation, there is a risk of oversimplifying this concept, which is the result of a complex set of factors linked to economic development, financial stability, human capital, cultural norms, political dynamics, groups and social networks.
Migration, in fact, doesn’t have an automatic positive adaptive nature. The adaptive capacity is in fact heterogeneous among regions, social groups and families within a given population, and is constantly evolving. 
So it would be better to say that migration, given certain conditions, is one of the possible ways in which a given population, at a given time, can adapt to the impacts of climate change, but not always and, moreover, it is not the only one.

F&M: Besides those who move in response to a climatic event there are those who find themselves in a condition of “forced immobility”, thus facing increasing environmental risks and levels of poverty. Don’t you think that more international attention should be paid to these people?

SENSI: Yes, of course. An important element that is often overlooked is that mobility is not always an option as a result of the deterioration of environmental conditions. 
People who do not have enough resources to migrate find themselves trapped in a condition of "involuntary immobility", which does not consent them to begin a journey which could guarantee them better living conditions and thus to potentially benefit from mobility as a means of adaptation. Those who cannot choose migration will therefore be forced to face increasing environmental risks and resulting levels of poverty. 
For this reason, forced immobility should be a priority for policy-makers, researchers and social actors who carry forward the idea of migration as a form of adaptation. For this reason too, the financing of programs aimed at supporting migration as adaptation should not be implemented at the expense of in-situ adaptation ones, which should be aimed at improving the resilience of communities affected by climate change. Forced immobility can lead to very high-risk situations.

F&M: To conclude, what are the actions that decision-makers should take on mobility as a form of adaptation to climate events, both at the national and international level, and to other topics related to migration? 

SENSI: ActionAid proposes some generic recommendations to policy makers and international organizations on the specific issue of mobility as a form of adaptation. First of all, there is a lack of laws and policy frameworks. In fact, although there are a number of national and international regulatory instruments addressing migration, risk reduction, displacement and climate change, there are no specific tools for migration as an adaptation. It is therefore important that policy-makers fill this gap by promoting the adoption of coherent instruments, funding and policies so that migration can give an effective contribution to adaptation processes. 
Furthermore, climate mobility should also be integrated into national strategies, such as development and poverty reduction, in order to ensure a coherent approach that minimizes risks and exploits the opportunities that migration can offer in tackling climate change. But migration response strategies should be better coordinated on internal mobility, taking into account the political and social challenges of climate migration and taking appropriate and planned action on both communities of origin and destination. 
Another important recommendation is that governments should take full responsibility for the environmental impacts of climate change. Mobility associated with climate change is not only a diversification strategy, but is also the result of the failure of mitigation policies. For this reason should be tackled by the international community to promote effective responses and not be delegated only to the most affected nations, communities and families. Governments have also the responsibility to protect the rights of climate migrants and to guarantee them access to essential services, contributing to a positive outcome of the migration process. 
Furthermore, as part of an effective and fair response to the impacts of climate change, international institutions and national governments should ensure adequate investment to better understand the link between migration and adaptation, and promote the financing of programs aimed at strengthening adaptive and migration-related practices. 
Finally, all initiatives, strategies and policies related to climate migration should take into consideration context analysis at a territorial level, which are capable of providing the essential elements to promote effective action.