Interdependance between environmental migration and socio-economic inequalities

Author : Chloé BLANCH. Translated by : Guillaume LANG.

The poorest are more likely to be displaced for environmental reasons (OXFAM): a consequence of the vicious circle formed by socio-economic and ecological inequalities
The biggest migration crisis won’t be caused by political conflicts, but by climate change. Indeed, in 2015, the number of people displaced for political reasons represented one-third of environmental migration, which equates to an average of 26 million displaced persons per year, according to UNHCR figures. The quantity of victims of environmental movements could even be underestimated because of the difficulty of measuring the number displacements caused by a slow change in the environment, such as the slow drought in the Horn of Africa.

Who are the people affected by those environmental displacements?
« The poorest are five times more likely to be victims of climate displacement », or more precisely the populations of low-income countries. This was announced in the November 2017 OXFAM report entitled “Uprooted by climate change”. However, even at the national leve, it is the poorest and more generally the vulnerable populations, who are most affected by environmental degradation or natural disasters and therefore suffer more forced migration by these same degradations or disasters. And it seems almost obvious, the lack of economic means and social and political power prevents a certain resilience or adaptation to environmental disasters. Yet the media have tackled this accumulation of different types of inequality with unequal exposure to natural disasters only after Hurricane Katrina, which has displaced tens of thousands of people in the United States. Indeed, this hurricane affected mainly the blacks and the poorest, which is explained by a political reaction too slow and weak precisely because it was a state whose population is predominantly black. Social inequalities and racism still prevalent in the United States have made a population, already economically and socially fragile, vulnerable to natural disasters and therefore more likely to be forced to move for environmental causes. Other types of vulnerable populations are highly represented among these migrants, such as indigenous peoples.
There is nevertheless a paradox: the poorest are much more affected by environmental degradation or natural disasters, but migration often requires a certain level of economic, social or even informational resources, that the poorest inside a same country do not always have. But in countries that help these populations to relocate, migration will be all-the-more difficult and sustainable, that they cannot afford to finance it. In addition, the situation persists: at the global level, the poorest countries and the most vulnerable populations are the most represented among environmental refugees, even if international mobility is practically inaccessible for the most vulnerable populations of the least developed countries.

Why are vulnerable populations more affected by forced displacement for environmental reasons?
A first cause would be the lack of political power. Indeed, to be able to pressure a government or the international community to act against the environmental degradation or natural disasters suffered, the communities affected by it must be able to organize and be heard. For example, Chiapas in Mexico, a very vulnerable community, have not been able to protect themselves from too much deforestation resulting in mudslides, because of their inability to have a strong enough lobby to stop this deforestation. This marginalized population of the political game is therefore forced to migrate to wealthier areas of Mexico or to the United States. Similarly, the lack of media and political visibility can prevent a population from having enough help and assistance in the face of natural disasters. Indeed, this is another mean of pressure, beside the organization of a collective political action. Without one, it is difficult to get help in the face of environmental problems.
More generally, social roles culturally attributed to different types of populations may weaken some and consequently make them more vulnerable to environmental changes and thus to migration or displacement. For example, women are much more affected by environmental degradation or natural disasters. According to recent reports from the International Organization for Migration, empirical studies have confirmed that gender-based social roles would make women more vulnerable to the dangers of environmental degradation and natural disasters. But because of their limited resources and their social role, women will be limited in their ability or desire to migrate. Nevertheless, some cases show that, since they remain more vulnerable to environmental degradation, they will still be exposed to environmental migration. The IOM outlook on migration, environment and climate change takes the example of women in rural Nepal to illustrate their exposure to environmental displacement. In the Chitwan Valley, the local population is dependent on their environment to live and support themselves, including dependence on wood for heat or any other material that allows them to produce products for the local market. According to Nepalese standards and customs, women are responsible for collecting firewood. But local forests are being depleted day by day, resulting in more time for collection and lower agricultural productivity. This report from the International Organization for Migration explains that studies has shown that this increase in time and this drop in productivity will increase the probability of women migrating locally.
Inequalities of economic means can also be a factor of environmental migration. Indeed, economic inequalities account for inequalities in the quality of life between populations, and in particular for the quality of housing and the infrastructure available to them, thereby increasing exposure to natural disasters. Take the example of Bangladesh, where two of the largest cities, Dhaka and Chittacong, are at high risk of flooding. The slums in these two cities, by the very nature of their construction in very weak materials, cannot stand in case of flood, causing the relocation of the populations living there. More generally, if we compare the situation of environmental migrants from developed countries with that of environmental migrants from developing countries, countries where corruption is much more frequent, the standardization of housing and infrastructure can itself be slopped. As a result, people in developing countries will be much more exposed to the risks of migration required by a change in environmental conditions. In addition, the environmental dangers are more socially accepted by the poorest populations, having no way to do otherwise, unlike the more affluent classes. This explains why the probability that the poorer neighbourhoods are devastated by a natural disaster forcing their inhabitants to migrate is higher than for richer neighbourhoods.

What consequence? A vicious circle between socio-economic and environmental inequalities involving forced environmental migration
Indeed, socio-economic and environmental inequalities are self-maintaining, and because the social and economic inequalities that create injustice to the environment, have themselves as a factor the impact of environmental and climate change, as forced environmental migration. Indeed, forced migration weakens already vulnerable populations on several levels. First, environmental migration economically weakens the populations concerned. If relocated by state aid, relocation conditions are rarely beneficial and may further marginalize IDPs. In the book Environmental Migration and Social Inequality, Schade, Faist and McLeman show that the relocation of the population of the capital of Burkina Faso Ouagadougou to Yagma, 20 kilometers from the capital, after the floods of 2010, worsened living conditions displaced citizens. Since health, education and electricity infrastructure are not sufficiently developed, the Burkinabe family struggled to rebuild their lives, especially at the economic level, as they did not find any jobs.
In addition, already socially vulnerable populations will also have their social vulnerability compounded by environmental migration. Indeed, especially women and children, through simple migration, aggravate the dangers they already face upstream of migration: migrant women fleeing natural disasters are at greater risk of sexual violence, as the report states. ActionAid and IDS, and any climate migrant, depending on the conditions of his migration, may expose himself to the risks of human trafficking.
Moreover, to use the theses popularized by the current of thought of social-ecology, environmental inequalities and socio-economic inequalities are self-perpetuating and form a vicious circle difficult to break. Especially since environmental migration contributes to this mechanism by exacerbating socio-economic inequalities and socio-economic inequalities exacerbate the environmental crisis. Indeed, still according to the social-ecology trend, inequalities at a national level would tend to feed a need for growth and economic development not necessarily justified in developed countries, which would increase the economic activity that remains, still today, too polluting. Finally, economic inequality results in reduced sensitivity to environmental issues among the poor, as demonstrated by the difficult negotiations of the Paris Agreement between developed and developing countries.

But then what can be done?
It would be a question of taking into account these displacements, which will be very difficult to avoid, and to guarantee to the displaced the best living conditions possible, which implies in particular a durable solution of relocation.
First, it requires a true status of these internally recognized IDPs. International law does not yet have a legally defined term for skilled workers or a common political direction, leaving countries with a lot of power for decision and leaving migrants without real protection. It would therefore be necessary to either amend the Geneva Convention to include environmental refugees, and at the same time create a separate legal regime. To illustrate the risks faced by environmental migrants with no internationally defined status, we can look at the example provided by the strong environmental migration in Bangladesh. The US Office of the National Intelligence Director is planning a major migration to India from Bangladesh’s population for environmental reasons. However, the refusal of immigration from India and the fact that it has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention puts all migrants in situations of high insecurity: for example, women who migrate from Bangladesh to India face the risk of being sold and then forced to be married.
Secondly, it will not be possible for developed countries to not invest in this future crisis. Indeed, if the UN forecast of 250 million climate refugees in 2050 is just, the countries not affected by natural disasters and environmental degradation, that is to say most of countries developed, will have to be able to live with millions of refugees on their doorstep hoping to find a new place to live. It would therefore be best to integrate them, to avoid the hecatomb that could represent the immobility of the populations concerned but also avoid the wave of violence that would result from a half-acceptance of these populations in society.
However, it should also try to minimize these displacements and the disasters and degradations at the origin of these displacements. In addition to behavioural change to curb climate change and environmental destruction (already mentioned in the article by Ny Aina Ramangasalama), much more sustained development assistance and environmental risk prevention could mitigate the serious consequences of climate change. environmental migration. In the end, it depends only on the international community: but is it realistic to believe that it is ready to face in solidarity the biggest migratory ever known?

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