01 October 2010
Web-Editorial: Why the floods in Pakistan have not resulted in mass migration
Khalid Koser, Associate Dean and Head of the New Issues in Security Programme and Sarah Tishler, Research Assistant*
There is considerable media hype that climate change will result in massive migration from South to North. While there is growing acknowledgement that one of the effects of climate change will be more migration, there is very little consensus about how many people will be affected, how soon, and where they will move. The relationship between climate change and international migration is poorly understood. The recent experience of floods in Pakistan, which inundated about one-fifth of the country, killed around 1,750 people, affected over 20 million, and forced nearly two million to leave their homes, can be instructive for understanding this relationship.
It isn’t easy to say when migration is a result of climate change. Pakistan is flooded most years, and this year the floods have been particularly strong. But this isn’t necessarily a result of climate change. It may be more accurate to talk of ‘environmental’ migration than ‘climate change’ migration. And to recognize that there is nothing new about people leaving their homes during environmental crises.
Even where there is an environmental impulse to move, other factors are usually at play. In Pakistan, for example, the diversion of flood waters by wealthy landowners exacerbated their impact on poorer communities. Many of those displaced were being displaced for a second time, having already been forced to leave their homes as result of conflict. Farmers whose fields have been destroyed may leave because of the end of their livelihood. Politics, economics, and the environment thus combine to prompt displacement, even during environmental crises. An awareness of this multi-causality is important for developing effective policy responses.
Migration is not an inevitable response to environmental change. The vast majority of those affected by the floods in Pakistan were not displaced, but stayed in or close to their villages until the floods subsided. But their living conditions are shocking. Increasing resilience to environmental disasters and the effects of climate change may make it possible for people to choose to stay in their homes safely. Supporting adaptation by local communities may be the best way to prevent ‘environmental’ migration.
The true enemy is poverty. The case is often made that impoverished areas of the world will be most affected by climate change. Why is this the case? More often than not, it is because the people living in these regions depend on the ecosystem for their livelihoods, they do not live in solidly-build homes, and they do not have the resources (financial and educational) to guard themselves against the effects of climate change. As seen in Pakistan, the combination of all three has left millions of people in an extremely vulnerable situation, even after the waters have receded. In considering development projects, donors could mitigate the large sums of post-disaster relief if their programmes are proactive, and address the underlying issue of poverty while also keeping an eye towards resilience.
The majority of migration resulting from environmental factors will be local and within a country. There have been no reports of an increase in Pakistani migration to nearby countries or further afield for example to join co-nationals in the United Kingdom. Most people want to live at home (only three percent of the world’s population is an international migrant), and will opt not to move far away from their homes unless they have to. It is also important not to underestimate the costs and administrative obstacles to crossing international borders. If your livelihood was lost in the flood, it is unlikely that you would have the resources to migrate very far at all.
The role of the international community in assisting environmental migrants is limited. The people displaced by the recent floods in Pakistan are almost all Pakistani citizens (there may be some Afghan refugees among them). Their protection and assistance is primarily the responsibility of the Pakistani government – indeed the Pakistani government has been criticized for not responding quickly enough. Only when the national government either lacks the capacity or the will to assist is there a role for the international community, but even then intervention is politically fraught, as witnessed during Cyclone Nargis in Burma in 2009, and there is no clear legal framework or institutional responsibility to intervene.
Environmental migration is not a financial priority. As of 17 August 2010, less than half of the UN’s appeal for USD $460 million for Pakistani flood relief had been provided by governments, despite the UN’s warnings about the rapidly deteriorating situation. By 20 September, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had raised the appeal to USD $2 billion because of the situation’s unprecedented and increasing severity, but this figure has yet to materialize. This hesitation has been attributed to several factors including Pakistan’s international reputation and donor fatigue for natural disasters. While the UN has a Central Emergency Response Fund that can make up some of the shortfall, the majority of donations continue to come from national governments.
*NB: The views expressed in this paper are entirely and solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the GCSP.