Sustained drought. Frequent flooding. Desertification. Extreme temperatures. Sea level rise. Natural disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires.
Nearly 15 million people were displaced in 2015 due to weather-related events. Three-quarters of them were women.
Environmental events can push people from their homes just as forcefully as can violence and persecution. When crops won’t grow or keep getting washed out before harvesting, when livestock dies by the hundreds in recurring cold snaps or droughts, and when the land a community sits on begins sinking or the sea rises to engulf it, the impossibly difficult consideration whether to leave for greener pastures—literally—becomes necessary.
Pacific Island countries have been exploring community-wide migration due to sea level rise for years. The Lateu settlement on the island of Tegua in Vanuatu took apart their homes and moved inland in 2005. The 1,500 residents of the Carteret Atoll in Papua New Guinea have been moving to nearby Bougainville Island to escape rising seas for the past three decades. Taro Island, the capital of Choiseul province in the Solomon Islands, is the first provincial capital to relocate in its entirety—all 600 residents have moved to the Choiseul mainland. New Zealand has begun absorbing citizens of Tuvalu, and has said it will accept the entire country’s population if their island is swallowed by the sea—a seeming inevitability. The government of Kiribati bought land in 2014 in Fiji, where it plans to relocate its 100,000 citizens starting in 2020. They’re calling the preemptive move “migration with dignity.”
These may be the starkest examples of ecological/environmental migration, but the phenomenon isn’t confined to distant, exotic Pacific Islands.
Communities in Louisiana and Alaska are the first in the United States to be relocated due to climate change. Tangier Island, Virginia, in the Chesapeake Bay will probably be next. Syria’s years-long drought is widely considered a threat multiplier in the political uprising that has resulted in so many refugees (not to mention casualties).
When rural people leave their uninhabitable homes for urban centers, cities can find themselves strained beyond their ability to cope. That’s the story in the two feature articles in this issue of Population Connection. The first explores the plight of rural Mongolian herders who crowd around the capital city in informal settlements. The second is about subsidence and water scarcity in Mexico City.
As the United States debates our own policies with respect to refugees, and immigrants in general, we should be mindful of the factors that spur immigration—climate change, population growth, poor infrastructure, violence, and persecution—and consider what we can do to help those who are still in their homes and facing these threats. Scott Leckie, founder of Displacement Solutions, says, “This is solvable with political will and resources. There needs to be a coordinated human rights approach. I think every country in the world responsible for CO2 emissions [has] some measure of responsibility for the predicament they’ve caused.”
After all, curbing our greenhouse gas emissions and investing in foreign aid—including for family planning—are much more effective long-term solutions to curbing immigration than building walls or conducting airport shakedowns. And they’re a heck of a lot more civilized too.