Climate change is more likely to lead to local and regional migration as people's livelihoods are lost through drought, flooding or other types of environmental degradation. Research by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in Africa and South America found most migrants were likely to move to other rural areas or local towns on a temporary basis.
Seasonal movement is historically common with, for example, pastoralists in East Africa having long-developed strategies to cope with unpredictable environments. In Sub Saharan Africa, the study found, many women migrate to towns during dry seasons to work as cleaners and street traders. While in the Bolivian Andes, women are already moving for 3-6 months of the year to take llamas to pasture.
A number of NGOs have predicted as many as one billion people could have been forced to relocate by 2050 because of the effects of climate change. However, the IIED findings back up other research that suggests relocation is likely to be local with people whose livelihoods are most sensitive to the environment also tending to be the ones who do not have the means to move very far.
The study says farmers should be helped to diversify their incomes to provide a 'safety net' against environmental degradation. But governments often view migrants as a problem and provide little support, the study found. As a result, when people have relocated they are often returning back to their original homes due to frustration with the lack of help in adapting to a new climate and different agricultural practices.
'Policymakers need to redefine migration and see it as a valuable adaptive response to environmental risks and not as problem that needs to be tackled,' said study author Dr Cecilia Tacoli, who said she was worried alarmist predictions would backfire and result in policies that marginalise the poorest and vulnerable groups.
The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) says it still wants climate refugees to be given legal protection by the UN and international community.
'Whilst migration can be a positive adaptation strategy to environmental change, we must not lose sight of the fact that some people are being forcibly displaced. Climate change is putting vulnerable people into more precarious situations,' said EJF executive director Steve Trent. 'This is exactly what we found in Bangladesh, where families told us how their homes had been torn down overnight by cyclones and that their land remains inundated by floodwater. They did not have a choice, they had to move without warning or an opportunity to prepare or plan where to go.'
'Currently there are no legal provisions for people displaced as a result of climate change. That is why EJF is calling for a new international instrument for their recognition and protection,' he added.
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