China's Bocom International Holdings took the lead in the Maldives' dollar-bond debut. Photo: Asia Times
The Maldives is the country most threatened by rising sea levels. Photo: Asia Times

The topic of migration in the Asian context over the past decade has focused, with some justification, on the those fleeing from war and persecution in their home nations. Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and civil strife in Syria have collectively resulted in more than 6 million refugees being scattered across two continents and beyond. The waves of refugee migrants create significant challenges for neighboring and host countries in terms of integration with the host societies as well as dealing with geopolitical spillover factors.

In The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that based on statistical data, there has been a steady decrease in the rate of armed conflicts and that we may be at the most peaceful time in our species’ history. However counter-intuitive this may seem, we may be able to expect refugee numbers to drop if potential conflict flash-points can be more effectively managed through global diplomacy and governance in the near future. This may allow policymakers to then focus on what may be an even more worrying phenomenon: the rise in the number of environmental migrants due to dramatically changing climatic conditions.

Environmental migrants are those who choose to leave their home region primarily because of changes in the climate that create difficult or uninhabitable living conditions. This may include flooding, drought and desertification and other effects that result in threats to peoples’ well-being and livelihood. A most obvious example would be farmers who find their lands no longer suited to crop production. Such migrants are forced to either re-situate themselves somewhere else in their home country, or move to a new country altogether.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reported more than 17 million such migrants last year globally. Such numbers are bound to increase, not only because of increasing frequency of extreme weather events such as hurricanes or tornadoes, but due to the gradual, creeping effects of climate change. Many poorer countries will face the brunt of these effects, and internal migration will be an even more serious concern than cross-border migration. The UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) suggests that, by 2050, the number of such migrants may be anywhere between 25 million to 1 billion.

Given that the Asia-Pacific region is already the most vulnerable to natural disasters and remembering that roughly one in three international migrants come from there, one would expect this to feature more prominently in policy discussions. Yet migration remains an especially touchy issue in the modern political context, with the rise of populist anti-immigrant movements and existing concerns over how to best harmonize refugees and asylum seekers into the social framework. This is further compounded by the scant attention paid to climate change in many Asian countries, despite them being signatories to the Paris Climate Agreement. Yet, by most indicators, the problem of environmental migration is going to become far worse in the coming decades.

It may be tempting for policymakers to pigeon-hole those migrating due to the changing climate alongside those escaping from conflict zones. However, such a “climate refugee” approach has several shortcomings. As Dina Ionesco, head of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change (MECC) Division at the IOM, notes, there are significant differences between dealing with the two types of migrants, and “establishing a climate refugee status can lead to a narrow and biased debate and would provide only partial solutions to address the complexity of human mobility and climate change.”

Countries need to invest more in preventive measures to address underlying environmental problems, such as reforestation, rather than wait for a migration crisis to erupt and then react. Such a change in approach to migration management, rather than just migrant protection, will be crucial to prevent system shocks to countries affected by climate change.

The Maldives is a stark example of a small island state that faces the brunt of rising sea levels, yet is vocal about not wishing for its 400,000 citizens to end up as climate refugees. As the world’s lowest country, they are proactively considering options to ensure their country is not submerged in the coming decades. These include building their islands up vertically and purchasing land in other countries for relocation of their citizens.

The Asian Economic Integration report last year from the Asian Development Bank showed positive trends in regional cooperation and integration. Yet while barriers in the flow of capital and information seem to be falling and political partnerships are growing, there is a lack of a comprehensive regional outlook on migration, particularly for those currently or soon to be affected by the changing climate. As we face a countdown to ensure that global temperatures do not rise and destroy coral reefs in the coming decade, “environmental migrants” may soon become a permanent fixture in our global dialogue.

Saqib Sheikh

Saqib Sheikh serves as project director of the Rohingya Project, a grassroots initiative for financial inclusion of stateless Rohingya worldwide, as well as adviser/co-founder for the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia, a network of 14 refugee communities based in Malaysia. He received his master's in communication from Purdue University in Indiana. He currently lectures on media and communication at Sunway University in Malaysia.

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