An interview with Sieun Lee, Programme Officer at the IOM, by Anne-Sophie Garrigou
Sieun Lee is a Programme Officer of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva. Sieun first delved into the topic of environmental migration in 2009, while initially researching about climate change negotiations. While reading key climate change decisions and policies, she realized that the human face of climate change was largely absent in dialogues and on paper. This led to her interest and determination to work in environmental migration, and to be a voice for those forced to leave their homes due to the effects of climate change.
In recent years, the attention on environmental migration has grown immensely from all angles — especially in research and media; however many countries do not yet have policies and programs in place to address the concerns and needs of the population at risk, and through her work at IOM, Sieun is devoted to see such developments where needed most.
When we talk about environmental migrants, does that mean that the environment is the only factor of the migration?
Environmental migrants are “persons or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”
As you can see in IOM’s definition of environmental migration, changes in the environment could play a major role in driving migration, but often, except in the case of disaster-displacement, other factors such as political and social factors will come into play. And as seen in the case of Syria, environmental factors and conflicts both had an impact on migration. So it’s very difficult to isolate these factors from one another. What we do know is that we need work to ensure “safe, orderly” migration, whatever the major driver of migration may be.
What are the regions that are the most at risk today when we talk about environmental migration, and why?
According to data on people displaced due to disasters, Asia has ranked the top region with most new displacements per year, accounting for 82% of total displacement from 2008 to 2014 (IDMC, 2015). This trend has continued as shown in the most recent report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (2017), which shows that in 2016, Asia again had the highest number of people displaced, mainly due to weather related events — such as typhoon in the Philippines and floods in China and India. In the last three years, Horn of Africa has been severely affected by drought, which has heavily taken a toll on food security and livelihood leading to displacement but also linked with other factors such as conflict.
The number of people displaced per year gives us a snapshot of the situation at hand, however, the numbers do not reveal how many people are at risk living in areas vulnerable to climate change in the future. It is difficult to accurately estimate the number of people migrating or being displaced by slow or sudden onset events. Also, numbers are only available from countries where such data is collected after a disaster hits, and in some countries such data is not systematically collected; and we do not have reliable figures on people displaced across borders.
If we look at the predicted adverse impacts of climate change, it is estimated that many people living in small island developing states (SIDS) will be facing greater risks of being forced to migrate or to move as a preventive measure to cope with the changing climate. Another “hotspot” will be coastal cities exposed to sea-level rise and river flooding. For example, in West Africa many of the capitals are located near the coast, where there is increasingly in-migration from rural areas into the cities, which may lead to high demographic pressure in at-risk areas. This also applies to Asia where megacities are located in low-lying coastlines.
I have the feeling that developing countries, especially vulnerable populations in rural areas, are always more impacted by environmental migration.
This is linked to preparedness and preventive measures to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change, and programs and policies in place to address environmental migration.
What are the main environmental causes that force people to migrate?
Storms, floods, droughts, as well as earthquakes are affecting millions of people everywhere each year. We’ve also seen recently in Vanuatu that volcanic activities has led to thousands being evacuated from an island. In addition to sudden-onset hazards, slow-onset processes of environmental degradation and unsustainable human activities will also have an impact on where people can live.
It is important to note that environmental factor is one of the many factors which affect a person’s decision to migrate, especially if the environmental change is slow. In the face of immediate disasters, people will need to evacuate or be displaced; when faced with slow environmental changes, economic factors especially will have a role in determining whether a person migrates. Hence, IOM has proposed the working definition of “environmental migration” in 2007 which acknowledges the multi-causality and the complexity of the phenomenon.
It’s also important to remember that disaster and climate change will not automatically lead to a surge of environmental migrants. By reducing exposure to risks and by building resilience, and putting preventive measures in place, it is possible to reduce the number of people affected and those who will be forced to move due to environmental factors.
Is there any International Climate Policy agreement about this topic?
IOM has been working at the forefront of advocating for the inclusion of human mobility in the climate change negotiations since 2007. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recognized the growing importance of migration, which was first reflected in the Cancun Decision on Adaptation in 2010, and subsequently in Doha in 2012, acknowledging “climate induced migration, displacement and planned relocation.” The two decisions called for consideration of the issues within the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC.
In 2015, there was a major breakthrough on climate migration, with the formal inclusion of migrants in the Preamble of the Paris Agreement, the first universal agreement on climate change; in addition the COP21 Decision on Loss and Damage calls for an “integrated approaches to avert, minimise and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change.” Following these decisions, the Task Force on Displacement has been created to develop recommendations on addressing displacement, which IOM is taking part in and will be the key vehicle to discuss environmental migration at the global level. This effort will lead to better sharing of evidence and knowledge on environmental migration, identify good practices and policies, and provide opportunities for states to articulate their needs.
Can you tell us about international or local initiatives that work with environmental migration? What are their main objectives?
At a regional level, the Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific (FRDP) was endorsed by Pacific leaders in 2016. The Framework calls for a holistic and integrated approach, to incorporate human mobility into disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, labor migration and relocation policies. This is a great example of regional collaboration to discuss concretely how the Pacific region should work together to address environmental migration.
At the global level, the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD) is a state-led initiative, which aims to implement the recommendations of the Protection Agenda, which focuses on providing protection to people forced to cross borders in the context of disasters and climate change.
A non-IOM but very important and symbolic work that has been done locally, is one by Tulele Peisa, an NGO which has led the relocation of families from the Carteret Islands, facing sea-level rise, to Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea. It’s an example of people taking action into their own hands, with donations of land and volunteers, and which shows that climate change is real, and that more support is needed from governments to prepare for future changes.
Is there anything we can do, as citizen, to help solve this problem?
As citizens, the main responsibility and important step is to reduce environmental footprint and go climate neutral. This can be done in many creative ways — reducing use of plastics, carpooling, using more economic shower heads to reduce use of water, etc! Helping to reduce the impact of climate change will ultimately lead to reducing the impact on people living in at-risk areas.
Also we need more voices to advocate for environmental migrants at the local and national level. In many developing countries, people who move to urban areas settle in environmentally hazardous areas or in informal settlements around the city, moving from one hazard to another. There is often too much buzz on potential mass migration of people crossing borders due to climate change in the future; but as citizens, and as facts show that most movements will be within a country, we need to move the focus to addressing the needs of those who are living in precarious conditions to avoid environmental change and how to support them at the national and local level. And we need voices to bring attention to them!
With your experience working on this issue, how do you see the situation evolving from here? Are you optimistic about how this issue will be handled by the governments?
Since 2009, we’ve come extremely far and have seen great progress on this topic. Migration was nowhere on the agenda of the climate change negotiations back then, and at COP23, IOM was invited to more than 30 events at the Conference of Parties to speak on environmental migration. There is more research and data available than ever on the topic. And IOM’s Member States have continuously asked for IOM to substantively work on the issue, which is reflected in the creation of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division in 2015. We are also requested by governments to provide capacity building workshops on migration, environment and climate change, in order to formulate policies and action plans to address environmental migration.
There is clear evidence that climate change is real, and it is impacting people and leading to environmental migration. Advanced proactive prevention measures and management of migration is critical to ensure the safety and lives of people. It is also important to harness the benefits of migration as an adaptation strategy. With the progress made already at the global level, I’m very positive and confident that we will be seeing more policies and programs which address the needs of environmental migrants, and IOM stands ready to provide technical and operational support around the globe.
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