As climate change-related disasters become ever more common, they have given rise to increasingly dire warnings about impending mass migration by those displaced. This tendency to focus on movement has largely, if unintentionally, obscured an equally important question: why people don’t move.
For millions around the world, climate displacement is already a reality. In the six months between September 2020 and March 2021, more than 10.3 million people were displaced by extreme weather and natural disasters mainly related to the climate—by far the leading cause of displacement around the world. And climate change is exacerbating other causes of displacement, including poverty, food insecurity, and water shortages.
An emerging group of experts is arguing that dominant narratives around climate migration—focused on doomsday scenarios of large numbers of people relocating from the Global South to the Global North—contain significant blind spots, often overlooking some of the most vulnerable people.
For every displaced person who ventures toward the Global North, vastly more move within or between countries in the Global South, or remain immobile in areas where climate change is making life increasingly precarious. But relative to mobility, comparatively little is known about immobility in the context of climate change because, until recently, it was not a topic many researchers were paying attention to. “Climate mobility and immobility are not separate things; they are two sides of the same coin,” said Caroline Zickgraf, deputy director of the Hugo Observatory at Belgium’s University of Liège—a research center focusing on the intersection of environmental change, migration, and politics.
Understanding the specifics of people’s vulnerabilities, what influences their decision-making processes, and the impacts of those decisions are all areas that deserve more attention. “We don’t have statistics about climate immobility like we do for migration,” Zickgraf said. “We can’t simply point to the number of people living in climate hotspots, because that doesn’t tell us anything about who they are, what factors influence their immobility, how many chose to stay, or how many had no other choice.”
Climate immobility can be involuntary (people aspiring to leave but lacking the capability to do so), or it can be voluntary (people choosing to remain despite the risks). Involuntary immobile populations are often among the most vulnerable because they are unable to escape the sudden and direct impacts of climate disasters and often don’t have the resources to build resilience while facing poverty, food insecurity, and conflicts compounded by climate change. “While most policymakers are focused on the ‘problem’ of climate migration, we’re still trying to convince people that the presence of immobility doesn’t mean the absence of vulnerability,” Zickgraf said.
According to Joseph Kofi Teye, director of the Centre for Migration Studies at the University of Ghana, international organizations and researchers often incorrectly assume that people who do not migrate have successfully adopted adaptation measures where they live. However, climate immobility has numerous causes, ranging from lack of money and poor health to the absence of information about how to migrate. Inequalities related to gender, age, and class; cultural norms; and patriarchal traditions also influence immobility and contribute to women and the elderly being more immobile than men, Teye added.
At the same time, not everyone living in areas affected by climate change wants to migrate. Many people choose to stay despite growing climate risks because of a historical and spiritual attachment to place, a sense of identity and belonging, or a desire for self-determination. This is the case in the Pacific Islands, which are extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts like sea-level rise, coastal erosion, and more intense cyclones. “Pacific Island people have long been subjected to ‘inevitable displacement’ narratives,” said Carol Farbotko, an adjunct research fellow at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. “Immobility is a way of framing resistance to the idea that displacement from their Indigenous places is a foregone conclusion.”
For Kayly Ober, who runs Refugee International’s Climate Displacement Program, the inability to conceptualize the idea of immobility contributes to the blind spot surrounding it. According to Ober, most development policy views migration as a negative outcome, a failure of interventions. Conversely, she said “practitioners view those that we might categorize as ‘immobile’ as simply people who live in a particular place and that may just need resources and capacities to enable their progress in those places.”
Adapting in Place
Because climate immobility is a relatively new area of research, specific policies are not yet being implemented to address it, according to Ober. Existing policies related to disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and resilience-building overlap with climate immobility but do not address it explicitly as an independent phenomenon, she added.
The onus should be on governments and donors to co-develop programs and policies that can help individuals and communities who choose not to migrate achieve a reasonable quality of life through adaptation measures. Support policies include adaptation measures to reduce physical hazards, such as building sea walls, improving drainage, and planting mangroves, which help to protect coastlines from waves and storm surges.
Pacific Island nations stand out for being ahead of the curve by developing innovative national policies to support vulnerable coastal communities, most of whom prefer to remain for the time being. Vulnerabilities to climate hazards have been well understood for decades in the Pacific Islands, the general population has a high level of awareness about the risks, and there is significant government and civil society activity on climate change, according to Farbotko.
Community consultation approaches to decision-making are also central to policymaking in the Pacific Islands. In Fiji, for example, equal government support is given to coastal communities whether they choose to remain or to relocate, villages can voice their needs to the national government, and communities are given the final say on whether and when they will move.
Support to Leave
For those who aspire to leave but lack the capability, more targeted migration policies could help provide solutions by allowing them to migrate safely and legally to find alternative livelihoods instead of remaining trapped in high-risk areas or having to risk migrating irregularly. “Politics remain a critical challenge to supporting development opportunities to facilitate safe, productive, and legal labor migration outcomes,” said Ober.
Given the current political environment surrounding migration in the European Union and the United States, safe and legal migration options for people faced with climate immobility will likely be easier to establish between countries in the Global South than between the Global South and the Global North. Some policies already exist, including free movement protocols, such as the IGAD Protocol on Free Movement of Persons between eight East African countries; labor mobility schemes, such as the Pacific Labour Scheme between Australia, nine Pacific nations, and Timor-Leste; and cross-border pastoralism agreements, such as the ECOWAS Transhumance Protocol between 15 West African countries.
Skilled artisanal fishermen, mostly from Guet Ndar, a northern Senegalese village highly impacted by sea-level rise and coastal erosion, were given licenses to fish in Mauritania, where livelihoods have traditionally been agriculture-based, not maritime. By facilitating legal circular movement, the agreement removed the pressure fishermen felt to move permanently or to fish irregularly. With the income they made, the fishermen also invested in adaptation at home, constructing second homes away from the eroding coastline that were close enough to allow them to maintain their sense of place.
In specific situations—such as when in-place adaptation has been exhausted, or when people lack the means but not the willingness to move—planned relocations can also be effective. Planned relocation is viewed as a last resort that can lead to negative socio-economic outcomes if affected communities are not meaningfully involved in relocation decision-making. There is also a risk of governments using it as a tool to exert control over communities and territory.
Looking ahead, climate immobility needs to be better recognized in global, regional, and national policies, frameworks, and guidelines on climate change and displacement, according to Farbotko. The relationship between climate change and migration also deserves more scrutiny. “The assumption that large numbers of people want to move from their culturally-valued homes to the ‘West’ needs to be rethought with a decolonial perspective,” said Farbotko.
Whether people desire to stay or go, it is important for affected populations to have a say in the policies impacting their lives. As Farbotko put it: “Failing to listen to the voices of affected populations and imposing externally devised solutions that do not fit with the local context is likely to lead to increased maladaptation.”
Kira Walker is an independent journalist and photographer covering stories about environmental change, biocultural diversity, and food across the Mediterranean and West Asia.