Oxford Martin academics advise migration policymakers

21 October 2011

Oxford Martin School academics have contributed to a new international report which reveals that the major challenges associated with migration and environmental change have been underestimated.

This Foresight Report has been issued by the UK Government's Foresight Programme which helps Government think systematically about the future using the latest scientific and other evidence to provide advice for policymakers in addressing future challenges.

Professor Ian Goldin, (Director, Oxford Martin School), Professor Paul Collier, (Oxford Institute for Global Economic Development), Professor Sarah Harper (Oxford Institute of Population Ageing), and Dr Hein de Haas (International Migration Institute) were among Oxford Martin academics contributing to the report.

The report shows that by focusing solely on those that might migrate from vulnerable areas, we risk neglecting those that will be ‘trapped’ and those that will actually move towards danger. It also shows that migration can have a transformative role in helping communities adapt to hazardous conditions. This is a critical finding for policy makers working to avert costly humanitarian disasters in the future.

The ‘Migration and Global Environmental Change’ project examines how profound changes in environmental conditions such as flooding, drought and rising sea levels will influence and interact with patterns of global human migration over the next 50 years. These patterns of human movement, 75 per cent of which is internal, will present major challenges as well as potential opportunities for communities and policy makers at both a national and international level.

Professor Sir John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Foresight programme, said: “Environmental change threatens to have a profound impact on communities around the world – particularly in low income countries. However, this report finds that the nature of the global challenge goes beyond just focusing on those that might try to move away from areas of risk. Millions will migrate into - rather than away from - areas of environmental vulnerability, while an even bigger policy challenge will be the millions who will be ‘trapped’ in dangerous conditions and unable to move to safety.

“The evidence is also clear that under some circumstances migration, particularly in low income countries, can transform a community’s ability to cope with environmental change. The movement of individuals or small groups, even at a local or regional level, may increase the future resilience of large communities. This will reduce the risk of both humanitarian disasters and of potentially destabilising mass migration under high risk conditions.”

The report’s main findings are that:

  • Millions will be ‘trapped’ in vulnerable areas and unable to move, particularly in low-income countries. Migration is costly, and with environmental conditions such as drought and flooding eroding people’s livelihoods, migration – particularly over long distances – may be less possible in many situations. This creates high risk conditions.
  • People will increasingly migrate towards environmentally vulnerable areas.Rural to urban migration is set to continue, but many cities in the developing world are already failing their citizens with flooding, water shortages and inadequate housing. Preliminary estimates show that up to 192 million more people will be living in urban coastal floodplains in Africa and Asia by 2060, through both natural population growth and rural-urban migration.
  • However, migration can transform people’s ability to cope with environmental change,opening up new sources of income which help them become stronger and more resilient. For instance, 2009 remittances to low income countries were at $307 billion, nearly three times the value of overseas development aid. These kinds of income flows may actually make it possible for households, particularly in low income countries, to stay in situ for longer.

In summary, the report finds that environmental change will affect human population movement specifically through its influence on a range of economic, social and political drivers. However, because of the range of factors influencing the decision to migrate, environmental threats will rarely be the sole driver of migration, nor will the policy challenges be limited to people moving away from areas of risk.

Click here to download the full report

Read more about Professor Ian Goldin’s latest book on migration: Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped our World and Will Define our Future (Princeton University Press, 2011)

Find out about the work of the International Migration Institute

Read IMI's news story on the Foresight report