PRB Discuss Online: Environmental Change, What Are the Links With Migration?

(July 2008) Close to 200 million people are living outside their country of birth. Increasing numbers are refugees fleeing their homeland for another country. Human migration can have rapid and complex impacts on rural and urban environments. At the same time, environmental changes, such as drought and rising sea levels, are expected to force millions more people to migrate.

During a PRB Discuss Online, Jason Bremner, program director for Population, Health, and Environment at PRB, answered participants’ questions about the relationships between migration and the environment, current trends, and future migrations related to environmental change.

July 30, 2008 1 PM EST

Transcript of Questions and Answers

Geoff Dabelko: Jason, There seems to be a lot of oversimplification in the label climate migrants (let alone climate refugees) that ignore the push and pull factors so common to decisions to move. What is your advice for talking responsibly about climate change’s anticipated impacts on human migration from sea level rise and changes in precipitation and soil moisture patterns?
Jason Bremner: I agree Geoff, the idea of climate migrants, or environmental refugees more generally, is often oversimplified. Talking responsibly about climate change and migration depends on eliminating many of these simplifications. First, what is migration? Well, there is no single answer. Migration is a complex demographic event with both temporal and spatial dimensions. Migration may be long-term (i.e. leaving one’s birth place and never returning) or short-term (i.e. moving temporarily to take advantage of a work opportunity). Migration also includes international moves across borders and internal moves within a country. When we are talking about migration and the environment we must start by clarifying what kind of moves we’re referring to. Next, let’s be clearer about what we mean by climate migrants or environmental refugees. Disasters have the capacity to result in mass forced movements of people. Gradual environmental degradation, in contrast, means that people have time to decide how they will respond to threats to their livelihoods. Research on migration has shown that migration decisions are complex and involve many factors. Hence it is important when thinking of “climate refugees” to be clear that environmental conditions may only be one contributing factor in a person or household’s decision to move. Discussing this responsibly means focusing on how gradual changes to the environment, induced by climate change, impact migration decisions. The mental images conjured up by the term environmental refugees (i.e. people fleeing from rising seas) do not match with the reality of how climate change will impact migration. Also we should think more carefully about what types of migration are most likely to be influenced by climate change. Do we expect more international migration, more permanent internal displacement, or maybe more temporary moves for wage labor to mitigate against failing agricultural livelihoods.

J Kishore: Migration (internal and external) is a natural characteristic of human being mainly because of finding out better opportunities or safeguard of self. It would be difficult to stop. We should focus on bad effects of migration on population and environment. But how it should be done on the priority basis?
Jason Bremner: You’re right; migration seems to be a natural part of being human. In fact, though the absolute number of international migrants is greater today than ever before, the percent of the world population living outside their country of birth has risen very little over the last 50 years. Restrictive migration policies usually just result in changes in the favored destinations of migrants rather than actually slowing or stopping migration. You point out that we should focus on the impacts of migration on the environment, and maybe we should start off with some examples. In the last answer I talked about how environmental conditions can impact migration decisions, but let’s turn to the opposite side of the coin…how migration can result in environmental change. We can start by splitting migrants into two broad categories, rural-rural migrants and rural-urban migrants. Rural-rural migrants can have impacts on forests and biodiversity when they move to frontier areas in search of arable land. The movement of colonists into the lowland forests of the Amazon for example has resulted in rapid deforestation in areas of Ecuador and Brazil. Migrants may also move to coastal areas to work in fishing sectors or along rural coastal areas as coastal resources are depleted. In addition, rural migrants may move to areas with poor soils, which are more likely to degrade, when little land is available elsewhere. Rural-urban migrants can also have impacts on the environment as urban living usually results in changes in consumption patterns and energy use. For example, I have seen some recent research on urbanization in China showing how the associated changes in consumption and household structure accompanying rural-urban migration will contribute to future growth in carbon emissions. To be fair, however, we should also consider the positive impacts that migration can have on households, their livelihoods, and sometimes the environment. I’ll talk about this more in the next few answers. In all cases the relationship between migration and the environment depends greatly on local context, hence I’ll say little in this answer on prioritizing actions. Maybe we’ll get there further along in the discussion.

dino: What if sea level rise induced migrants are unwelcome at desination countries… given that beyond humanitarian aspects, there are racial,ethnic and security issues involved with migrants from other countries.
Jason Bremner: Migrants often face discrimination and related challenges at destinations. Even refugees of conflicts and natural disasters are often not welcomed by local populations. The reasons are many, including: cultural, ethnic, and language differences; perceived competition for jobs; lack of local capacity to provide services; and more. Hence migrants adapting to environmental conditions induced by climate change will likely face the same challenges as all other migrants. We should remember, however, that the majority of migrants do not ever cross international boundaries into other countries. Thus, when we think of possible migrations due to climate change, we should remember that they are likely to involve internal moves within a country rather than international moves.

Geoff Dabelko: Do you agree with those who argue that rural to rural migration and its environmental impacts are being largely ignored by scholars and practitioners alike?
Jason Bremner: Well I might be biased here since I’ve spent the last few years largely studying rural-rural migration. I do think that demographers have largely ignored rural-rural migration. All of the original theories regarding migrants’ decisions are based on rural-urban migration and today rural-urban migration dominates discussions of development despite the continued prominence of rural-rural migration in many developing countries. In terms of migration and the environment, however, I actually think there has been far more work on rural-rural migration than on other types. This is partly because the environmental impacts of rural-rural migrants are quite a bit clearer since rural migrants’ impacts are usually direct and visible (i.e. a new clearing in the forest or a new fishing camp). In addition, conservation organizations tend to work in rural areas, and have become increasingly interested in the impact of migration on biodiversity. A recent publication on the subject, People on the Move- Reducing Impact of Human Migration on Biodiversity was produced by WWF, Conservation International, and University of North Carolina. The environmental impacts of rural-urban migration, however, are less tangible. People talk about the growing ecological footprint of cities, but the idea has remained mostly conceptual. There is work on urban growth and impacts on air and water pollution, but many of these impacts are related to changes in the number of vehicles, number of factories, etc. rather than to migration itself. I have not seen much work assessing the contribution of rural-urban migration to urban environmental issues outside of the propagation of urban slums, which in my mind is mostly a lack of services issue rather than an environmental issue.

Dr. John. G. Laah: I want to know if in Jason’s experience the man-made factors in environmental change are more [dominant] in migration than the natural factors of environmntal change
Jason Bremner: I am not exactly clear on which man-made factors in environmental change you are referring to, but there are certainly some recent examples of man-made environmental change inducing mass movements of people. Three recent examples that come to mind are the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine that resulted in the evacuation and resettlement of 350,000 people, the degradation of the Aral Sea and the failure of fishing livelihoods there, and the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China’s central Hubei province, which has already displaced 1.2 million people, and when complete may displace up to 4 million people. In general, however, I think it is hard to separate man-made factors from natural factors when considering the impact on migration. For example, periodic drought is a natural factor that affects food security in Ethiopia and may result in households sending an adult to a city for employment as means of protecting against food insecurity. Man-made factors, however, also likely contribute to this decision, since land fragmentation, and the resulting smaller parcels of land, also contribute to the need for non-farm wages to ensure food security when crops fail. Finally, what about migration and conflict? Conflicts are certainly man-made and have resulted in some of the largest displacements of people in recent years. Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo come to mind, both of which have displaced millions of people. The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Project is a good resource for looking more closely at these complex migration-environment-security issues.

Jim Igoe: What kind of research has been done on climate change and internal migration in the US and other developed countries.

Jason Bremner: I am not aware of any research from developed countries (U.S. and Europe) that has empirical evidence of the impact of climate change on internal migration. In truth, there is little evidence so far to suggest that current changes in climate have had any impact on internal movements of people within the U.S or any developed country. There is some ongoing research on Hurricane Katrina and the permanent departure of residents from New Orleans, but I’m reluctant to call this a climate change induced migration. See the following for more info: William H. Frey, Audrey Singer and David Park “Resettling New Orleans: the First Full Picture from the Census” Washington DC: Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, (September, 2007). Some interesting work has been done by researchers at CIESIN looking at projected sea level rise and measuring the coastal populations at risk throughout the world. This paper can be found on the PERN website: Another recent paper has looked at 1930s migration patterns in the U.S. in relation to repeated crop failures due to drought and flooding. Of course in the 1930’s a far greater percentage of the U.S. population was dependent on the agricultural sector than today. This paper by McLeman and Smit looks at this past case in their examination of migration as a possible adaptation to climate change.

charlie teller: I’m pleased to see the step-child of demography, migration, being taken more seriously in the environmental circles. Now, human migration is not just a reaction to environmental change, but also can be a major dividing force in facilitating positive social and economic change and in relieving population pressure on the environment. What have been your experiences in analyzing internal migration as a 1- safety value to mitigate environmental degradation; 2- as a mechanism for more equitable labor and social mobility; and 3-as a component of national population redistribution policies to foster more equitable balance of population growth and natural resources?
Jason Bremner: Charlie brings up a great point, which I hinted at earlier. We should also consider evidence and theory of positive relationships between migration and the environment. First, we should be clear that migrant remittances or the money migrants send back home are an incredibly important source of income for developing countries and for rural areas. An estimated total of 251 billion dollars were sent by migrants to their developing countries in 2007. Thus remittances can be an important source of development and social mobility for rural households in areas where there are few opportunities for employment, credit, or investment. Whether these remittances have a positive impact on the environment is not as clear. A study in the highlands of Ecuador found that remittances were rarely invested into agriculture or other production activities. Another perceived benefit of out-migration for the environment is that there will be agricultural abandonment and thus less pressure on forests/rangelands, etc. The same study from the Ecuador highlands also found little evidence of abandonment, since often only one household member would migrate and the rest of the household would continue to farm. This is increasingly the norm as in Africa, Latin America, and Asia urban migrants often retain strong linkages with their rural origin areas. This is accomplished either by planting crops that require less labor or relying on increased labor from those that stay behind (often women and children). This latter phenomenon is resulting in some interesting rural changes in both sex and age ratios among the remaining populations. There are, of course, examples where out-migration has resulted in less degradation than would have occurred had migrants remained. The recovery of the North Eastern forests of the United States is largely a product of out-migration of farmers and loggers to more favorable lands in the midwest and west. These examples, I’m afraid, are few and far between in today’s current context. I’m not a strong believer in national population redistribution policies per se. Regional economic and environmental planning might create conditions under which migrants might resettle to “desirable” areas but in areas like Brazil and Ecuador, these redistribution policies have had negative impacts on forests in destination areas of the Amazon as well as on the indigenous populations that were already living there. In any situation migration cannot be stopped. There are so many reasons people move from one place to another. What level of migration is treated to be a healthy one? And what are the measures to maintain it?
Jason Bremner: There is no simple answer to this question. A level of migration that is considered healthy an suddenly change to being unhealthy with changes in economic or environmental conditions. I’m a strong proponent of adaptive regional economic and environmental planning that takes account of constantly changing socio-demographic and environmental data (might have something to do with my academic background in planning). National level migration policies are not adequate to anticipate or alleviate migration/environment issues since most migration-environment relationships are visible at local and regional scales. Thus, this responsibility largely falls to regional and local governments. I think an appropriate question is, in developing countries do local and regional governments have the access to information and capacity required to address these issues? My mission at PRB is to try to meet these needs.

Pietronella van den Oever: Reaction to Geoff Dabelko’s second question: Within the World Bank we have explored to what extent demographic issues, including rural to rural migration and its environmental impacts, are being considered in relevant World bank projects, for instance projects on Sustainable Land Management. The conclusion is, that the subject is largely, to entirely, ignored. Pietronella van den Oever
Jason Bremner: Thanks Pietronella for sharing your perspective from the World Bank. So I return to my last point, development professionals at the World Bank, USAID, and other institutions aren’t considering these issues. At the local level, however, we have found there is often a great appreciation for the complexities faced when working on improving livelihoods and the well-being of impoverished populations while also sustainably managing local natural resources. Migration often arises as a key concern.

Deki: What would be the consequences if there is high number of people migrating to urban areas from rural areas, to both urban and rural?
Jason Bremner: I think I have talked about some of the consequences of both rural-rural and rural-urban migration in some of my prior answers. For a more in-depth look at rural-rural impacts I encourage you to look at both the People on the Move publication cited earlier and a Working paper from the Environmental Change and Security Project on Migration, Population Change, and the Rural Environment by Richard Bilsborrow. I talked about consequences of urbanization a bit earlier, but I still consider this to be the less studied aspect of migration-environment relationships. One important point you bring up is the impact that out-migration to urban areas has on rural areas. One important result that Pietronella brings up in a question below is how the age and sex selection of migration impacts women and children remaining in rural areas. She makes a great point in noting that women and children often have no guaranteed, long-term access to the means of production (land ownership, credit, ag. extension, technology)? This represents a great challenge for rural development and some of the most promising solutions for combating these problems include micro-credit lending focused specifically on women, girls’ education, and a dedication to agricultural extention focused on women’s needs.

Pietronella van den Oever: Dear Jason, In many African countries, rural-urban migration is age- and sex-selective. What would be the best policy to address the problem of having an agricultural labor force largely composed of people (women, young people) who have no guaranteed, long-term access to the means of production (land, credit, ag. extension, technology)?
Jason Bremner: I hope I gave some hints in my last answer on this. Again, micro-credit lending to women’s groups has been a great success in countries like Nepal and India. Furthermore, programs focused on girls’ education in Pakistan are increasing the financial literacy and independence of women and over time will lead to greater access to credit. Land ownership is a greater challenge and I welcome any insight from someone who has more experience than I in gender differences in land titling.

Erick Howenstine: Will you please comment on environmental impacts of international migration pressure on border regions, such as the U.S. Mexican border?
Jason Bremner: I don’t consider myself a qualified expert on environmental impacts of migration on the U.S. Mexican border. Larry Gorenflo did some interesting research in the Sonoran desert looking at satellite imagery from both sides of the border in relation to population distribution.

Orphe Olympio: Do you think the link between Migration and Remittances would be the new bridge for development in developing countries?
Jason Bremner: See my earlier answer regarding the 251 billion sent to developing countries in 2007.

A. Terrazas: Is there any evidence to suggest that environmental migrants will priviledge internal rather than international migration? Is this primarily a policy concern for domestic policy makers in the countries that are most affected by climate change (and perhaps neighboring countries) or does it have implications for immigration authorities in major immigrant-receiving countries such as the US, Canada, EU, Australia, etc.?
Jason Bremner: I think I mentioned in an earlier response that internal migration, in general, dwarfs international migration, though there are few accurate estimates of the number of internal migrants globally. Thus, I do agree with you that the possibility of “climate migrants” will be more of a domestic policy concern. We should remember that an important part of an individual’s or household’s decision to migrate is an assessment of the costs (social and financial) of migration. International migration costs far more than internal migration. We expect that the poorest households will be those most vulnerable to climate change’s impacts, hence, we should expect that those people will also be the least able to move large distances or across borders. Regional security issues related to internal migration should be of international concern, and it is interesting to note that the military/security community is increasingly interested in the migration-environment nexus.

Lindsay: We know that men and women are often affected in different ways by environmental change. Do you think that the same applies to migration and how so?
Jason Bremner: Thanks for your question Lindsay. One of my prior questions talked about the challenges faced by women and children in origin areas. In many places, however, young women are also increasingly involved in migration. Our research from Ecuador found that women’s destinations and decisions regarding migration differed greatly from men’s. So I encourage all those studying migration to always disaggregate men and women when looking at the determinants of migration. Alison Barbieri has done some interesting work on gender differences related to out-migration in the Amazon and I encourage you to look for his work.

Amir Radfar: How [could] Biodiversity and environmental change monitoring play role on disease control?
Jason Bremner: One interesting topic that is just now receiving attention is the possible relationship between environmental change, migration, and infectious disease. There is much speculation and some evidence that climate change will increase the range of some disease vectors (i.e. malaria carrying mosquitoes). This combined with a very mobile population could contribute to the spread of infectious diseases to areas that have never seen them before. I think this is an interesting new area for research and I look forward to seeing the results.

Here’s an interesting article on Dengue in Texas for example:

Rahul Shrivastava: As a result of graduate research on migration from Bangladesh (and parts of India) into areas of conservation importance in Assam (eastern India), I found that immigrants generated higher incomes and more production per unit land area compared to residents. The area lies along elephant migratory routes and is also used by other protected species. Cases of human-wildlife conflict are on the increase. Are there examples of interventions that have specifically mitigated any migration-related environmentalimpacts?
Jason Bremner: You bring up two interesting points. First, in some cases, migrants may have higher incomes, more sensitivity to environmental concerns, and more inclination to invest in land and production than non-migrants. If migrant practices influence the production activities of non-migrants than you could have a benefit for local resources as long as the increased number of users doesn’t have an impact in of itself. Second, migrants in some places may be scapegoats for environmental changes that are actually a combination of many complex factors. My past work in the Galapagos comes to mind. Migrant fishermen were vilified in the Galapagos for impacting local fisheries. There were fishing booms for both lobster and sea cucumbers and both local and migrant fishermen were heavily involved. When local governments tried to close the fisheries each year when quotas were met, conflicts between park officials and fishermen arose. Both migrant and non-migrant fisherman were involved in the conflicts. So while the quota was upheld and legal fishing didn’t increase with the addition of new migrant fisherman. The pressure on the government increased since there were more fishermen trying to catch the same number of allowed fish. Thus migration can also have an impact on social structure, politics, and environmental regulation. Cassels and Curran wrote an interesting article that touches on this entitled “Do migrants degrade coastal environments?”

Deki: Can you suggest some ways to cope with rural to urban migration?
Jason Bremner: This I think is left for a larger discussion about the role of rural urban migration in development and I’ll have to leave it for another day.

Bryan Bushley: There is a lot of focus on environmental degradation and climate change as a driver of migration. What is your perspective on the opposite relationship: the effects of migration on environmental stewardship and local ecological conditions, particularly with regard to the management of common property resources by local and indigenous communities?
Jason Bremner: Thanks for the question, Bryan. I don’t think that there is yet much research on how migration might impact the management of common property resources by local and indigenous communities. I actually wrote an article making the case for a greater focus on this very topic. Here’s a link to the article: I think indigenous populations face some great challenges in the future in relation to their changing mobility (the subject of my dissertation) and common property institutions. I’m happy to talk with you more about this another time. Feel free to contact me about it.

Rahat Bari Tooheen: Migration can shift the pattern of environmental change from one location to the other. It should be noted that in most cases, migrants are totally unaware of the negative environmental consequences of their practices and actions. In your opinion, what realistic solutions can be designed to address these issues?
Jason Bremner: The People on the Move publication discussed earlier has some proposed interventions to reduce migration impacts on biodiversity and also includes some case studies, including one from the Galapagos, which I contributed to. Some interesting policy level solutions include developing environmentally and socially sound landscape strategies and plans as well as promoting sound local policies in relation to environmental management and natural resource use. National level policies are often not adequate to deal with what are complex local level issues. These policies can include zoning for resource extraction, conservation, and human development. Take a look at the publication, there’s much more there.

Tom Painter: While research has examined the environmental impacts of migrations, migrant settlement and use of natural resources in migrants’ destination areas, to what extent has research examined the environmental impacts in rural, agricultural areas, of short- and medium-term, clycical migrations and longer-term out migration of residents from these areas? The areas I have in mind are those in Mexico that have produced the largest, and increasing numbers of migrants to the United States. Could you site some examples of this kind of research?
Jason Bremner: Sorry I won’t have time to get to this answer or those that remain, but I appreciate all of the questions. I’d like to make a last minute plug for a related online discussion that will take place very soon through the Population Environment Research Network. Cyberseminar on “Environmentally Induced Population Displacements”, 18-29 August 2008 Thanks for all of your questions and I encourage you all to participate in the cyberseminar and ask those questions I couldn’t get to today.

Orphe Olympio: G8 have recently given his ok to put in place some mechanisms to help the migrants and facilitate the flow of remittances. And the World Bank has [been] chosen to lead this change. How do you think this challenge can be met and how can the law makers will help developing the legal framework to protect migrant rights and promote remittances for development in developing countries? Thank. (
Jason Bremner: We could probably talk for hours about the relationships between migration and development, but I’m going to have to stick more specifically to migration-environment relationships today. I’m also far from an expert on the topic of facilitating remittances. I do know, however, that there are some very interesting meetings occurring at within the U.N., World Bank, and other places working to view migration as an opportunity for development as you note.

Lauren Herzer: Can you talk a little about the impact of environmental change on a cities’ ability to absorb new migrants?
Jason Bremner: Lauren, Very interesting question and something I, honestly, have not given much thought to. Water is the one aspect of environmental change that comes to mind when thinking on limits to a city’s ability to absorb new migrants. Urban areas in the United States and abroad are facing growing challenges in meeting their water needs. While it is unlikely that water availability itself will impede a city’s ability to absorb new migrants, the increasing cost of water to users in urban areas might lead to changes in migration decision making. Certainly cost of living at the destination is an important aspect of the migration decision making process. I just moved to Washington, I know all about it! It is also likely that increased water demand due to urban growth will lead to increasing development regulations and water restrictions. This is already the case in areas such as Las Vegas, though I’m not sure that there has yet been an impact on rates of migration. I’ll have to give this one more thought and thanks for asking.