By Daniela Paredes Grijalva and Rachael Diniega
Environmental Migration: From Threat to Everyday Experience
Millions of “climate refugees” fleeing drought on their way to Europe or Pacific islanders left with no sovereign territory as sea level rises. Does this sound familiar? Certainly such imagery representing the “human face of climate change” has been successful in gaining public attention to urge immediate action. At the same time, national security policymakers and think-tanks in the receiving countries tend to perceive such mass migration as a threat. Following this securitization logic, nation-states see the need to protect themselves against it.
Migration scholars have countered such “alarmists” by classifying the phenomenon as a routine and integral aspect of a complex web of migration experiences. (Non-)migration decisions range from forced to voluntary, and most movements initiated by environmental changes or disasters will be short-distance, temporary, or within countries. As framings of environmental migration have gained in fluidity and scope, the nuances have been illuminated further through multidisciplinary research spanning the social and natural sciences. We argue that environmental migration demands more refined attention, particularly from the viewpoint of policymaking, in order to move from a logic of protection against migrants to one of protecting them and their human rights.
Securitization paints a simplistic picture. We argue that two particular concepts--translocality and (im)mobility--point towards new directions in understanding the fabric of human-environment relations. We have both begun our doctoral projects researching different aspects of this issue in Morocco and Indonesia. In this essay, we set out to illustrate our preliminary findings on how to expand our conceptualization of environmental migration. Only by capturing the everyday yet complex realities of migrants themselves can we lay a foundation for expanding measures geared towards the protection of human rights that accurately address their situation.
Fig. 01: Rural town in the Middle Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Integrating Translocality into Environmental Migration
The existing research on environmental migration has widened the conceptual spectrum beyond such dichotomies and categorizations like forced or voluntary, the number of “climate refugees,” and the singling out of isolated reasons for migration. However, strict divisions persist, two of which can be addressed by the concept of translocality. First, current research on climate change and migration primarily focuses on the question of how climate change will affect human migration and emphasizes the urgency for mitigating climate change. Second, in part due to the concept of a unidirectional flow of environment to migration, studies also assume divisions between origin and destination and prioritize rural-to-urban migration.
Broadly defined, the concept of translocality examines the environment and migration as part of the integrated socio-ecological system (Greiner & Sakdapolrak 2013). Rather than looking at migration as a sudden or new phenomenon driven by singular or multiple factors, it assumes that migration (or mobilities) also occurs as a natural part of life trajectories. The existing movements have an impact on the environment, which also in turn affects future migration decisions and perceptions of climate change. They are intricately linked. Thus, translocality integrates the human-environment nexus to examine how environmental factors influence mobility and how mobility itself influences the environment. This directly counters the security narrative that environmental change in place A automatically leads to migration to place B, end of story. Rather, there are ongoing migration pathways and mobilities that occur parallel to or in conjunction with environmental changes and create them.
Translocality also upends the strict categorization of origin, transit, and destination by facilitating the study of multi-directional connections and the mutual (re-)shaping of communities. It challenges the assumption that environmental change is only happening in the place of “origin”, often coded as rural or domestic, versus the destination, often connoted as urban or international. A singular place is connected to others translocally through multiple types of simultaneous mobilities. More often than not, people are not only moving from a location; they are also moving to it or passing through. The localities in question may be rural, semi-urban, or urban. And, returning to the earlier point, each of these location’s environments is affected by each type of mobility and has its own environment that factors into mobility decisions and trajectories.
Translocality thus is a concept that can illuminate the complexity within the environment-migration web. It offers further insights into the ways in which migration has an impact on the environment and moves away from the boundaries of origin, transit, and destination.
Towards an Environment-(Im)Mobility Nexus
Looking at the nexus of environment and migration has too often been framed as a matter of international border crossings by people affected by some environmental crisis. While this is certainly a significant part of the issue, we argue that focusing on the physical movement of people per se obscures the numerous other relevant facets. For instance, it does not allow to adequately understand how the populations in question and the environment mutually constitute each other. What is more, it might project a migrant subjectivity on people living translocal lives.
Migration studies have established that there are multiple factors driving migration and that it may also take multiple trajectories. The (im)mobilities approach builds on these findings and expands the scope of study to include the circulation of ideas, things, and people in everyday life. It further attempts to problematize the notions of forced and voluntary migration by applying anthropology’s holistic view of lived experience. Using mobilities as a concept, ethnographic research has revealed how people, places, things and ideas become connected across time and space.
While notions of mobility are abundant in anthropological inquiry, sociologists and geographers have led the way for a mobilities turn in the social sciences. Anthropologists have in turn pointed out that the very same processes shaping mobility also produce immobility and exclusion (Cunningham & Heyman 2004). Critical anthropological approaches questioning notions of boundedness and sedentary biases—which privilege non-migration--have expanded our perception of human movements.
The analysis through the perspective of regimes of mobility on a global scale can illuminate the forces at play (Glick Schiller & Salazar 2013). The regimes are embedded in particular environments and in social structures and articulations of power at different levels. Thinking of environmental migration in these terms could help us frame the movement of people in the context of environmental change in relation to power asymmetries from the start. What is more, this framework could help us understand how ideas of environmental change and ideas of migration circulate across translocal networks.
Moving Away from Securitization to Human Rights
We feel that it is paramount to gain a holistic understanding of the social and the environmental questions involved in migration. Ultimately, however, the issue of environmental migration is about people, as SarahLouise Nash (2018) reminds us. While it has been important to gain public attention, there is the apprehension that high-profile discussions may instrumentalize statistical projections to inspire fear. Will a translocal and mobilities lens on environmental migration enable us to understand the ways in which people exercise their human rights? Will such a conceptualization shift the debate away from hardline positions advocating securitization and restrictive migration policies?
The human rights community has connected the impact of climate change on human rights and human migration since the advocacy of Small Island Developing States to the Human Rights Council in the 2000s. Human rights narratives on environmental migration often focus on the gap within international protection instruments. They refer to the fact that the Geneva Convention of 1951 does not include environmental factors as grounds for refugee status. In short, there are no legal “climate refugees.” Some actors like the International Organization for Migration, the UN Human Rights Council Special Procedures, and specialized organizations on internal and disaster displacement have raised awareness on the need to consider existing guiding principles and regulations for internal displacement. The acknowledgement of environmental migration in the landmark Paris Climate Agreement COP21 and the Global Compact for Migration reveals an evolving consensus among international actors in the highest levels of climate negotiations and international migration governance respectively. What exactly a human rights-based approach means for environmental migration, however, remains an ongoing task.
Fig. 02: On the move in Eastern Indonesia
The relationship between everyday translocal (im)mobilities, climate change, and human rights is understudied. Both migration and environmental studies show us that the underlying reasons are complex and difficult to pinpoint. At the same time, against this backdrop, it is important to consider that there are ongoing debates at a conceptual and a practical level on the rights of this diverse group of people in international law. By adopting the lens of translocal mobilities, our projects will contribute to identifying which rights are exercised or restricted.
For the case of the Central Sulawesi populations displaced during the triple disaster of September 2018 (earthquake, soil liquefaction, and tsunami), a security-based analysis would focus on how to regulate the lives of hundreds of thousands of displaced people to keep order in the relocation sites. Our proposed framework, by contrast, suggests the necessity of investigating how mobilities are shaped by at times long-lasting translocal networks across our field sites. In terms of human rights, the most pressing issues are access to health, housing, and decent work in a sphere not governed by sedentarist rights-granting schemes.
To understand the effect of migration on the environment in Morocco, a securitization approach would emphasize the importance of regulating migration to minimize harm to the environment (and thus prevent further environmental migration). The approach highlighting translocal mobilities, by contrast, would reveal how migration and environmental change interact in non-linear mechanisms and thus which environment- and migration-related human rights are of key concern. This would build a foundation for the inclusion of human rights and local environmental changes in the study of translocal mobilities, allowing us to gain an understanding of which human rights advocacy paths best fit the realities on-the-ground.
To tackle the urgent and multidimensional issue of environmental migration both for policy and academia, collaboration across disciplines is essential to do justice to affected peoples. We wish to move beyond a migration management or securitization view towards a path that listens to people’s stories and asks questions about the realization of human rights. We suggest that cross-disciplinary inclusion of these framings of translocality and mobilities into each of our research projects will add much-needed perspectives for an ethically grounded representation of the people we meet and the realities of their everyday lives. Whether tackling displacement in Indonesia or the effects of migration on the Moroccan environment, translocal mobilities provide a useful framework of analysis and synthesis disentangling the underlying complexity of our dissertation projects. These representational descriptions could then contribute as a lens for developing a human rights-based approach for environmental migration.
Cunningham, Hilary, & Heyman, Josiah (2004). Introduction: Mobilities and Enclosures at Borders, 11:3, 289-302, DOI: 10.1080/10702890490493509.
Glick Schiller, Nina, & Salazar, Noel B. (2013). Regimes of Mobility Across the Globe. In Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 39 (2), pp. 183–200.
Greiner, Clemens & Sakdapolrak, Patrick. (2013). Translocality: Concepts, Applications, and Emerging Research Perspectives. Geography Compass 7(5), 373-384.
Nash, Sarah Louise. (2018). Between rights and resilience: Struggles over understanding climate change and human mobility. In: Labonte, M; Mills, K (Eds), Human Rights and Justice. Philosophical, Economic, and Social Perspectives; Routledge, London. ISBN 9781138036789.
Daniela Paredes Grijalva is a researcher and DOC Fellow at the Institute for Social Anthropology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. For her PhD project in anthropology at University of Vienna she will investigate how (im)mobilities relate to environmental change in Indonesia. In the past she has worked on social protection, migration, human rights and gender. Read more about her work here.
Rachael Diniega is studying for her PhD in Geography as a project assistant at the Research Platform Mobile Cultures and Societies, University of Vienna. She will be conducting multi-sited research in Morocco on the effect of translocal social remittances on the environment. Her interests build from an international background in sustainable development and human rights. Read more about her work here.