• The Gender Security Project

Tethering to Human Rights in the Pushes and Pulls of Human Mobility

By Jill Baggerman



Migrant family tries to cross into the United States via the Rio Grande, courtesy of David Peinado Romero.


“In the movement toward complex solutions, at the heart of it all we’re talking about individuals with their own complex issues as they are moving through different scenarios,” said Shanna McClain, Disasters Program Manager with the National Atmospheric and Space Administration, at last month’s International Conference on Environmental Peacebuilding. The panel discussion, “Resource Implications of Human Mobility and Migration,” focused on what data shows—and doesn’t show—are the complex linkages between climate, conflict, and mobility. Panelists discussed how more integrated programming and policy actions are needed to make migration safe, orderly, and voluntary, and how to keep human rights at the center of the complex processes.


What migration is: immense, complex, natural, and sometimes necessary

We live in an era of mobility of ideas, money, and people, said Oli Brown, Associate Fellow at Chatham House. The magnitude of population change and human mobility is “paralyzingly huge,” he said. Hundreds of millions of people have already moved within their country or across borders due to environmental stressors, major infrastructure projects, climate change, conflict, and other reasons.


According to the World Bank’s Groundswell report, by 2050, 250 million people will likely be pushed to migrate within their country’s borders. Richard Matthew, Professor of International and Environmental Politics at the University of California Irvine, said that by mid-century, up to 1.2 billion people might be forced to move from their homes because of their vulnerability to climate change.


Multiple and complex factors contribute to changing where we will live and grow our food. Climate change, environmental changes, and how we manage the planet’s resources will have major impacts. For instance, Brown said that currently only 1 percent of the world is too hot for humans to live in—by 2070, that number is projected to climb to 19 percent.

Given how natural disasters and other humanitarian challenges have already caused massive displacement, coupled with rapidly growing populations in many of the world’s most vulnerable areas, we must better prepare global systems to manage the scale of displacement on our horizon, said Brown.


Despite the magnitude and complexity of the challenges, the panelists underscored that migration is a natural and important form of adaptation. Understanding migration as a natural trend is not just about human mobility, said Matthew, because “the entire planet is moving in novel ways.” At least 50 percent of non-human species are also being displaced. The push factors to migrate is a normal response to stress and shock on the one hand, said Matthew, and the pull factors to migrate on the other, such as employment opportunities.

Migration is “sometimes it is the best adaptation strategy to climate change, conflict, and other pressures,” said McClain.


What migration shouldn’t be: involuntary or securitized

Just because migration may be a necessary response to climate change does not mean it is the preferred strategy. Migration should not be forced, said the panelists.


Preventing forced migration can take many forms across the Humanitarian-Development-Peacebuilding Nexus. Molly Kellogg, Gender, Peace and Security Advisor with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said one of the key parts of her work has been supporting climate resilient livelihood opportunities and enhancing economic wellbeing of affected populations, “to create the conditions so that people who do not want to migrate do not have to migrate.”


It is also important to avoid conflating migrants as a security risk or burden. “The framing of movement as invasive or a security problem is at odds with history,” said Matthew.


Considering migration to be an issue primarily in the security sector is also inconsistent with the available data, said Salem Ali, Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware. Securitizing migration also risks the wrong tools being mobilized to address the complex challenges for migrants and receiving communities.


Programming solutions for migration should be context-specific

In order to better manage the complexity, Kellogg said projects and programs should be context-specific and based on integrated climate security analysis from the start of designing interventions. In western Nepal, for example, seasonal migration to larger cities has always been a way of life. With climate change increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, more people are migrating and for longer periods of time. UNEP worked with the local communities—both the migrants and the people, mostly women, who remained behind—to create more resilient and off-farm livelihood opportunities.


In North Darfur, Sudan, migration has historically been woven into the fabric of society, especially for nomadic pastoralists, said Kellogg. Climate change is disrupting how pastoralists and farmers both have to use land, resulting in tensions along migratory routes. UNEP conducted locally informed climate security analyses to prevent, mitigate, mediate, and resolve disputes between pastoralists and farmers. Building trust was central to their program, said Kellogg. This included co-creating support committees to identify hotspots for tensions (areas more prone to conflict) and areas where natural resources could peacefully be used, sometimes with the support of new infrastructure.


In order to conduct integrated climate security analysis, projects and programs must be co-designed with communities and locally owned, said Kellogg. The project team and the community members it engages with should include a diversity of expertise and perspectives.


Migration should be supported by policies and tethered to human rights and dignity

David Arnold, Regional Emergency and Post-Crisis Officer at the International Organization for Migration, said there is greater need for coherent policies across the Humanitarian-Development-Peacebuilding Nexus. Enhancing monitoring and evaluation and improving coordination mechanisms are two key operational approaches which will help the various actors better incorporate Do No Harm and conflict sensitivity in their policies.


Because of the challenges and complexity surrounding the climate, conflict, and mobility conversation—and because of the enormous challenges facing migrants themselves—human rights are often afterthoughts, said McClain.


Even with the best of intentions, maintaining the centrality of human rights will not be easy. For instance, reconciling biodiversity and ecosystem needs with human rights raises serious concerns in the conservation community. For instance, Matthew said, “most of the 1.2 billion people who are vulnerable to displacement by climate effects are also the people vulnerable to displacement in terms of the ‘earth needs half’ ideas,” such as the 30 by 30 initiative. Many Indigenous peoples are among these doubly vulnerable populations.


Efforts like the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration seek to reframe core challenges around migration processes so that human rights is at the center. McClain and her colleagues have written the Migration with Dignity framework to provide inclusive and human-centric policy options for implementation, to the benefit of migrants and receiving communities. Because as McClain said, “as long as we’re able to tether existing human rights and dignity approaches to all these, we’re headed in a positive direction.”


This post first appeared on New Security Beat.

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