Climate Displacement & Migration in South East Asia

  • Opinion by Kwan Soo-Chen, David McCoy (kuala lumpur, malaysia)
  • Inter Press Service

Many places will also become uninhabitable. As a consequence, many people are going to have to move from their current homes, either temporarily or permanently.

The term ‘climate mobility’ is used to describe three forms of climate-induced movement of populations: displacement, where people are forced to leave their homes; migration, where movement is to some degree voluntary; and planned relocation, where movement in proactively instigated, supervised and carried out by the state.

In reality, these three forms of mobility overlap and may occur concurrently, making it difficult to accurately quantify and monitor trends over time. Furthermore, when considering the impacts of climate change on human mobility, there is a need to consider the inability or unwillingness of communities to move despite being at risk from harm, loss and damage.

There are several drivers of ‘climate mobility’. The most obvious is the direct destruction of homes and infrastructure by acute severe weather events and floodings. Less obvious drivers include the more chronic impact of sea level rise, soil erosion, erratic weather patterns, salination and forest degradation on water supply, agriculture and livelihoods.

Data on climate mobility are sketchy and it is hard to attribute any instance of displacement or forced migration to only one set of factors. Political and economic factors may often be significant co-factors. Similarly, movements and migration attributed to economic forces or armed conflicts may have some underlying relationship to environmental degradation.

According to the 2022 Global Report of Internal Displacements (GRID) by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) in Geneva, there were 38 million individual instances of displacement in 2021 globally, with 14.3 million (37.6%) coming from the East Asia and Pacific region.

These numbers include people who were displaced more than once. More than half of these displacements (23.7 million) globally, and 95% in the East and Pacific region were due to weather-related disasters, and most of these were concentrated in LMICs.

In the Asia Pacific region, 225.3 million internal displacements caused by disasters have been recorded from 2010 to 2021, where 95% were weather related and the other 5% were geophysical. The Southeast Asian countries with the highest incidence of displacements due to natural disasters in 2021 were the Philippines (5,681,000), Indonesia (749,000), Vietnam (780,000) and Myanmar (158,000).

The two biggest causes of disaster-related displacements in the region are floods and storms which were responsible for over 80% of disaster-related displacements between 2008 and 2020.

Attempts are also being made to monitor the scale of planned relocations. One study, for example, identified 308 planned relocations globally in 2021, of which more than half were in Asia (160). This included 29 cases in the Philippines, and 17 in both Vietnam and Indonesia.

Importantly however, half all of these ‘planned relocations’ involved populations in rural areas including the indigenous communities, and half of them had already been displaced by acute weather events. The number of households involved in each planned relocation ranged from as little as four households to 1,000 households, with the majority involving less than 250 households.

Although Southeast Asia is known as being a ‘hot spot’ for acute severe weather events, it is also vulnerable to the effects of more chronic environmental degradation. For example, the large low-lying coastal areas of the region - such as in Vietnam and Thailand and around the Mekong delta – are already being affected by sea level rise and its impacts on settlements through coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion.

Although projections of the scale of future climate mobility are uncertain, significant growth is indicated. Already we have seen the number of internal displacements increased from 3.9 million per year in 2008-2010 to 6.4 million per year in 2019-2021.

According to the Groundswell Report of the World Bank, the number of internal climate migrants in the East Asia and Pacific region will reach 49 million by 2050, representing 2% of the regional population. The lower Mekong subregion in Southeast Asia is projected to see between 3.3 million and 6.3 million new climate migrants between now and 2050 (1.4% to 2.7% of the country population) depending on different scenarios.

The high-risk outmigration hotspots include the coastal areas of Vietnam (threatened by sea level rise) and central Thailand and Myanmar (threatened by water scarcity and reduced agriculture productivity).

While most climate mobility occurs within a country, there will be growing pressure on national borders as climate change worsens. However, there appears to be little modelling of future scenarios involving cross-border migration due to climate change and environmental breakdown.

Such pressure might be expected around land borers within the Greater Mekong sub-region affecting Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. But given the physical geography of the region, cross-border migration by sea may become an issue as the effects of climate change worsen.

Clearly this will pose international security as well as humanitarian challenges. Currently however, the 1951 Refugee Convention does not give people fleeing from environmental disasters or climate-related threats the right to be recognized as refugees, even though the term ‘climate refugees’ is increasingly used in popular and academic discourse.

The non-binding Global Compact for Migration which was developed in line with the SDG target 10.7 on migration policies and adopted by majority of the UN Member States in December 2018 is a good start to strengthening international cooperation in tackling the challenges and human rights-related aspects of cross border migrants from climate change.

The negative health impacts of being forcibly moved from one’s home are significant, but will also depend on the form of migration (temporary or permanent, short or long distance, internal or cross-border) and the social, economic and political conditions of their home and new environments.

Furthermore, there are different health needs and impacts for populations on the move and those that are settled, as well as for receiving communities and those that are left behind. While certain risks and threats will be reduced by movement, many will face new health hazards in their new settings including a lack of economic opportunities, as well as the mental health risks associated with social and cultural loss.

Climate mobility is a current and pressing issue in Southeast Asia. Even if everything is done to mitigate further global warming, millions of people in the region will likely be forced to move from their current settlements over the next few decades.

Whether we are adequately prepared for this is at best an open question. What is clear however is that the responsibilities of governments towards both current and future climate migrants is considerable.

Crucially, health systems will have to provide for both physical safety and health of vulnerable populations, as well as the burden of mental illness produced by forced migration.

Kwan Soo-Chen is a Postdoctoral Fellow and David McCoy is a Research Lead at the United Nations University International Institute for Global Health (UNU-IIGH).

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