Wearing masks representing G8 leaders, Bangladeshi women at a protest call out for the world’s richest nations to do more to help. Photo credit: Caroline Gluck/Oxfam

Estimates show that climate change will force one out of seven Bangladeshis to flee their homes by 2050. Bangladesh is not a singular case. The sheer scale of climate induced migration requires a new approach to migration policies and aid interventions.

Floods, drought and other extreme weather events are on the rise. In the coming decades, the dramatic effects of climate change will force millions of people to flee their homes. The vast majority will most likely end up as internally displaced people or as refugees in neighbouring countries. Yet, research on the host communities that will be on the front lines in receiving climate migrants has been a neglected area within climate research. A new project funded by the Norwegian Research Council’s Norglobal programme aims to do something about that.

The Creating a political and social climate for climate change project is motivated by the challenge many host communities will face: How to avoid social tensions and conflicts that may arise from an increasing influx of refugees.

The research team is multi-disciplinary and international with team members from among others CMI, NTNU, NHH, the University of South Carolina, the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) and the Environment and Climate Research Center (ECRC), Policy Studies Institute, in Ethiopia. The project is headed by Päivi Lujala, professor at the Geography Research Unit, University of Oulu, Finland, and associated senior researcher at CMI.
Team members Päivi Lujala (University of Oulu), Sosina Bezu (CMI), Ivar Kolstad (NHH), Minhaj Mahmud (BIDS), and Arne Wiig's (CMI) article 'How do host-migrant proximities shape attitudes toward internal climate migrants?' was recently published in Global Environmental Change:
  • The researchers find evidence that host-migrant proximities are important in understanding attituides toward internal climate migrants.
  • The results for the proximity variables show that these attitudes are profoundly relational, positional, and complex.
  • Closeness, both in terms of spatial distance and in terms of values and worldviews improve host community members' attitudes toward migrants.
  • Attitudes toward migrants become more negative when the socio-economic differences to migrants increase.

In this interview, project leader Päivi Lujala talks about what makes climate induced displacement different from other types of displacement and why we need new policies and aid approaches.


What makes climate induced displacement different from other displacement?

-Throughout history, humankind has been on the move. Often this migration has been voluntary as people have been seeking out new economic opportunities, for example, in urban areas or abroad. Large forced displacements have also been caused by conflict, violence, slavery, and economic or political instability. So large-scale mobility is not something new.

When it comes to the displacement due to climate change and climate/weather-related disasters, one crucial difference is the sheer scale of the migration that climate change is predicted to cause in the coming decades. The government of Bangladesh, for example, expects that one out of every seven Bangladeshis will be displaced by 2050. That is 20-25 million people. Further, such large displacements will happen simultaneously in many developing countries. This will outstretch the capacity of the international community to help countries and people in need. It is also important to remember that many of those displaced by climate-related natural disasters will not be able to return to their homes but will need to be resettled elsewhere permanently.


Will we need different policies and aid approaches to meet the looming crisis?

-Although many people will be moving over time and voluntarily due to slow-onset disasters such as soil salinization or sea-level rise – which can ease the absorption processes in the destinations –  forced relocation, for instance, due to repeated or sudden natural disasters such as severe cyclones, may result in people relocating simultaneously and in vast numbers outstripping the possibilities to move to relatives or the absorbing capacity of hosting communities.

Thus, policies for planned relocation are needed. These include both temporary and permanent relocation plans. A key issue here is the selection of relocation places. Resettling people in areas with decent livelihood opportunities and natural resource base that can support the migrants, together with measures to protect critical resources such as soil and freshwater, can contribute to sustainable relocation. Crucially, destinations will in many cases be impacted by climate change as well. In fact, the risk of any natural hazard turning into disaster may increase in the destination as more people live in one place, migrants perhaps settling down in more exposed places such as slopes or flood-plains, and many of the migrants having lost at least of part of their assets due to relocation making them, and the communities, more vulnerable for future shocks. It is also vital that the relocation process includes acceptance of the people already living in the destination so that one can avoid creating tensions between migrants and the host communities.

Thus, for policies relating to climate change to be effective, we need not only to understand why people migrate and what role climate change has in their decision to relocate. The policies for relocation need to be based on assessments about what areas would be the most suitable places for resettling climate migrants and the acknowledgment that such resettlement needs to be based on acceptance by the host communities. To study and guide such climate change-related resettlement, we are in the project developing a conceptual framework that can be used to identify potential resettlement places for climate change migrants.

Planned, state-led relocation and resettlement can become increasingly important in the future because people may not plan to migrate even when this could be a better option in the longterm than staying, or cannot do so due to lack of means. Our study from an extremely climate exposed area in Bangladesh suggests that households in the area only to a limited extent perceive migration as an adaptation strategy to climate change. This can imply that people do not prepare for future migration to a sufficient degree, and thus may need more help when forced to migrate.


As part of this project, you have studied how people’s views of and willingness to accommodate displaced people are affected by different narrative representations of the responsibility for and the nature of climate change. How did you do this in practice?

-Our basic idea here was that narratives about the situation of the poor and vulnerable affect how we view them and treat them. Therefore, we thought that one way to make host communities more welcoming of climate migrants was to shift the blame away from the migrants and onto other forces or agents. To examine this, we have conducted research in southwest Bangladesh in places close to areas that are exposed to sea-level rise, extreme flooding, and severe cyclones. We surveyed 1200 people living in villages and cities that receive migrants from the areas exposed to climate-related shocks. As part of the survey, we showed the respondents videos with narratives that shift the responsibility for climate migration toward natural forces, Western countries, or local authorities, respectively. A group of respondents saw a video without such a narrative. Interestingly, our preliminary results indicate that there was no positive impact of such framings of migrants on host community members’ attitudes toward climate migrants compared to those respondents who were not exposed to such a narrative. You can read more about our research on this in our CMI Working Paper 'Does changing the narrative improve host community attitudes to climate migrants: Experimental evidence from Bangladesh'.  


Would it be possible to perform similar experiments among Norwegian citizens? Do you think it is likely that people who may feel quite far away from the devastating impacts of climate change will have a different view of climate refugees than other refugees?

-It would be interesting and important to study how attitudes toward climate migrants among Norwegians form and what factors influence how we perceive them. From other studies, we know that several factors influence Norwegians’ perceptions about climate change and its consequences, among them their own experiences of natural hazard events.


What do you already know about how climate induced displacement is being talked about in countries like Bangladesh where the effect of climate change is already taking its toll?

-Many of these countries have realized that they should prepare for climate change and its consequences. These include the governments, international and national NGOs, community organizations, and researches alike. Some countries like the Maldives have already set out and started to implement ambitious adaption plans. When it comes to population displacements in particular, Bangladesh, for example, is working on a national strategy on the management of climate-induced internal displacement. The strategy acknowledges that often this displacement will be permanent and that there thus is a need to establish processes that ensure dignified permanent relocation of people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by deteriorating environment.

The challenge often is not the lack of understanding or realizing the gravity of the situation, but the limited means to address it together with the necessity to address other pressing needs in their societies.


What are the main restraints of effective policies and aid interventions when it comes to climate refugees?

-I think the difficulties in preparing adequately for large scale climate-related displacements, and in investing in in-situ adaption that to some could extent limit the need for future displacements, is a combination of several challenges that many of the least developed countries face. General governance issues, the fact that the present development needs are so huge that it is difficult to prioritize something that perhaps only happens in the future, and resistance among those who perhaps ideally should be relocated as well as the resistance among potential host communities to receive migrants, are just some of them. I also think that it is more challenging to garner acceptance for permanent displacement and relocation. It is one thing to provide temporary shelter and aid to people fleeing a devastating cyclone, but it is a different thing to accept that these people need to find a permanent solution to their situation, and that returning home is not part of it.