Why climate change won’t lead to mass immigration to the West

It has long been argued that with climate change will come mass immigration from developing countries, worst hit by droughts, flooding and other natural disasters, to developed ones. I interviewed Dr Hein de Haas of Oxford’s Migration Observatory on the real causes of immigration, and why the idea that North America and Europe are the top destinations for migrants is a myth.

The Highlights:

Clip 1: “…we know from migration research and more generally that it is actually not the poorest who move most…”

Clip 2: “The underlying idea is that climate change will lead to mass movement from south to north, and from developing to developed countries – there’s no real basis for that.”

Clip 3: “I think the real concern is people who get trapped.”

Clip 4: “…the idea that everybody would move north west to the UK or other European countries shouldn’t be taken for granted.”

Full interview transcript:

Nabeelah: Having read a bit about the issue of how climate change affects migration this seems to be a very long-standing theory – there seem to have been reports back in 2007 and so on. Do you think people take this idea very seriously?

Hein de Haas: Yes I think the predominant idea – I think the idea that climate change will lead to mass migration is still very dominant. Which I find a bit surprising in the sense that there is indeed like you say, there is quite a bit of research now and particularly the Foresight report that came out a few years ago has been quite clear and summarised a lot of the existing evidence that actually does not point to that fact. So I think the views are a bit misguided and not really informed by research.

Nabeelah: And why do you disagree with the view? Can you explain, or summarise, the research that really debunks it.

Hein de Haas: The point is that it starts from a flawed analysis of what actually drives migration. Because it has also been thought that the main cause of migration is – particularly migration from and within poor countries –is poverty and deprivation. And that’s all placed to think okay if climate change is going to lead to, for instance, agricultural crises, or flooding, or extreme weather events, then it will deprive, for instance, peasants of their livelihood, and essentially they will move away. Now it sounds very intuitively true, but the problem is that we know from migration research and more generally that it is actually not the poorest who move most. And particularly when you think about long-distance migration between developing and developed countries, it is generally people who are quite resourceful who can make the trip.

So it would actually turn some of the analysis upside down if you think about, for instance, poor peasant households who may be deprived – their livelihoods may deteriorate as a consequence of environmental or climate change – they’re actually less able to move. And certainly the idea that masses of people will then turn and come to the west, and because that’s sort of the underlying presumption, this fear of the big masses heading north because of climate change has no basis whatsoever.

Nabeelah: What would you then argue are the real circumstances that push people to migrate? And I know from having glanced at some of your work that you often prioritise economic factors. Would you argue these stimulate large-scale migration more than environmental factors?

Hein de Haas: I’m not saying that environmental factors are not important, of course they do matter particularly if you think about the agricultural societies and communities, obviously they matter a lot. The problem is that if people get deprived and they have let’s say the aspiration to move, they need certain resources. Now what we see particularly with environmental disasters or extreme weather events that is not necessarily related to climate change, is of course these people do move, if areas get flooded, or if there are long droughts, of course you see this population mobility. Now the whole point is that most of this mobility is rather short-term and short-distance, and most people aspire to return and do actually return. The underlying idea is that climate change will lead to mass movement from south to north, and from developing to developed countries – there’s no real basis for that.

I think what is partly going on is that in a way the migration fears are used in this debate in an inappropriate way I thin. Of course people want to raise awareness about the dangers of climate change –and I’m fully on their side. But I don’t think it’s appropriate to use migration fears and actually fuel migration fears, by putting forward this idea that it will lead to mass migration whereas there is actually no real basis for that.

Nabeelah: It seems to me you’re saying that it’s a much more complicated picture and the environmental factors interact with lots of other factors.

Hein de Haas: Yes indeed – that environmental, social, economic, political factors all play a role. Certainly I don’t want to suggest it’s only the economy although obviously economic opportunities do play a big role, particularly in determining where people go to. For instance there is a very high relation between economic growth and immigration, so countries that grow fast attract lots of migrants – that is not very surprising. But obviously, what motivated these people to move is a much broader array of factors. So besides economic factors, obviously political factors but also social and environmental factors may play a role. But whether people eventually will move obviously depends on whether  they actually can move.

And migration, particularly international migration, particularly migration into Europe or other wealthy countries, is quite an expensive affair. It is not typically open to the poorest people. And most migration from the poorest countries-for instance if you look at migration from sub-Saharan Africa to wealthy countries, it’s mostly middle class to elite people- most of the poor can’t afford it.

I think the real concern is people who get trapped. For instance an example is hurricane Katrina in New Orleans a few years ago. Where actually some of the poorest people got trapped in New Orleans because they lacked – they obviously didn’t have cars so they couldn’t move out of the city easily, they often didn’t have social contacts or family living outside of the city, and they simply didn’t have the means to get out of there. So if you think about climate change, people who get most deprived won’t be able to move. and in a way you can also see migration as a temporary or permanent solution to cope with such changes.

Nabeelah: As you said when people talk about climate change driving migration they often talk about a simple move from third world countries to developed countries. I wonder if you would argue with this popular perception of the main migration flows. For the future, will people necessarily be turning to Europe first, or will it be the countries that are growing more quickly, as you said?

Hein de Haas: That fully depends of course on whether Europe will be able to regain its economic dynamism. So that’s impossible to predict, but it’s far from sure – let’s put it that way. We may also enter a scenario of a stagnant Europe where we see actually quite low levels of economic growth in with perhaps a little bit of resumption, but we may enter a scenario of an increasingly aging and stagnant Europe that has turned hostile towards immigrants. And the interesting thing is that what we already see in Africa for instance, is that still – I mean, most migration to start with is within Africa and that’s a more general story that of course a lot of migration takes place between developing countries. So the idea that everybody comes to wealthy Europe or North America is a myth.

But secondly what we now see that’s really interesting is more and more people going to different countries. So China is starting to attract more and more African students and labour migrants for instance. India has become a destination. Also Brazil seems to be increasingly attractive for people from a lot of poor countries in Latin America and beyond. So yes indeed, if we see the rise of the BRICS as they’re sometimes called – but also Turkey – are becoming destinations in their own right. So just the idea that everybody will automatically move to north-western Europe…

And to apply this to a British context and the current debate over Romania and Bulgaria, actually many Bulgarians are moving to Turkey right now. So the idea that everybody would move north west to the UK or other European countries shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Nabeelah: I was interested to read in your work Turkey and North Africa could become more popular migrant destinations, as you’ve said.

Hein de Haas: Also because of demographic change, we shouldn’t forget these countries, like Turkey or North African countries, have witnessed a very sharp decline in birth rates, which are almost down now to European levels. Obviously the populations are still much younger than European populations, and a lot depends obviously on how political transformations are going to be and whether economic growth will depend high in these countries, but if we look at Turkey for instance, which has very high growth rates, declining population growth is indeed attracting more and more people. Such scenarios could play out in other countries becoming destinations in their own right. Just think about China, obviously a population giant, and starts to attract foreign labour right now. So perhaps in the future the question is not anymore, ‘how can we stop people from coming?’ but ‘how can we get them?’, because we may imagine more countries that start to compete for migrant labour.

At the very beginning of the coalition I thought we had reasons to be cautiously optimistic. We had good relations with the minister at the time – he seemed a pretty thoughtful guy who seemed aware of the task that was facing him to get asylum fair and under control again. And we saw some of the improvements that are here on the graph, and we hoped that this was a sign that we were on to something good.

The fact that it then bottoms out and starts to look much worse again – there are a few different causes. The first is the obvious one, which is the cuts. The UK Border Agency faced significant cuts to its personnel and to its resources. The number of people available to make decisions, and the resources available to them would have gone down substantially, while the number of asylum claims coming in each month – more or less the same. So you can imagine how the product of that is going to be an increased backlog of decisions that are either being made later or not at all.

The Home office likes to kind of try out new ways of doing things and to meddle in the way the asylum system is run. If you look at that about a year ago, May 2012 period, that’s when the real spike, the most substantial spike begins – and something else that happened around that time is that a new system was suddenly being introduced which was rolled out finally in April, which I know led to some confusion among Home Office officials when they were in contact with our teams here.

We haven’t seen a substantial increase in the number of asylum claims for example, that woudln’t account for it. There’s no reason to believe that asylum claims are getting more complicated. But if they were able to make more decisions, two years ago, and now we’re getting to a point where there are far more to decide – but there doesn’t seem to be any pattern in the asylum claims going in that would explain that –it must be something wrong at the Home Office.

The two for me would be that cuts have meant the Border Agency have less personnel to deal with things, and then in the middle of that, there’s been an attempt to bring in a whole new system for dealing with asylum claims, and the transition seems to cause delays and confusion amongst some officials that we’ve dealt with.


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