Environmental migration and non-migration: A new scientific discourse

What climate change does is impose limits on the ability of people to continue their traditional livelihoods by forcing them to migrate. Photo: AFP

People migrating from one place to another—whether within the same country or across international borders—is a complex phenomenon, in which pull factors (such as job-seeking) and/or push factors (such as environmental degradation) can play important roles. Recently, the impacts of climate change have been included in this hypothesis, as a major environmental push factor, which has drawn a great deal of interest from political as well as scientific circles.

I was recently invited to be the closing keynote speaker as well as a panellist for the opening public event of a three-day scientific conference on “Environmental Non-migration” which unpacked why anyone migrates or doesn’t migrate. The conference consisted of around 50 senior and early career scientists from around the world who shared some of their cutting-edge research on this new and emerging scientific area of research.

This scientific conference was organised by the Technical University in Dresden (TU-D) in Germany, which is ranked among the 11 Centres of Excellence by the Excellence Initiative of the German Council of Science and Humanities, and the German Research Foundation.

Unpacking what is meant by non-migration versus migration boils down to the reasons why people choose to migrate, and also whether such migration (international or within the nation) is meant to be permanent or temporary. This speaks to the existing phenomenon of migration.

In this context, what climate change does is impose limits on the ability of people to continue their traditional livelihoods (such as pastoralists, farmers or fishermen) by forcing them to migrate. In scientific spheres, we refer to this category of migrants as being forcibly displaced due to climate change and the estimates of their numbers, over the next few decades, are in the many tens of millions.

So, while it is still difficult to differentiate between climate change migrants and other types of migrant today, it is quite clear that very soon there will be many millions of climate change migrants around the world, with a significant number in South Asia and Bangladesh in particular.

What struck me about the scientific scholarship on this emerging topic was the revelation that it is not only taking place around different parts of the world, but it also concerns different academic disciplines (from geology of coasts, and hydrology of rivers, to even social sciences and international law). Thus no single discipline is able to tackle this issue alone; multi-disciplinary research will be essential going forward. It is good news, therefore, that the outcome of the conference was creating the “Network on Environmental Non-migration” that will continue to connect scientists working on different aspects of the topic.

Finally, I would like to mention with great pride that I witnessed some excellent contributions from Bangladeshi scientists in this international conference. The main organiser, Dr Bishawjit Mallik, is himself an emerging Bangladeshi expert in the field. And among senior scholars who attended the event, two of them—Dr Mustafa Anwar from Australia and Dr Sonia Akhter from Singapre, recognised as experts in their respective fields—are of Bangladeshi origin.

Additionally, Bangladesh was the country with the highest number of papers (by young scholars) that were chosen for funding support to attend the conference. From a total of 40 submissions and 20 selections, seven Bangladeshi young scholars’ research papers were selected by the organisers. It was somewhat unfortunate, however, that many of the young scientists selected and invited to attend the conference—from different nations including Bangladesh—did not get visas from the German embassy in their respective countries, and hence could not attend in person.

And during the final evaluation of the papers by the young scholars, the “best paper” award was given to Zakia Sultana from Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman University in Gopalganj who delivered an excellent presentation.

Her research looked at the complexity of intra-family decision-making to migrate or not migrate in the coastal parts of Bangladesh where traditional rice fields have been replaced by shrimp farms. Her findings made it clear that every family is unique and intra-family decision-making reflects a nexus that isn’t easily predictable.

It is therefore a great pleasure to be able to say that Bangladeshi scholars, both senior and young, are making a mark on the world map by proving their skills in conducting important and innovative research studies in topics of global importance. We should all be proud of them.

Originally this article was published on June 26, 2019 at  Daily Star. The author Dr. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).
Email: saleemul.huq@icccad.net