Challenging the climate change/mobility assumptions in the Horn

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, said “we must be prepared for a large surge of people moving against their will,” adding that such movements represented “a global challenge that cannot be confined to a few countries”. He was speaking about climate change and environmental stressors and the impact they would have on forced and voluntary mobility.

Few would doubt strong linkages between climate and human livelihoods, security and movement around the world – media headlines are increasingly filled with news of natural disasters, record heatwaves, flooding, rising sea levels and melting glaciers. But a new briefing paper by the Mixed Migration Centre focusing on the Horn of Africa and Yemen suggests that contrary to widely held assumptions in the region and beyond, the linkages between these stresses and cross-border movement and mixed migration cannot be proven, for the moment at least.

The paper Weak links: challenging the climate/migration paradigm in the Horn of Africa & Yemen focuses on a region particularly affected by rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. It finds that apart from limited and specific cross-border movement related to droughts and natural disasters, more generally people adapt to environmental circumstances and climate change by moving within their countries – including the swelling of the ranks of city-dwellers. The paper generates original graphics and tables using new data and rankings to makes its somewhat counter-intuitive argument.

In general, human mobility patterns in the medium and longer term are heterogeneous, non-linear, multi-directional and attempts to tie mobility down to single factors, whether those be poverty, war – and now – climate change are often fruitless There is clear evidence that climate change is affecting, and will increasingly affect, the environment in the region, however very few people interviewed leaving the Horn of Africa region in mixed migratory flows identify environmental stressors or the impact of those stresses as a major reason for their choice to migrate or seek refuge. When moving due to environmental circumstances, people tend to stay within their countries or within the region, crossing at most one border, such as following droughts in Somalia (2011/12) when hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled to Kenya and Ethiopia. However, more often people crossing international borders within the region, and even more so when leaving the region as part of longer-distance irregular mixed flows, are primarily moving for better livelihood, better security and more political freedom.

The region is probably one of the most vulnerable and fragile in the world. Conditions in the Horn of Africa and Yemen are characterised by conflict, authoritarian regimes, poor governance, poverty and mass displacement along with harsh environments with negative climate change impacts. But despite this it’s hard to find strong evidence that climate change features as a main cause.

However, these are early days in the international climate crisis and just because it is not the main driver of intercontinental and inter-regional mixed migration today -with those most affected by environmental shocks and stresses usually lacking the resources to enable expensive, long-distance migration – the MMC’s new paper suggest it is not a given it will remain like that if the impact of climate change becomes even more severe. Given the wide-scale vulnerabilities facing this region and others, human mobility patterns within the region will clearly continue to be severely affected by the accumulating impact of climate change, while it remains unknown to what extent in the future larger numbers of people will also leave the region due to environmental shocks and stresses. Finally, there is a strong likelihood that ‘involuntary immobility’ – where people are significantly affected but don’t have the resources or option to move – will become the biggest and  most relevant issue in the Horn of Africa when it comes to ‘climate (im)mobilities’. This is the inverse of the ‘surge’ the High Commissioner predicts, but no less important from a political and humanitarian perspective.