The Next Migrant Wave

Photo of Stephen Groff

Stephen Groff is the Asian Development Bank’s vice-president for East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific.

 

MANILA – Imagine that you are a farmer. Your crops are withering as weather patterns become more volatile, your well water is too salty to drink, and rice is too expensive to buy at the market. So, you leave home in search of a better life.

Millions of people in vulnerable communities around the world do not have to imagine such a scenario. They are living it now, as an increasingly unpredictable climate takes its toll; and their numbers are likely to soar as the effects of climate change intensify.

But the world is even less prepared for these future climate migrants than Europe is for the current wave of people fleeing from the Middle East and North Africa. Most climate migrants will relocate within their own borders, but others will have no choice but to seek refuge abroad. If sea levels rise by more than one meter, entire populations of Pacific-atoll and reef-island countries might have to relocate.

If it is well planned and managed, migration can help people adapt to such threats. But if it is not, it can lead to humanitarian crises. Overall, today’s policies are inadequate. Source and destination countries urgently need to make it easier and safer for people to move, or to remain where they are if they cannot afford or choose not to leave.

Climate change will be one of many factors fueling future migration waves. Although it will become increasingly difficult to distinguish between people fleeing from environmental factors and those who have left for other reasons, we know that climate will play a larger role in migration, as slow-onset threats such as erosion and acute hazards such as cyclones threaten more people’s livelihoods.

Most of the people at risk live in Asia, which is uniquely exposed to the effects of climate change. Nine of the ten countries with the most people living in low-lying areas (who are therefore threatened by flooding, storm surges, salinity, and erosion) are in Asia, owing to mass migration to megacities in recent decades.

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