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Immobility: The neglected flipside of the climate displacement crisis

‘Climate mobility and immobility are not separate things; they are two sides of the same coin.’

A woman kneels down onto a parched earth, the ocean visible in the background. A small mangrove shrub takes up the middle of the frame.
A woman uses a fork to dig for shellfish beside a small mangrove tree on the reef-mud flats of a lagoon on the island nation of Kiribati 23 May, 2013. Residents of some Pacific Islands are voluntarily choosing to stay despite climate risks. (David Gray/REUTERS)

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As climate change-related disasters become ever more common, they have given rise to increasingly dire warnings about impending mass migration by those displaced. This tendency to focus on movement has largely, if unintentionally, obscured an equally important question: why people don’t move. 

An emerging group of experts is arguing that dominant narratives around climate migration – focused on doomsday scenarios of large numbers of people relocating from the Global South to the Global North – contain significant blind spots, often overlooking some of the most vulnerable people. 

For millions around the world, climate displacement is already a reality, and at a climate summit last week hosted by the United States, world leaders pledged to increase funding to developing countries to help them adapt to the effects of a changing climate. 

In the six months between September 2020 and March 2021, more than 10.3 million people were displaced by extreme weather and natural disasters mainly related to the climate – by far the leading cause of displacement around the world. And climate change is exacerbating other causes of displacement, including poverty, food insecurity, and water shortages. 

For every displaced person who ventures toward the Global North, vastly more move within or between countries in the Global South, or remain immobile in areas where climate change is making life increasingly precarious.

“Climate mobility and immobility are not separate things; they are two sides of the same coin,” Caroline Zickgraf, deputy director of the Hugo Observatory at Belgium’s University of Liège – a research centre focusing on the intersection of environmental change, migration, and politics – told The New Humanitarian.

But relative to mobility, comparatively little is known about immobility in the context of climate change because, until recently, it was not a topic many researchers were paying attention to. 

“We don’t have statistics about climate immobility like we do for migration," Zickgraf said. “We can’t simply point to the number of people living in climate hotspots, because that doesn’t tell us anything about who they are, what factors influence their immobility, how many chose to stay, or how many had no other choice.”

Climate immobility can be involuntary (people aspiring to leave but lacking the capability to do so), or it can be voluntary (people choosing to remain despite the risks). 

“We don’t have statistics about climate immobility like we do for migration."

Involuntary immobile populations are often among the most vulnerable because they are unable to escape the sudden and direct impacts of climate disasters and often don’t have the resources to build resilience while facing poverty, food insecurity, and conflicts compounded by climate change. 

Understanding the specifics of people’s vulnerabilities, what influences their decision-making processes, and the impacts of those decisions are all areas that deserve more attention.

“While most policymakers are focused on the ‘problem’ of climate migration, we’re still trying to convince people that the presence of immobility doesn’t mean the absence of vulnerability,” Zickgraf said. 

‘They’re effectively trapped’

According to Joseph Kofi Teye, director of the Centre for Migration Studies at the University of Ghana, international organisations and researchers often incorrectly assume that people who don’t migrate have successfully adopted adaptation measures where they live.

But climate immobility has numerous causes, ranging from lack of money and poor health to the absence of information about how to migrate. 

“Involuntary immobility is a policy concern because these are people who need to go, want to go, but who are unable to do so,” said Zickgraf. “They’re effectively trapped.”

Teye said he had encountered involuntary climate immobility in his migration research in northern Ghana and the country’s coastal savannah zone, telling The New Humanitarian: “Many of the very poor households who don’t have resources and networks to migrate are forced to remain in a place that’s facing serious climate change [impacts], especially drought and food insecurity.”

Inequalities related to gender, age, and class; cultural norms; and patriarchal traditions all influence immobility and contribute to women and the elderly being more immobile than men, Teye added. 

“There is a holistic connection between people, their ancestors, and their environment in many parts of the Pacific that cannot be measured in economic terms.”

At the same time, not everyone living in areas affected by climate change wants to migrate. Many people choose to stay despite growing climate risks because of a historical and spiritual attachment to place, a sense of identity and belonging, or a desire for self-determination.

This is the case in the Pacific Islands, which are extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts like sea-level rise, coastal erosion, and more intense cyclones.

“Pacific Island people have long been subjected to ‘inevitable displacement’ narratives,” said Carol Farbotko, adjunct research fellow at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. “Immobility is a way of framing resistance to the idea that displacement from their Indigenous places is a foregone conclusion.”

“There is a holistic connection between people, their ancestors, and their environment in many parts of the Pacific that cannot be measured in economic terms,” Farbotko added.

For Kayly Ober, who runs Refugee International’s Climate Displacement Program, the inability to conceptualise the idea of immobility contributes to the blind spot surrounding it.

“Most development policy views migration as a negative outcome, a failure of… interventions,” she said. Conversely, “practitioners view those that we might categorise as ‘immobile’ as simply people who live in a particular place and that may just need resources and capacities to enable their progress in those places.”

Adapting in place

Because climate immobility is a relatively new area of research, specific policies are not yet being implemented to address it, according to Ober. 

Existing policies related to disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and resilience building overlap with climate immobility but don’t address it explicitly as an independent phenomenon, she added.

Experts like Farbotko argue that the onus is on governments and donors to co-develop programmes and policies that can help individuals and communities who choose not to migrate achieve a reasonable quality of life where they are – through adaptation measures.

Pacific Island nations stand out for being ahead of the curve by developing innovative national policies to support vulnerable coastal communities, most of whom prefer to remain for the time-being

Vulnerabilities to climate hazards have been well understood for decades in the Pacific Islands, the general population has a high level of awareness about the risks, and there is significant government and civil society activity on climate change, according to Farbotko.  

Support policies include adaptation measures to reduce physical hazards – like building sea walls, improving drainage, and planting mangroves, which all help protect coastlines from waves and storm surges. 

Community consultation approaches to decision-making are also central to policymaking in the Pacific Islands. In Fiji, for example, equal government support is given to coastal communities whether they choose to remain or to relocate, villages can voice their needs to the national government, and communities are given the final say on whether and when they will move.  

Support to leave

Sînziana Pușcaș, a project officer with the migration, environment, and climate change programme at the UN’s migration agency, IOM, argued for more targeted migration policies for those affected by disasters and climate change.

For those who aspire to leave but lack the capability, such policies could help provide solutions by allowing them to migrate safely and legally to find alternative livelihoods instead of remaining trapped in high-risk areas or having to risk migrating irregularly. 

Some policies already exist, including free movement protocols, such as the IGAD Protocol on Free Movement of Persons between eight East African countries; labour mobility schemes, like the Pacific Labour Scheme between Australia, nine Pacific nations and Timor-Leste; and cross-border pastoralism agreements, such as the ECOWAS Transhumance Protocol between 15 West African countries.

Given the current political environment surrounding migration in the EU and the United States, safe and legal migration options for people faced with climate immobility will likely be easier to establish between countries in the Global South than between the Global South and the Global North.

“Politics remain a critical challenge to supporting development opportunities to facilitate safe, productive, and legal labour migration outcomes,” said Ober. 

Zickgraf has researched bilateral agreements between Senegal and Mauritania that have allowed people vulnerable to climate hazards and livelihood loss to adapt through circular labour migration

Skilled artisanal fishermen, mostly from Guet Ndar, a northern Senegalese village highly impacted by sea-level rise and coastal erosion, were given licenses to fish in Mauritania, where livelihoods have traditionally been agriculture-based, not maritime. 

“Politics remain a critical challenge to supporting development opportunities to facilitate safe, productive, and legal labour migration outcomes.”

By facilitating legal circular movement, the agreement removed the pressure fishermen felt to move permanently or to fish irregularly. With the income they made, the fishermen also invested in adaptation at home, constructing second homes away from the eroding coastline that were close enough to allow them to maintain their sense of place.

In specific situations – such as when in-place adaptation has been exhausted, or when people lack the means but not the willingness to move – planned relocations can also be effective. But only “where the community is genuinely consulted and involved in – and generally supportive of – the process,” said Farbotko.

Planned relocation is viewed as a last resort that can lead to negative socio-economic outcomes if affected communities are not meaningfully involved in relocation decision-making. There is also a risk of governments using it as a tool to exert control over communities and territory. 

Self-determination

Looking ahead, climate immobility needs to be better recognised in global, regional, and national policies, frameworks, and guidelines on climate change and displacement, according to Farbotko. 

“The assumption that large numbers of people want to move from their culturally-valued homes to the 'West' needs to be rethought with a decolonial perspective.”

The relationship between climate change and migration deserves more scrutiny, too. 

“The assumption that large numbers of people want to move from their culturally-valued homes to the 'West' needs to be rethought with a decolonial perspective,” said Farbotko.

Whether people desire to stay or go, it is important for affected populations to have a say in the policies impacting their lives. As Farbotko put it: “Failing to listen to the voices of affected populations and imposing externally devised solutions that do not fit with the local context is likely to lead to increased maladaptation.”

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