"Hot topic" - special journal issue on climate and migration reviewed

The October issue of the Forced Migration Review (FMR), a journal published three times a year by Oxford University's Refugee Studies Centre, is a 38-article buffet on climate change and displacement, a “hot topic” according to Jean-Francois Durieux, a lecturer at the centre.

The latest FMR issue provides snapshots of current debates on people displaced by environmental factors and climate change.

The environmental and migration disciplines have been wrangling over the real numbers of people fleeing natural disasters as the impact of climate change intensifies; how to define a person displaced by environmental factors; what kind of protection can be afforded to such persons; whether those affected should be relocated; whether they should rather be helped to adapt to their changed environment, among various other issues.

Several articles in the journal underline the need for more research to understand and respond to the crisis, which could affect least 50 million people by 2010.

Since the 1970s, experts have debated the extent to which climate change can drive migration. Some predict waves of "environmental refugees" while others are more sceptical, researchers Olivia Dun and François Gemenne said in an article in the journal.

"Generally speaking, the former, who tend to isolate environmental factors as a major driving force of migration, can be described as 'alarmists' and the latter, who tend to insist on the complexity of the migration process, as 'sceptics'.

"Interestingly, alarmists usually come from disciplines such as environmental, disaster and conflict studies, while sceptics belong almost exclusively to the field of forced migration and refugee studies. Unsurprisingly, reports linking climate change with security issues usually side with alarmists," they commented.

"Just as most classical theories on migration tend to ignore the environment as a driver of migration, most theories on environmental governance ignore migration flows. Bridging this gap should be the first priority of a research agenda in this field."

It’s not all policy. In some of the articles, real human stories and quotes bring the issues to life. "If the water comes I am not afraid. I can swim, my sister can swim and we have a boat; but the rice can't swim, and my father's house can't swim either," said Manuel Modena, 12, who lives near the Río Coco River in northern Nicaragua.

About 70,000 people live along the Río Coco's 700km length. When the rains come and the water level starts rising, the people upriver sometimes have only two hours to warn those living downstream. The community has now set up a chain of 40 radio stations to keep everyone informed about the daily amount of rain and the water level in the river.

There are other positive stories about adapting to climate change. People in flood-prone southwest Bangladesh have developed ingenious floating rafts with a bamboo base, on which water hyacinth is piled and then covered by other plant material or coconut husk to form a seed bed ready for planting, writes James Pender, development and natural resources advisor for the social development programme of the Anglican/Presbyterian Church of Bangladesh.

These then become floating gardens (called ‘baira’), Pender explains, cultivated in the rainy season and immune to flood.

Other interesting facts abound – just one example: some semi-nomadic ethnic groups in Iran are unable to migrate to summer grounds as mist and fog that once nourished pastures have not appeared for several years.

Leading academics, researchers and activists, some affiliated to policy think-tanks, non-governmental organisations and United Nations agencies, have contributed the 38 articles in the journal, which can be accessed at: www.fmreview.org

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