Climate displacement and migration in Southeast Asia


  • Opinion by Kwan Soo-Chen, David McCoy (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
  • Inter Press Service

Many places will also become uninhabitable. As a result, many people will have to move temporarily or permanently from their current home.

The term ‘climate mobility’ is used to describe three forms of climate-induced population displacement: displacementwhere people are forced to leave their homes; migration, where movement is voluntary to some extent; And planned movewhere movement is proactively initiated, controlled and executed by the state.

In reality, these three forms of mobility overlap and can occur simultaneously, making it difficult to accurately quantify and track trends over time. In addition, when considering the effects of climate change on human mobility, the inability or unwillingness of communities to move despite the risk of harm, loss and harm must be taken into account.

There are several drivers of ‘climate mobility’. The most obvious is the direct destruction of homes and infrastructure through acute storms and flooding. Less obvious causes include the more chronic impacts of sea level rise, soil erosion, erratic weather patterns, salinization and forest degradation on water supply, agriculture and livelihoods.

Data on climate mobility is sketchy and it is difficult to attribute displacement or forced migration to just one set of factors. Political and economic factors can often be important co-factors. Similarly, movements and migration attributed to economic forces or armed conflict may have an underlying relationship to environmental degradation.

According to the 2022 Global Report of Internal Displacements (GRID) from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) in Geneva, there were 38 million individual cases of displacement worldwide in 2021, of which 14.3 million (37.6%) came from East Asia and the Pacific ocean. region.

These figures include people who were displaced more than once. More than half of these displacements (23.7 million) worldwide, and 95% in the East and Pacific, were due to weather-related disasters, and most of these were concentrated in LMICs.

The Asia-Pacific region recorded 225.3 million internal displacements due to disasters between 2010 and 2021, of which 95% were weather related and the other 5% geophysical. The Southeast Asian countries with the highest incidence of displacement due to natural disasters in 2021 were the Philippines (5,681,000), Indonesia (749,000), Vietnam (780,000), and Myanmar (158,000).

The top two causes of disaster-induced displacement in the region are floods and storms, which accounted for more than 80% of disaster-induced displacement between 2008 and 2020.

Efforts are also being made to monitor the size of planned relocations. For example, one study identified 308 planned moves worldwide in 2021, with more than half in Asia (160). This included 29 cases in the Philippines and 17 in both Vietnam and Indonesia.

Importantly, however, half of all these ‘planned moves’ involved populations in rural areas, including indigenous communities, and half of them had already been displaced by acute weather events. The number of households involved in each planned move ranged from just four households to 1,000 households, with the majority being less than 250 households.

While Southeast Asia is known as a hot spot for acute extreme weather events, it is also vulnerable to the effects of more chronic environmental degradation. For example, the region’s large coastal lowlands – such as in Vietnam and Thailand and around the Mekong Delta – are already affected by sea level rise and its impact on settlements through coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion.

While projections of the magnitude of future climate mobility are uncertain, significant growth is indicated. We have already seen internal displacement increase from 3.9 million per year in 2008-2010 to 6.4 million per year in 2019-2021.

According to the World Bank’s Groundswell report, the number of internal climate migrants in the East Asia-Pacific region will reach 49 million by 2050, or 2% of the regional population. Southeast Asia’s lower Mekong sub-region is expected to see between 3.3 million and 6.3 million new climate migrants (1.4% to 2.7% of the country’s population) between now and 2050, depending on different scenarios.

The high-risk emigration hotspots are the coastal areas of Vietnam (threatened by sea level rise) and central Thailand and Myanmar (threatened by water scarcity and reduced agricultural productivity).

While most climate mobility takes place within a country, pressure on national borders will increase as climate change worsens. However, there seems to be little modeling of future scenarios related to cross-border migration due to climate change and environmental disruption.

Such pressure can be expected around land borers in the Greater Mekong sub-region affecting Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. But given the physical geography of the region, cross-border migration by sea could become a problem as the effects of climate change worsen.

It is clear that this poses both international security and humanitarian challenges. However, currently the 1951 Refugee Convention does not entitle people fleeing environmental disasters or climate-related threats to be recognized as refugees, even though the term “climate refugees” is increasingly used in popular and academic discourse.

The non-binding Global Compact for Migration, developed in line with SDG Goal 10.7 on migration policy and adopted by the majority of UN member states in December 2018, is a good start to strengthening international cooperation in addressing the challenges and human rights-related aspects of cross-border migrants against climate change.

The negative health consequences of forced custodial placement are significant, but will also depend on the form of migration (temporary or permanent, short or long distance, domestic or cross-border) and the social, economic and political conditions of their home and new environments.

In addition, there are different health needs and impacts for displaced and settled populations, as well as for host communities and those left behind. While certain risks and threats are reduced by exercise, many will face new health risks in their new environment, including a lack of economic opportunity, as well as the mental health risks associated with social and cultural loss.

Climate mobility is a current and urgent problem in Southeast Asia. Even if every effort is made to curb further global warming, millions of people in the region are likely to be forced to move from their current settlements in the coming decades.

Whether we are sufficiently prepared for this is at most an open question. What is clear is that the responsibility of governments towards both current and future climate migrants is great.

It is crucial that health systems ensure both the physical safety and health of vulnerable populations and the burden of mental illness resulting from forced migration.

Kwan Soo Chen is a postdoctoral researcher and David McCoy is a research leader at the United Nations University International Institute for Global Health (UNU-IIGH).

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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