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Migration: A defining moment
NewsNotes, July-August 2009

The following article was written by Anthony Cortese, an intern with the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

Recent trends in human migration reveal an important reality: the movement of people has reached a defining moment. All across the globe, traditional “push” and “pull” factors continue to displace millions of humans, most visibly in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Chad, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Mexico, Guatemala, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. In these places, conflict, environmental degradation, mining, “free” trade agreements, globalization and even drone attacks are just some of the latest causes of the 350 million human displacements in the world.

As if the above problems were not enough, another development in migration is unfolding: mass numbers of humans are now migrating because of climate change. Of the 350 million displaced throughout the world, 26 million are considered “climate displaced people,” a term coined by the recently published Human impact report: Climate change - The anatomy of a silent crisis. Published on May 29 by the Global Humanitarian Forum and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, this report is receiving considerable attention and debate in international spheres. Utilizing the most respected scientific data and making a “significant and conscious effort to neither over-state nor under-state the human impact of climate change,” the report will likely become one of the principal documents during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen later this year.

According to the report, climate displacement most seriously affects island states, several African nations, Southeast Asia and the delta areas and coastal zones of several countries. Rising sea levels, abnormal ocean temperatures, an increase in tropical storms and more frequent and intense droughts are just some of the causes of climate displacement.

In Bangladesh, the frequency of major weather-related disasters has increased dramatically over the past decade. Since 2000, the country has been overwhelmed by more than 70 major disasters, leading to a massive migration from rural to urban areas. In Uganda, a strange increase in drought frequency and intensity has led to a 30 percent decrease in agricultural output in some areas. This, in turn, has resulted in substantial internal and external displacement of farmers. In Ghana, a survey of 203 internal migrants found that the vast majority mentioned environmental reasons for leaving their homes. And in small islands such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives, rising sea levels are already sending people away from their homes. The people of Tuvalu, for example, have grudgingly accepted the idea of relocation and have started moving to New Zealand, under the terms of a negotiated migration scheme. As the report notes, “Where adaptation isn’t feasible, migration is the main alternative.”

Cases such as these, however, are just the beginning: According to the report, if displacements continue at the current rate, the number of climate displaced people will triple by the year 2030. This presents humanity with a daunting task: We will have to respond to not only the more traditional sources of migration – which are crises of their own – but also to nearly 100 million climate displaced people.

There is an irony in this new wave of migration: Before the development of agriculture some 8,000-10,000 years ago, movements of people reflected “migrations” of other animals. Like other animals – mammals and birds -- humans would undertake seasonal journeys in response to changes in habitat, food availability and weather. Further, humans would work in “flocks” or “herds” to ensure the safe migration of their fellow species.

Paradoxically, this new wave of climate displacement is taking the human race back in time. Like our ancestors, many humans have no permanent home; they find themselves entirely at the mercy of the climate, just as the climate is at the mercy of wasteful consumers. Like our ancestors, many humans are undertaking seasonal journeys – this time because the seasons are more extreme. Like our ancestors, for some, growing one’s own food is not an option; scavenging is the only choice. And like our ancestors, we must once again work in “flocks” to ensure the safe migration of our fellow humans. However, unlike our ancestors, we are now the cause of our own displacement.

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