A rebuttal of the deterministic perspective on environmental migration from small island states

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Reports on the impacts of climate change, including those of the IPCC, usually describe small island states as ‘especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, sea-level rise, and extreme events’ (Mimura et al. 2007: 689). Over time, the threats posed by sea-level rise to the very existence of these states have been highlighted, and their inhabitants have often been described as the first potential ‘climate refugees’. Most media reports now describe small island states as ‘lost paradises’ and their citizens as ‘canaries in the coalmine’ of global warming, a view that has often been reinforced by official discourses in climate negotiations.

Though the reality of environmentally-induced population displacements in small island states cannot be ignored, describing islanders as climate refugees in the making, left with no other choice than fleeing abroad, fail to capture the complexity of environmental changes and migration flows. Migration, by nature, is a multi-causal process, which does not have to epitomize the failure of local adaptation strategies. As an example of this, empirical works have shown that migrants leaving the low-lying archipelago of Tuvalu to New Zealand did so for a variety of reasons, and not only in prevision of future impacts of climate changes (Mortreux and Barnett 2008; Shen and Gemenne 2010). Such reasons include the perspective of earning better wages, pursuing higher education or simply reuniting with family members.

Furthermore, portraying island citizens as disempowered victims of climate change might affect their resilience and resourcefulness, ultimately hindering their adaptation efforts. Adaptation strategies in low-lying islands are limited and can be costly, such as the building of dikes and sea-walls, or even of artificial islands, as the government of Maldives has done so. Other adaptation measures, however, are much cheaper and can be implemented on the local level. Usually labeled as ‘community-based adaptation’, they include transformations of the farming techniques, diversification of the crops, or small insurance schemes to cover for disaster losses. Such adaptation strategies could be hindered if the inhabitants of small island states see themselves as doomed.

Hence migration should not be conceptualized in a deterministic perspective, but rather as a process that can be activated by the migrants themselves, amongst other options. In the event when migration would be the sole remaining option, it should be carefully planned and organized, with the interests of the migrants as paramount, both on the individual and collective levels. In particular, their political rights, citizenship and collective identity should be preserved. In coalmines, canaries were used to alert about imminent danger, but were hardly rescued from the danger. Though many resort to this image in order to alert about the imminent threats of climate change, it might actually do more harm than good to the citizens of small island states, as adaptation measures are urgently required. In the coalmine, these citizens are not the canaries, but the miners themselves.


– Mimura, N., L. Nurse, R. F. McLean, J. Agard, L. Briguglio, P. Lefale, R. Payet, and G. Sem. 2007. “Small islands” In M. L. Parry, O. F. Canziani, J. P. Palutikof, P. J. van der Linden and C. E. Hanson (Ed.), Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

– Mortreux, C., and J. Barnett. 2008. “Climate change, migration and adaptation in Funafuti, Tuvalu” Global Environmental Change 19 (1):105-112.

– Shen, S., and F. Gemenne. 2010. “Contrasted Views on Environmental Change and Migration: the Case of Tuvaluan Migration to New Zealand” International Migration (forthcoming).

Réfutation de l’approche déterministe des migrations environnementales depuis les petits États insulaires

par François Gemenne

Source : Courtesy of the author

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