Environmental Change and Migration: The Role of Urbanization in Conflict Processes

How does rural-to-urban migration generated by climate change affect urbanization? What are the economic and political settings that contribute to or impede the emergence of political violence and conflicts?

Project Summary

Environmental degradation and climate change are important push factors contributing both to internal and cross-border migration. As a result, migrants may lead to increased levels of competition over scarce resources in the receiving areas, potentially spurring violent conflict. This project proposes to examine the nexus of environmental change, migration, and conflict in more detail to address the theoretical and methodological gaps identified in the existing literature. The researchers will focus on internal and rural-to-urban migration and argue that environmental migration accelerates the process of urbanization with ambivalent consequences for the receiving areas.

On one hand, urbanization can foster economic development and improve economic efficiency of local governments and the provision of essential public goods and services. On the other hand, growing urbanization caused by large flows of in-migration can also pose substantial economic, social, and political challenges, generating conditions under which political violence and conflict are likely to emerge as locals compete with the newcomers.

They also argue that local political and economic conditions as well as governmental capacity are important in determining whether conflict actually materializes. To test this theory, the research carried out will compile original micro-level data for both environmental migrants to urban areas and residents in these urban locations as well as interviews of local stakeholders, e.g., politicians and city administrators. Five countries from three continents are selected according to their level of vulnerability to environmental change and to high levels of urbanization, thus satisfying the “most likely case” criterion.

In addition, the project will empirically investigate how aggregate migration flows to urban settings induced by adverse environmental conditions affect actual violence in these areas. This research will thus shed light on the highly complex nature of the migration-conflict nexus and provide an important foundation for the decisions to be taken by policymakers at national and international fora who have a responsibility to tackle these challenges.

Academic Output

Working Paper

Climate Change, Migration, and Urban Conflict

Despite the potential importance of migration for the link between climate change and conflict, we still have a limited understanding of the precise mechanisms underlying these relationships. In this paper, we examine whether and how climate-induced rural-to-urban migration contributes to political instability in urban areas. We argue that the mainly forceful and involuntary nature of relocation reduces migrants’ willingness to adjust to their new location. We thus expect that environmental migrants are more likely to perceive conflict and to express an intention to support violence in their new location relative to economic or social migrants. Using original survey data from Vietnam and Kenya, we find that environmental migration results in both heightened conflict perceptions and an increased potential for political violence. Furthermore, we find that while sudden-onset events, including storms or floods, lead to increased support of low-intensity political violence, such as riots and protests, gradual events like droughts or desertification are linked to more salient and intense attitudes and conflict behaviour. The involuntary movement of people due to climatic changes clearly presents major societal and governance challenges. Governments and international organizations need to adopt proactive rather than reactive policies in order to ensure planning and preparedness for climatic changes and to increase the resilience of rural communities vulnerable to the effects of climate change in order to prevent future urban conflicts.

Executive Summary

The debate on whether and how climate change impairs human security and ultimately forces people to leave their homes and migrate to places more conducive to their wellbeing has experienced a strong revival in the climate change context. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2018), and academics and policy-makers argue that climate change is likely to cause mass population dislocations (migration) due to extreme weather events, such as stronger and more frequent storms, and floods, as well as longer-term, gradual problems, such as droughts, desertification and rising sea levels. And indeed, between 2008 and 2018, about 265 million people worldwide were displaced internally as a response to disasters (IDMC 2018). Furthermore, while it is challenging to project the scale of future migration flows as complex interactions between economic, political, or environmental factors shape people’s movements, still experts agree that 143 millions of people, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, could be forced to move within their countries in the medium term due to climatic changes (Rigaud et al. 2018). Moreover, these people are expected to move from rural to urban areas, contributing to a long-term global trend of increasing urbanization especially in Asia and Africa (Rigaud et al. 2018; Henderson et al. 2014, 2017; Brückner 2012; Barrios et al. 2006).

Article

Urbanites attitudes towards environmental migrants

The displacement of people is one of the most important consequences of climate change. In light of an increasing number of environmental migrants, we assess the public’s predisposition to these. Existing studies show that there is a consistently higher social acceptance of migrants fleeing political persecution or war than of economic migrants. Here, we use original survey data from Vietnam and Kenya to study whether individuals also extend the notion of deservingness to environmental migrants. We focus on internal rural-to-urban migration, which constitutes the large bulk of climate-change-induced migration. Results from a choice-based conjoint experiment demonstrate that while some migration motives receive higher endorsement than others, residents in receiving areas do not distinguish between environmentally-induced population movements and economically motivated migration. The implications of this finding are broad and important for how practitioners address population movements due to climatic changes, and how scholars study people’s attitudes toward environmental migrants.

Research Team

Vally Koubi
Coordinator
University of Bern

Quynh Nguyen
Co-Coordinator
ETH Zürich

Tobias Böhmelt
Principal Member
University of Essex

Gabriele Spilker
Principal Member
Universität Salzburg

Mahir Aliyev
Associated Member
UNEP United Nations Environment Programme

Zorzeta Bakaki
Associated Member
University of Essex

Manuel Fischer
Associated Member
ETH Zürich

Lena Maria Schaffer
Associated Member
Universität Luzern

Dirk Tiede
Associated Member
Universität Salzburg

Henrik Urdal
Associated Member
Peace Research Institute (PRIO)

Leila Urekenova
Associated Member
UNEP United Nations Environment Programme

Status

completed

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