The UK media seems to have been puzzled by the message which the scientists on this Foresight expert group offered up to them. For years discussion about climate change and migration has been structured around the most alarmist messages. The 1990 findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had predicted that human migration would be one of the most dramatic effects of global warming, with 200 million ‘climate change refugees’ being on the move by 2050.
Subsequent studies, such as those by the International Organisation for Migration, urged more caution. In the period since the IPCC report the scientific view has been that the multiple levels of mediation between human beings and their environments, which include social, cultural and political responses to environmental pressures, are likely to give much more nuanced shape to the realities of the movement of people. The view tended to be that we should not be thinking so much in terms of a deluge of desperate people escaping disasters, but more of migration as a means to build resilience into longer-term strategies for managing the effects of climate change.
But there has to be concern that these more balanced views have not penetrated the public imagination on the issues we can expect to have to confront over the next few decades and images of a dark tide of suffering humanity overwhelmingly what remains of temperate northern climes remain vivid. A particularly controversial example of this was seen in the ‘London Futures’ exhibition of fancifully constructed photographs which so exasperated refugee and migrant rights supporters back in 2010. From the standpoint of these groups, a vision of Buckingham Palace as an African refugee camp was not so much a call to action as a collapse into hopeless despair.
The Foresight Report signals its concern that the real challenges of the future are less about overwhelming people movement and more to do with a reversal of the progress made in recent years in supporting sustainable development in the environmentally fragile zones which are home to a large part of the human population. The issue danger here is not one of the ‘wretched of the Earth’ being on the move, but that a growing proportion of them will be trapped even more than they are at present in conditions of life that provide only the barest minimum conditions for survival.
The extensive data which the Foresight team has reviewed suggests that they real patterns of movement in response to environmental pressures are between equally fragile areas, with rural populations moving from arid zones to floodplains, and from both of these to cities situation in coastal areas which are threatened by rising sea levels.
The focus of policy therefore has to be in building the sustainability of the regions which are most likely to be receiving migrants whose movements are influenced by the need to adapt to environmental change. Issues of the human rights of these migrants are critical to this process, with increased empowerment to direct and shape their own responses being the key to the building of greater resilience into adaptation and mitigation responses.
Discussions about how the rights of migrant populations can be strengthened have been the stuff of international conferences and advocacy by the various UN agencies At the time of writing the Global Forum on Migration and Development is preparing for its 2011 in Switzerland with the expectation that the strengthening of the rights of migrants will form a major part of its agenda as it has for the last five years.
The real issue for the Foresight report however is how its key messages are taken up by the UK government to which it is addressed. We have to be concerned that the policy responses it is indicating as the way forward will not be heard sympathetically by an administration which has made clear its view that migrants already have too many rights.
There is scope for aspects of the report to be taken up by the Department for International Development with a perspective which urges governments in the developing countries were environmental migrants will be moving to give greater acknowledgement of human rights. But this will be a poor outcome if the UK does not lead by example by building the same dimension into its own policies for managing migration. This will require a radical shift in the nonsense recently generated by Home Office ministers in their efforts to suggest that ownership of cats prevents the removal of people in breach of regulations. Perhaps we ought to regard an agreement to drop such demeaning and false rhetoric as the benchmark for achieving the progress that we need in this area of policy.
The value of the Foresight report is that it does situate the management of migration at the global level, with the objectives which need to achieve being the building of sustainability, resilience and empowerment into the fabric of the system across the planet. We ought to be finding a way to invite coalition ministers to consider the relevance or otherwise of its own benchmark of driving down net migration to the attainment of these other, far more important outcomes.
The conditions which will prevail in the mid-century years 40 years from now will be crucial in deciding whether the fate of our modern societies is to go forward or slip backwards in the line of progress. These conditions are being shaped by the policies being pursued by governments at in the here and now. The Foresight report has indicated the principles which will need to be followed in the realm of migration policy of this is to be a better and more hopeful future. We have to hope someone important in this government is prepared to listen to this important message