About the Author: Jared Banks is a Foreign Service Officer and a member of the International Migration Office in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
The U.S. government is trying to better understand the specific impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations. As part of that effort, I recently visited Senegal as a member of a Study Team on Climate Change and Migration sponsored by the German Marshall Fund, and co-coordinated by Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration and U.N. University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS).
The relationship between climate change, the environment, and migration is increasingly attracting the interest of governments, international organizations, activists, academics, and the general public, and has generated an active debate across the globe. There is consensus that climate change contributes to migration, whether through rapid-onset natural disasters or environmental changes over a longer period of time. However, it is often difficult to disaggregate the impact of climate change from other environmental factors and the response of those affected varies from country to country.
Migration obviously depends upon many factors, such as livelihood, food security, national policies, the strength of local culture and identity, political stability, degree of mobility in past livelihoods (e.g. herding vs. farming), access to health services and education, and legal mechanisms and/or illegal routes for migration. Current research indicates that environmentally induced migration most often leads to internal displacement. Migrants who are displaced by natural disasters or other environmental factors such as climate change and who cross an international border do not normally qualify as "refugees" under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. They are difficult to distinguish from economic migrants due to the fact that much of the reason for their flight was the collapse of livelihoods precipitated by environmental factors.
The visit to Senegal provided me an opportunity to discuss this issue with policymakers in the national and local governments, nongovernmental organizations, academics who are studying the phenomenon, and leaders of local communities that have been affected by displacements. The team was also able to examine first-hand the impact of environmental and climate changes at very local levels, including among fishing, herding and agricultural communities. For example, we met with the leaders of a fishing community in Camberene (near Dakar), which has experienced both an inflow and outflow of migrants.
The local imam opened the meeting with a prayer and told us the story of the founding of the community by a religious man -- a history that continues to influence the community's generally welcoming attitude toward incoming migrants, including those leaving farming communities in northern Senegal because of desertification. The community members lamented the loss of their beaches to coastal erosion, the rising sea water temperatures, and the slow decline of fishing as a sustainable livelihood. Some of the women said that it is good for young men to migrate abroad, but others lamented that migration isn't a long-term solution for the community and that the financial crisis has taught them that they cannot always count on remittances.
We also met with a community in Lebar Boye in northern Senegal where the land has become too salinated to farm because of the decreased amount of fresh water, accentuated by a dam that was built to prevent flooding. As a result, most of their children were now working in urban centers. Some farming continued in the Senegal River Valley despite the drought conditions because of a government-funded irrigation system. At one of the farms, we met two young men from Guinea Bissau who travel north to work during the dry season and then head back to Guinea Bissau during their community's farming season. Climate change and the consequences are not bound by national boundaries.
This trip was a timely reminder that the debate about climate change is not only about science or the recent meetings in Copenhagen -- it is also about the lives of real people. The challenge is to address the present and potential impact of climate change with the appropriate policies simultaneously at the global, regional, national and community levels.