The future of human migration

With widespread climate and environmental changes, we might expect more people on the move...
17 November 2020

Interview with 

Oli Brown, Chatham House


The surface of the ocean.


We’ve heard about the future Jakarta faces - and these problems apply to the rest of the world too. In fact, the World Bank has looked into the numbers of ‘climate migrants’ we might see in three of the poorest regions of the world, and said we might expect 140 million by 2050. Chris Smith asked migration expert Oli Brown what the future looks like...

Oli - That's a huge question. I mean, we're in the middle of a massive demographic change, with a shift towards urbanisation; already half the world live in urban areas, by 2050 that's going to be two thirds. The World Bank estimates that the number of people who might be displaced as a result of climate change could be 140 million by 2050; some people say 200 million. There's a whole series of changes happening in where people can live. Broadly, the people who are going to move are going to be poor people in vulnerable places: so people in coastal cities; people who are living in delta areas like the Nile Delta, the Mekong Delta; or small island states like Tuvalu or Kiribati that are only a metre or two over sea level already. But pretty much everywhere is affected. Large parts of Southern Florida, for example, could be underwater by 2050. And the US government is already starting to move some of the most exposed people out of harm's way.

Chris - I was just going to ask you that, because obviously the US is a very developed economy; the UK is a very developed economy, with the capacity to do forward planning; are all countries thinking the same way though, or are there some countries that are living a bit hand to mouth, and they don't have a future plan? And what's going to happen to them?

Oli - Well, absolutely. It really depends what you can put in place in terms of how you can plan around this. The Netherlands can put in place a very effective system of dykes and flood defences to stop the large parts of the country that are already under sea level... but other countries like Bangladesh, for example, can't do that. And actually, perhaps even counter-intuitively, some of the poorest and the most vulnerable people may not even be able to move, because they simply aren't able to get away. They're forced to make do where they are.

Chris - And is there a kind of a global plan in place, so that when a particular country is underwater, those people are going to get displaced, they have to go somewhere... or people just thinking, "well, we'll worry about that when it happens"?

Oli - There's plans at all sorts of different levels. The president of Kiribati, for example, bought land in Fiji in 2014 to potentially translocate the population to another country, effectively. Every country in the world is pretty much starting to think about how climate change affects them, affects their economy, affects their ability to manage. And then at a global level, 150-odd countries signed something called a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in 2018 that is trying to put in a global plan for how to deal with these issues. But it's voluntary, it doesn't have any teeth; it's a series of good ideas, but as you were saying, the devil is in the detail.


Add a comment