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Forced to Move: How to reduce climate migration to the UK

Reducing the impact of climate change on migration
Alex Luke, Ted Christie-Miller, Jack Richardson, Phoebe Bunt
March 23, 2023
Forced to Move: How to reduce climate migration to the UK

Climate change is here. There's no ignoring it. Greater environmental pressures could force people to move, which would have knock-on consequences like conflict and instability. Onward's timely report provides strong analysis on which countries are most vulnerable, and practical policy ideas to help them become more resilient.

Mass climate migration could result from a perfect storm of environmental breakdown, conflict, and demographic growth in the decades to come.

This may significantly increase the number of people wanting to come to the UK. Estimates of future levels of displacement are uncertain, but people are already being forced to move by environmental disasters and longer-term environmental distress.

As the Government seeks to secure the UK’s borders, it must also be proactive in helping vulnerable countries to adapt to climate change and designing safe and legal routes to the UK for those in genuine need.

When introducing the Illegal Migration Bill, Suella Braverman told the House of Commons: “in the coming years, developed countries will face unprecedented pressures from ever greater numbers of people leaving the developing world for places like the UK. Unless we act today, the problem will be worse tomorrow. And the problem is already unsustainable.”

Environmental pressures are a key push factor which drive migration. Due to the damaging consequences of climate change on our planet, many of these environmental pressures will increase in severity in future. The world is on track to warm by 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100, bringing with it devastating impacts including higher sea levels, longer droughts, more extreme floods and storms and an increase in wildfires. The result of this will be destruction to property and scarcer resources, particularly in the developing world.

Estimates are subject to great uncertainty, but some studies suggest that hundreds of millions of people could be forced to move from their homes over the course of this century. They will either be displaced directly through more frequent and extreme weather events and natural disasters, or indirectly through increased land and resource scarcity and resulting instability and conflicts. While most of the movement will likely be within countries or regions, many could seek entry to the UK, including by illegal means.

Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are the most vulnerable regions to climate change, as shown in the figure below. It is these regions in which people are most likely to be displaced.

Forced to move climate migration map of countries most vulnerable to climate change
Relative vulnerability to climate change, by country. Source: European Commission INFORM Climate Change Risk Index

Some countries in these regions are also likely to undergo significant population growth over the next few decades. In addition, many of these climate-vulnerable places are also fragile or experiencing conflict. These two factors will further amplify the number of people who are forced to move by acting in combination with climate change itself.

The UK has a number of pull factors, which could mean people will want to move here. These include our strong economy, comparatively high wages and powerful cultural ties with many climate-vulnerable countries in Africa and South Asia. In addition, there are already large numbers of people from climate-vulnerable countries living in the UK, who retain strong familial and social networks with their home countries. Around a third (32%) of foreign-born people living in the UK have come from countries in the top quartile of climate vulnerability, totalling 3.06 million people.

How should the UK approach climate migration?

In this report, we set out how the Government should approach the issue of climate change and migration. Most climate-related movement will be abroad, but it could still have implications for our own border security. As increasing numbers of people are displaced, the number of people who attempt to come to the UK through illegal channels – including by small boat crossings – may also increase. The UK cannot solve this problem alone, but neither can we ignore it.

Global decarbonisation is theoretically the best way to limit climate change and its consequences, including for migration. In practice, however, some climate change is already locked in and global decarbonisation cannot be achieved through UK national policy alone. The Government must therefore develop a response to protect the integrity of the UK border while also building resilience abroad in countries that are most vulnerable to climate change.

Three principles for approaching the issue of climate migration:

How the Government can build climate resilience abroad and help people to stay where they are:

  1. The British public have demonstrated time and again that they are willing to help those in the most danger. But they also expect and deserve a robust immigration system and a properly enforced border that controls who comes into the country.
  2. Climate change is here and its impacts are already being felt. Sudden natural disasters and slow onset climate change will likely place greater pressure on the developing world as populated areas become less habitable. It is therefore wise to invest in building resilience abroad and help people to stay where they are.
  3. Enforcement and deterrence is the right policy for our border, but relying on that alone could prove more expensive for the British taxpayer, and misses diplomatic opportunities in a more geopolitically competitive world.
  1. Work with international development organisations to increase climate adaptation-related infrastructure in vulnerable countries.
  2. Focus UK International Climate Finance (ICF) on adaptation and prioritise five key areas:  food security; water security; preparation for environmental disasters; investment in green skills; and ‘managed retreat’ resettlement schemes
  3. Establish two new legal and controllable routes to the UK:
    • An Environmental Resilience Visa Scheme for skilled workers with mutually recognised qualifications in sectors undergoing sustainability transitions.
    • A Natural Disaster Visa Scheme to help people rebuild following climate change-related extreme weather events and avoid humanitarian disasters caused by climate change. This is based on successful visa schemes from the USA, Australia, and New Zealand.

Three principles for approaching the issue of climate migration:

  1. The British public have demonstrated time and again that they are willing to help those in the most danger. But they also expect and deserve a robust immigration system and a properly enforced border that controls who comes into the country.
  2. Climate change is here and its impacts are already being felt. Sudden natural disasters and slow onset climate change will likely place greater pressure on the developing world as populated areas become less habitable. It is therefore wise to invest in building resilience abroad and help people to stay where they are.
  3. Enforcement and deterrence is the right policy for our border, but relying on that alone could prove more expensive for the British taxpayer, and misses diplomatic opportunities in a more geopolitically competitive world.

How the Government can build climate resilience abroad and help people to stay where they are:

  1. Work with international development organisations to increase climate adaptation-related infrastructure in vulnerable countries.
  2. Focus UK International Climate Finance (ICF) on adaptation and prioritise five key areas:  food security; water security; preparation for environmental disasters; investment in green skills; and ‘managed retreat’ resettlement schemes
  3. Establish two new legal and controllable routes to the UK:
    • An Environmental Resilience Visa Scheme for skilled workers with mutually recognised qualifications in sectors undergoing sustainability transitions.
    • A Natural Disaster Visa Scheme to help people rebuild following climate change-related extreme weather events and avoid humanitarian disasters caused by climate change. This is based on successful visa schemes from the USA, Australia, and New Zealand.

As our report and recommendations sets out, there is a clear case for the UK to help vulnerable countries adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Firstly, the UK should help to catalyse private investment in adaptation in vulnerable regions. Large amounts of private capital will need to be mobilised for climate adaptation in these places, but many are experiencing a “climate investment trap”, due to the high cost of capital. The UK could help to overcome this barrier by pooling concessional governmental capital with our partners to create grants that take the first loss for adaptation-related infrastructure in these places.

Public opinion on climate migration

To understand the extent to which the public recognise climate migration as a potential issue for the UK, and their views on how the UK should respond, Onward commissioned Stack Data Strategy to conduct a poll on 18th November 2022. The sample size was 1,513 people and results were weighted to be nationally representative.

Almost half of UK voters want to see investment in climate resilience abroad to reduce pressure on the border at home.

Our polling found that by a ratio of two to one more people agree than disagree that “climate change will lead to more refugees wanting to come and live in the UK”. As with the Channel crossings, 46% of voters agree the Government should take preventative action alongside a firm approach to enforcement, compared to 28% who did not.

The general public are largely positive about the UK funding climate adaptation abroad. When asked to rank five potential priorities, climate adaptation was ranked as the second biggest priority behind only health. Nearly a quarter of people (23%) selected it as the most important priority for the UK’s aid spend, ahead of spending on improving education systems (15%) and helping countries to develop strong institutions (13%).

A key finding from our polling is that voters agree – by a slim majority of 42% to 36% – that spending on overseas climate adaptation would reduce the UK’s obligation to host people displaced by climate change. It is 2019 Conservative voters who take this view most strongly.

Alex Luke, Senior Researcher and co-author of the report, said:

“The impact on migration from climate change is very uncertain, but we are already seeing increased environmental pressure forcing people to move. As well as protecting the integrity of our border, the Government needs a ‘forward presence’ abroad, helping vulnerable countries and communities build their resilience to climate change.

“This report offers practical solutions. The two controllable visa schemes would demonstrate firm global leadership, boost resilience abroad, and even help us to meet our own energy security and net zero targets. It is entirely in keeping with the recent Illegal Migration Bill and the refreshed Integrated Review.”

Ted Christie-Miller, Policy Fellow at Onward and co-author of the report, said:

“We cannot allow climate-related migration to become the defining crisis of the 21st Century. The Government needs to act now to build climate resilience in the most vulnerable regions on the planet and open up safe and legal visa routes for those fleeing environmental disasters.”

 


 

This report is produced as part of our Getting to Zero research programme.

Getting to Zero

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