Many millions more people will be forced to flee their homes in a world experiencing climate breakdown. Some will move within national borders, many others will cross them. Ironically displaced people may face hostility from the very countries most responsible for the problem. But movements to welcome migrants and refugees and greet them with hospitality are growing – from the movement for Sanctuary Cities in the United States (US) to villages in southern Europe and an ‘Oasis’ set up by one woman in Cardiff, Wales that helps around 150 refugees and asylum seekers everyday. They represent a humane response when people are displaced by factors beyond their control- but also a recognition that accommodating cross border movements of people is vital in adapting to a warming world and inescapably part of making transitions happen.

The World Bank estimates that in three decades, by 2050, 143 million people across three global regions could be displaced within their countries by climate breakdown, while the UN’s International Organisation for Migration says 17.2 million were forced to flee by disasters, many climate related, in 2018 alone. Contrary to popular belief and how stories about migration are often reported, most human displacement happens within and between poorer countries in the world and outside of Europe and North America. And, typically, it is easier for money and goods to cross borders than it is for people.

The topic of migration rises repeatedly to the top of our news agenda and shapes nationalist politics. Sometimes it provokes humanitarian concern more often it becomes exploited to fuel divisive agendas. The movement of people across borders touches many global issues – from conflict and inequality to the climate emergency – and will be a dynamic of needed rapid transitions. No quick fix solutions exist to the problems that drive millions of people to leave their homelands, often at great personal cost. But there is much to learn from the migration issue. Lessons range from the remarkable courage and willingness to take risks of those making migrant journeys, to the tenacity with which migrants learn new languages and take on new cultures, the positive economic contribution they make on arrival and how their arrival in host communities often regenerates run down neighbourhoods. The way in which the some welcome them also illustrates how flexible, cooperative and creative people can be.

For every negative migration story, there are corresponding positive ones that never make the headlines. Organisations spring up to welcome migrants, offer them support and push back against anti-immigration agendas. It is easier for hostile media to portray migrants as needy and unwanted, but most migrants are comparatively well educated and many leave stable jobs behind them – they move purposefully for a better life, which is what makes them migrants and not refugees. Migrants can face discrimination, violence and exploitation, but they are mostly moving in response to an economic need, or away from upheavals over which they have no control. Another issue is that native populations in the global North are ageing and shrinking: Northern Europe badly needs younger migrants willing to do a range of tasks including manual work and to staff its hospitals. Places in Southern Europe are turning to migrants to bring vitality to increasingly empty villages.

In the global North, economic policies are fixated on – and good at accomplishing – the free movement of money and goods, but are poor at managing the free movement of people. In the UK, this has been one of the main drivers behind it’s fractured relationship with the European Union vote – a perception promulgated by some sections of the media and political groups that too many people from outside the UK have arrived to take jobs and services away from British citizens. This took root despite the fact that unemployment currently is at the lowest level for over four decades (although this figure hides increased insecurity within work) and there is a shortage of workers in manufacturing and in some service sectors. This pattern is not unique to the UK.

While migrant hysteria shapes Northern politics, however, the great majority of migration and refugee hosting takes place between poorer countries in the global South. It is particularly ironic when talking about moving toward a zero carbon future, that borders are getting harder in the nations that are more responsible not just for the climate emergency, but also for creating and maintaining global economic inequality and fuelling the conflicts that drive migration in the first place. The fault lines of migration has much to teach about living together on a finite planet, and about cooperation and common humanity.

Wider relevance

The current movement to welcome migrants emerged from a variety of directions simultaneously. Faith groups have long had a history of offering sanctuary to those in need and migrants often fit this description. Migrants can face restrictions on their ability to work (further affecting their perception in local areas), and a recent European study found that over 17% of migrants in the EU are unemployed, compared to an 8% unemployment rate for those living in the country where they were born. A sanctuary movement grew in the US from a desire to help those fleeing war in Central America, with a mix of religious and civic feeling underpinning what drove the volunteers who put themselves out to shelter strangers. By 1987, 440 cities in the United States had been declared “sanctuary cities,” where religious meeting places welcomed refugees and vowed to not let immigration authorities enter these “sacred spaces” to arrest anyone. Today it is estimated that over half of all Americans live in a jurisdiction that provides a form of ‘sanctuary’ support.

Credit: Protest in support of immigrants, St. Paul, Minnesota 2018 by Fibonacci Blue (CC BY 2.0). Around 500 people gathered in St. Paul to march in support of immigrants and protest President Trump’s immigration policies.

The network is needed more than ever, as President Trump issued an executive order in 2017 seeking to criminalise sanctuary jurisdictions and cut off their funds. Cities like Boston have, however, ignored the attempt and strengthened their sanctuary rules. In December 2019 the city of Los Angeles went further declaring itself a welcoming city for refugees. Inspired by the example of American cities, the sanctuary movement has spread to Europe being adopted by Glasgow in Scotland, for example, and Swansea in Wales. The Oasis centre in Cardiff, Wales, originally set up by a single person wanting to do something, now has 13 staff and helps around 150 refugees and asylum seekers everyday, from countries as far ranging as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Mali and Congo.

The City of Sanctuary movement in the UK describe themselves as “cities that take pride in the welcome they offer to people in need of safety”. It began in October 2005 in Sheffield and today supports a whole network of groups welcoming people seeking sanctuary. Other groups support migrants from a specific direction or point of empathy: Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants in the UK, draw on histories of solidarity with other struggling groups, such as striking miners in the 1980s. Students and some universities have started organisations offering practical, legal or social support: for example,  the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) detainee support, which has a vision of a world with no borders and supports people facing imprisonment and deportation. Docs Not Cops are medical staff fighting back against the UK’s 2017 introduction of passport checking and charging immigrants without status for healthcare.

A huge range of grassroots projects try to welcome and help often traumatised people adapt and survive in host countries. Examples include the UK’s Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants founded in the 1950s, the Natural Resilience Project, which promotes personal resilience for women with irregular immigrant status by cultivating connections to each other and the natural world and the European Network for Migrant Women, which welcomes women across the whole continent.

As the world warms, the movement of people in response to climate change will increase – particularly in the direction away from the equatorial countries. In 2015, migrants in Northern France became a political issue and a humanitarian problem as they gathered in the city of Calais to try and stowaway on lorries headed for the UK. People came from a range of North African (Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan Syria) and Middle Eastern/Central Asian countries (Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq) and the lines between refugee and migrant often blurred; their homelands were frequently dangerous or devastated places offering little hope for a safe or secure future.

Protest March, Trump not Welcome, Brussels North Station by Miguel Discart (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The way in which many citizens of the surrounding countries responded (and continue to respond today) was a demonstration of the humanity people can show instead of hostility to those in need. Spontaneous self-organising groups appeared using social media to collect money, goods and transport to get them to those in need. Many individuals drove their own vehicles to Calais and were profoundly affected by the plight of the migrants trapped in “The Jungle” – an unofficial area where people trying to reach the UK gathered to attempt the crossing. This was then repeated in Greece as migrants began to arrive on dangerous sea-crossings from Turkey and the authorities struggled to cope. Many wishing to help also risk their freedom: the team who piloted the rescue ship Luventa currently face trial for aiding illegal immigration for rescuing over 14,000 people out at sea.

Despite the perception created in Northern Europe by some media and political groups that the region is alone in facing large numbers of migrants, much poorer nations have been dealing with enormous populations of people arriving on their doorstep for decades: in 2016, the developing regions hosted 82.5 percent of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers. Turkey hosted the largest refugee population worldwide, with 3.1 million refugees and asylum seekers, followed by Jordan (2.9 million), the State of Palestine (2.2 million), Lebanon (1.6 million) and Pakistan (1.4 million). Although they receive some support from the UN, the pragmatic generosity of these countries is impressive although the camps remain grim and hopeless places for many and cannot constitute a long-term solution. Our ability to welcome and accommodate climate change migrants without conflict or tension will be a key part of future rapid transition and adaptation.

Context and background

The number of international migrants worldwide has continued to grow rapidly in recent years, reaching 258 million in 2017, with two thirds (67%) of all international migrants living in just twenty countries. The largest number of international migrants (50 million) resided in the United States of America. Saudi Arabia, Germany and the Russian Federation hosted the second, third and fourth largest numbers of migrants worldwide (around 12 million each), followed by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (nearly 9 million). Most of this population consists of people who have moved to take up work legally and intend to return home in the future. Only 10% of international migrants are classed as refugees or asylum seekers. This means that 90% of this vast number of people relocate and work, live and join communities in places other than their country of birth. This bodes well for the future and shows enormous flexibility and adaptability.

Credit: Operation Triton: Irish Naval Service personnel from the LÉ Eithne rescuing migrants, 15 June 2015 By Irish Defence Forces (CC BY 2.0)

International regulation is trying to recognise the vulnerabilities of migrants and mitigate in their defence and there are long-standing calls to recognise environmental or ‘climate’ refugees.The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with its commitment to leave no one behind, recognises that international migration is of major relevance for the development of countries of origin, transit and destination, and that it requires coherent and comprehensive responses. Governments have pledged to “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies” (SDG target 10.7). The 2030 Agenda also seeks to reduce remittance transfer fees, to promote labour standards for migrant workers, and to eliminate human trafficking.

However, statistics mask the nuances of individual stories, which can be very different. A 2017 global Gallup poll showed that Iceland and New Zealand are the most accepting countries for migrants, but these are both island states a long way from their neighbours and not faced with large populations wanting to cross their borders. Of the 10 countries scoring the lowest, nine were formerly part of the Soviet bloc, and most are located along the Balkan route once travelled by asylum seekers from Greece to Germany. The least accepting countries were Macedonia, Montenegro and Hungary. However, the same poll revealed that a majority of people (54%) said immigrants living in their country was a good thing, half said an immigrant being their neighbour is a good thing, and 44% said an immigrant marrying a close relative is a good thing.

Enabling factors

Migration has always happened, but it has speeded up thanks to improved communications and transport systems, both making relocation easier to organise and happen. People move mostly for economic reasons from a place where opportunity is low to one where the chances for an improved livelihood is higher. People also flee from war, civil unrest and personal trauma, and they will increasingly run from natural and unnatural disasters, increasingly caused by climate change: unbearable heat, drought, flooding and crop failures. People also move for education and to join family members who have gone before them. The likelihood that they will be well received depends on how well they can fit in to the places where they land, and whether they are perceived to be adding to or taking from the existing community. This last point is, of course, highly subjective and significantly a result of dominant perception of the issue which can be far removed from the reality.

The UN body that monitors migration is the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), born in 1951 to identify resettlement countries for the estimated 11 million people uprooted by the war. Its history tracks the man-made and natural disasters of the past half century – from Hungary in 1956, to Czechoslovakia in 1968, Chile 1973, the Vietnamese Boat People of 1975, Kuwait 1990, Kosovo and Timor 1999, and the Asian tsunami and Pakistan earthquake of 2004/2005. Its credo that humane and orderly migration benefits individual migrants and our wider society has steadily gained international acceptance.

In some parts of Southern Europe necessity is ushering-in a greater welcome for migrants. Whole swathes of rural villages have become depopulated as younger people head for the cities to work and don’t return. Women have fewer children as they gain education (which also helps prevent unwanted births) and opportunities for fulfilment elsewhere. These communities may be traditional and conservative, but they also realise that without immigrants they will die. For example, the province of Teruel is one of the emptiest reaches of Spain and has the highest rate of rural depopulation in the country. The number of immigrant residents has grown by more than 2,000% since 1998. Figures from the Institute of National Statistics show there are 13,979 people of foreign origin in the province now, while the Spanish population of the area has fallen from 136,229 to 123,009 over the past 19 years. Foreign workers began to arrive in the Spanish countryside in the 1990s as day labourers in the intensive agricultural industry on the Mediterranean coast. A decade later, they started to head further inland to underpopulated areas where their skills are badly needed. Life remains hard: the first EU-wide statistical analysis of migrants living in rural areas found that 34% of migrants coming from outside the EU and living in rural areas are at risk of poverty.

The Southern Italian town of Raice became the poster child for global integration when it began to welcome refugees in the late 1990s, offering migrants abandoned housing and job training. The town experienced a resurgence as the population thrived, people renewed traditional arts and crafts, and opened bed and breakfasts, workshops, and art exhibitions. Some of the original villagers, who had abandoned their houses to look for work in the North, returned home motivated by the promising economy and revitalized culture. Although almost half of the population were people from different countries with no knowledge of Italy’s language or culture, they worked out ways of living together. The mayor of the village, Domenico Lucano was listed by Fortune Magazine as one of 2017’s most influential people for the inspirational example he set. However, in 2019 the anti-immigration Minister for the Interior used his powers to cut funding, remove the migrants and sack the mayor. Such schemes are fragile but they illustrate the possibility of transition.

The real challenge is how to look after the huge numbers of lone young people struggling as migrants without family or community support. Between 2014 and 2018, around 60,000 minors arrived alone in Italy by sea, 90% of whom were between the ages of 15 and 17, according to a new report issued by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

But creative solutions are on offer to address the injustices and ironies of a global system that works against those who endure the consequences of inequality and environmental degradation, and allows money to cross borders more easily than people. One is the proposal to introduce a cross border tax on financial speculation (a so-called ‘Tobin Tax’) to help support migrants and refugees and to help meet the costs associated with relocation.

Scope and evidence

  • The number of international migrants worldwide has continued to grow rapidly in recent years, reaching 258 million in 2017, with two thirds (67%) of all international migrants living in just twenty countries.
  • The largest number of international migrants (50 million) resided in the United States of America. Saudi Arabia, Germany and the Russian Federation hosted the second, third and fourth largest numbers of migrants worldwide (around 12 million each), followed by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (nearly 9 million).
  • Between 2014 and 2018, around 60,000 minors arrived alone in Italy by sea, 90% of whom were between the ages of 15 and 17, according to a new report issued by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
  • By 1987, 440 cities in the United States had been declared “sanctuary cities,” where religious meeting places welcomed refugees and vowed to not let immigration authorities enter these “sacred spaces” to arrest anyone.
  • A recent European study found that 34% of migrants coming from outside the EU and living in rural areas are at risk of poverty. Over 17% are unemployed, compared to an 8% unemployment rate for those living in the country they were born in the EU.
  • The province of Teruel is one of the emptiest reaches of Spain and has the highest rate of rural depopulation in the country. The number of immigrant residents has grown by more than 2,000% since 1998.
  • The Southern Italian town of Raice became the poster child for global integration when it began to welcome refugees in the late 1990s, offering migrants abandoned housing and job training.
  • The UN body that monitors migration is the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), born in 1951 to identify resettlement countries for the estimated 11 million people uprooted by the war.
  • The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with its commitment to leave no one behind, recognises that international migration is of major relevance for the development of countries of origin, transit and destination, and that it requires coherent and comprehensive responses.
  • Governments have pledged to “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies” (SDG target 10.7).