I attended the Hugo Conference in Liège/Luik, Belgium from the 3rd – 5th Nov. 2016. The conference marked the creation of The Hugo Observatory for Environmental Migration at the University of Liège, named for the Australian migration scholar Graeme Hugo. Designed to feed into the UN Climate Change Conference (COP22) taking place in Marrakech a few days later, the conference focused on two areas that seem to be gaining attention in the global research and policy landscape: migration and climate change. Notwithstanding recent discussion on the interplay of these processes at high-profile events like the Habitat III conference in Quito, the merging of these two fields is relatively new. Thus, the majority of academics and policy-makers attending in Liège were expert in one or other of the fields – but not both; lending the conference a sense of forging new ground.
I was there to present on the project Reducing Resettlement and Relocation Risk in Urban Areas which I’ve worked on for the past year with DPU colleagues Cassidy Johnson, Colin Marx and Giovanna Astolfo, together with our international partners Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), and Makerere University. The focus of the research project is resettlement and relocation (R&R) policy and practice within and between cities, viewed from the lens of disaster risk reduction. We’ve looked at multiple drivers for R&R (e.g. decision-making, valuing processes, cost-benefit analyses etc.), from a variety of perspectives (individuals and households, neighbourhoods, governments) in urban centres in 5 countries across 3 continents. The project culminated in a workshop in Quito during the lead-up to Habitat III, which brought together 60 international academics, policymakers and representatives of NGOs with a special interest in R&R.
Our research thereby forms part of the picture of environmental migration, by considering for example the role of climate change in increasing disaster risks and the ways this can lead to ‘voluntary’ or ‘involuntary’ movement of populations, as well as a focus on the need for more practical measures and implementation innovations to address the on-going problems plaguing many government interventions. However, while covering a wide geographic spread, our research takes a local, urban perspective and thereby differs from much of the work in the field that operates on a more macro level by interrogating international mobility flows and barriers and potential planning and policy implications globally.
In my presentation in Liège, I spoke about some of the key aspects of R&R within a disaster risk reduction framework, such as urbanisation and the pressure this puts on local governments’ resources and planning capacities. In my view, one of the most important aspects of R&R is the specific politics of decision-making in each initiative; e.g. who decides when a settlement is ‘untenable’ or a risk ‘un-mitigable’? What agendas are these decision-makers fulfilling? What importance is given to the value systems and long-term development needs of the populations at risk? R&R approaches that focus solely on the immediate imperative of getting people ‘out of harm’s way’ and ignore longer-term outcomes are partly enabled by the often theoretical and future-looking nature of risk and of climate science. This interacts with the language and popular understandings of climate change. While many incidences of migration are spurred by disasters resulting from environmental instability experienced by populations, R&R initiatives cloaked in the rhetoric of climate change mitigation and adaptation can at times mask a range of other drivers, and may do more harm than good for vulnerable populations.
These issues have been considered in varying depth in a range of locations through our and others’ research, but there is still a lot of ground to cover. One of the recent outputs of our project was a series of four policy briefs: one for each region included in the project and one that built on the outcomes of our Quito workshop (available on our website, see link above). This is hopefully a small contribution to addressing the enormous global need for a shift to thinking about climate-induced R&R that takes into account longer-term development planning needs.
Charlotte Barrow is a research assistant at UCL working on projects relating to climate change and urban resilience. She has lived and studied in Canada, Sweden and the UK and is beginning a PhD on the use of local knowledge in climate change adaptation.