Food and Agriculture, TerraViva United Nations

How Policymakers Can Help to Address the Food Insecurity-related Causes of Migration

Food security plays a role in managing migration.

Jun 6 2018 - Global migration figures are certainly striking. If current patterns continue, the number of international migrants in the world could surpass 400m by 2050, up from 244m currently, while an estimated 740m are internal migrants (within countries).

With heightened awareness of the manifold implications of unmanaged migration, human mobility has become an important global public policy issue. With this has come the need to understand the links between migration and other policy areas, such as those related to food security. Indeed, food security in the context of rural development and agriculture has been a central part of the broader analysis of the links between migration, environment and climate change.

Climate change, environmental degradation and food insecurity

The adverse effects of climate change can contribute to the movement of people, with estimates that this could bring about the migration of 143m people within their countries by 2050. Environmental factors, including climatic changes, have long had an impact on global migration flows. Several studies, including the assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, indicate that climate change will reshape current migration patterns as more people flee the cumulative impacts of climate change: water scarcity, extreme temperatures, extreme weather events and rising sea levels, among others.

Eva Mach, environmental sustainability programme officer, International Organisation for Migration (IOM); the author would like to thank Dina Ionesco, head, Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division, IOM, and Daria Mokhnacheva, programme officer, Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division, IOM, for their contributions.

These links between climate change and migration have been formally recognised with the inclusion of migration in the landmark Paris Agreement. The issue is also being discussed as part of the global negotiations leading to a global compact for migration.

Climate change will be primarily manifested through local changes in the water cycle, with uneven impacts across the globe. Livelihood-sustaining activities like fishing, farming and herding are all affected by decreased or fluctuating rainfall, especially in rural areas where agriculture and fishing are likely to be a key source of revenue. Rural populations can therefore be especially affected due to their vulnerability to natural hazards (like drought and desiccation of freshwater systems), their dependence on natural resources (like rain water or freshwater habitats), and limited capacity to cope with and manage risks (related to social and economic factors).

At the same time, the unsustainable use of resources and man-made degradation add to the problem: deforestation, over-fishing, overgrazing and industrial activities contribute to an alarming loss of biodiversity and deterioration of terrestrial and marine ecosystems that ensure essential food-security services. At the local level, such changes in the availability of natural resources can lead to food shortages and loss of livelihoods, potentially resulting in people migrating to other rural areas or cities in search of better opportunities.

Rapid urbanisation

Population movement from rural to urban areas contributes to the challenge, particularly in Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is the world’s fastest urbanising region, with 472m people currently living in urban areas, a figure set to double over the next 25 years. This phenomenon brings with it challenges, such as the loss of agricultural land due to urban sprawl, food shortages and the rising cost of household food supplies.

Countries undergoing rapid urbanisation often find it harder to produce food sustainably, as highlighted by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Food Sustainability Index (FSI), developed in partnership with the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition Foundation. Apart from Ethiopia (12th) and Turkey (16th), most of the top ten fastest-urbanising countries rank in the lower half of the FSI. By contrast, France, the top-performing country overall, ranks just 26th in terms of the pace of urbanisation.

How can the EU respond?

In addressing the challenges related to the migration-food security nexus, the EU can play a number of roles. Recognising that there is no silver bullet, policies must consider both the realities of migration and the need for environmentally sustainable solutions.

The EU is one of the world’s largest providers of humanitarian food assistance, having responded in the past two years to food crises in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen—all on the brink of famine—amongst others.

In addition to its humanitarian role in crisis situations, the EU also has a role to play in addressing food insecurity as a root cause of forced migration in countries of origin. The inability of farmers in developing countries to adapt to a changing climate and to continue to make a living and ensure food production through rain-fed agriculture may force them to migrate in search of alternative livelihoods. Providing agricultural education and training in sustainable and environmentally friendly farming methods and supporting infrastructure development are part of the solution.

A communication adopted by the European Commission in 2017, The Future of Food and Farming, includes a proposal to “seek a coherent action among its policies in line with its global dimension, notably on trade, migration and sustainable development”.

In addition, the European Commission recently launched the Task Force Rural Africa. Designed to promote sustainable farming in Africa through increased co-operation between the EU and African countries, the initiative reveals a growing recognition that, for Europe, food security is more than a global sustainable development goal. It also plays a role in managing migration in a safe and orderly manner by reducing forced migration.

Need for strategic investments

Although this approach is key to addressing migration pressures in some rural communities, it is important to note that overly simplistic interpretations of the relationship between food security and migration can be detrimental.

Investments in agriculture and fishing, for example, must be strategic. Not only should investment be focused on areas from which migrants originate, but it should also be directed more broadly towards countries where food insecurity is most acute, keeping in mind that the most vulnerable people cannot afford to migrate across borders. In addition, it is important to ensure that such investments are not detrimental to local livelihoods. In particular, measures to prevent land grabs for large-scale agriculture must be strengthened in order to protect smallholder farmers and to guarantee food sovereignty and access to land for local communities.

Development assistance and humanitarian aid are important; however, they cannot be the sole responses in the age of globalisation. Well-designed migration frameworks are direly needed.

Migration can be part of resilience building. For instance, rural-urban links created by migrants can foster the ability of rural households to survive and manage risks through cash and food remittances. The quest for quick solutions to manage migration flows should not hinder this process.

Further possible migration solutions include seasonal labour migration frameworks, which provide safe opportunities—respecting human and labour rights—for rural-urban and rural-rural migrants while benefiting both host and sending communities.

A new global compact

Beyond individual solutions, the new global compact for migration represents an exceptional opportunity for a more comprehensive approach to international migration governance that could also address migration challenges related to food insecurity, a changing environment and depletion of natural resources.

Finding truly sustainable solutions will not be easy and will require policy innovations across different domains. However, with increased cross-border co-operation and a closer focus on the complexities of migration and agricultural policies, the EU could play a critical role in ensuring the fulfilment of the human right to food while supporting sensible migration management policies.

Eva Mach works as an environmental sustainability programme officer in the Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). In this capacity, she contributes to IOM’s global work on migration, environment and climate change, in particular, on water- and energy-related topics. She is also responsible for IOM’s institutional environmental sustainability programme, which aims to connect environmentally sustainable development with migration governance and migration management.

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  • josh bateman

    A small town in the middle of Detroit called Hamtramck might be helpful.

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