Labour migration in the context of climate change

February 16, 2023

Climate change has many implications across the world. It is a crisis that encompasses large-scale global impacts, such as temperature increase and sea level rise, but also context-specific changes on a regional, national, and local level. Human mobility—the temporary or permanent movement of people from one place to another, for example in the form of migration or disaster displacement—is an area where these changes can be hugely consequential for individuals, households, and communities. 

Across the world, streams of human mobility are increasingly shaped by climate change and affect migrants, their families staying behind, and host communities. Accordingly, human mobility comes in many different forms, for example within a country or across borders, long- or short-term, towards rural or towards urban areas. It can be seen as a form of climate-induced loss and damage, but it can also present a long-term adaptation strategy with both positive and negative outcomes.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which compiles the current consensus of climate science, highlights the “significant links between temperature or precipitation anomalies, or extreme weather events such as storms or floods, and internal as well as international migration.” In South Asia and Sri Lanka, research has found direct and indirect links between migration and climate impacts on food systems, water resources, natural ecosystems, and other key sectors. However, climate change is usually not the only reason for individuals or households to migrate. The decision-making process can be complex and is shaped by aspirations and perceived opportunities, but also by challenges, struggles, needs, and constraints.

Climate change and labour mobility

How and why people migrate depends on a complex web of sociocultural, economic, and environmental factors. As traditional livelihoods, such as those in farming or fisheries, are impacted by climate change, communities face increasing pressure to diversify their income sources and find new livelihoods. Labour migration is migration for the purpose of employment, taking place either within a country (internal migration) or across borders (international migration), the latter of which is most likely to happen between states that are contiguous and/or have labour migration agreements and longstanding cultural ties.

The motivation for international labour migration is usually related to unemployment, underemployment, indebtedness, inflation, low income, or lack of access to resources. Therefore, remittances are often seen as the main goal of foreign employment, although they are not the potential benefit. Labour migration can benefit migrants by offering them employment and a source of income, which is often higher than what they would have earned in their home areas. It can benefit origin communities by providing remittances and increasing exposure, cross-cultural exchange, transfer of knowledge and experiences, opportunities for skill development, and economic diversification, which can be particularly important in the case of highly climate- and weather-dependent communities with predominantly agricultural livelihoods. Finally, labour migration also adds value to host communities and countries by filling labour shortages and contributing to the local economy.

However, there are potential negative impacts with regard to labour migration as well as barriers and constraints, which can be further exacerbated by climate change. As the IPCC report points out, “adaptive climate-related migration is often closely related to wage-seeking labour migration. Because of the circumstances under which they move, climate-related migrants’ destination and labour market choices, and the returns from migration, may be more heavily constrained than are those of other labour migrants.” In addition to constrained options and decision-making, the migration itself can also have negative aspects and affect the health and wellbeing of both migrants and their families staying behind.

Understanding Sri Lanka’s labour migration in the context of climate change

For Sri Lanka and many other countries, international labour migration is an important contributor to the national economy and a source of employment for many people. A major migration corridor of skilled and unskilled workers leads from Sri Lanka to the Gulf Cooperation Council countries of the Middle East, with around 200,000 Sri Lankans departing for foreign employment in the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

There is a lack of representative studies and robust evidence to identify and understand the exact interconnections between climate change and labour migration. Interviews conducted with Sri Lankan migrant workers returning from the Middle East indicate that labour migration is another area experiencing climate-related impacts, and one that needs further research and data collection.

Preliminary data suggests that migrant workers often come from climate-affected districts and are often faced with direct or indirect climate impacts. Many interviewed migrants mentioned climate- or weather-related impacts to their livelihoods among the reasons they needed another income source. Such impacts include for example rainy days preventing work as daily laborers, in estates, or as small business owners; droughts and heavy rains destroying crop cultivation or leading to bad harvests; floods affecting shrimp farming; or high temperatures and soil salinity reducing agricultural yields. Besides these livelihood impacts, many interviewed migrants also stated that floods or landslides had destroyed or damaged their houses, forcing them to take on loans or earn a higher income to repair and rebuild.

The way forward

There are multiple ways in which labour migrants from climate-affected communities can be supported. Some of the key needs identified through research include building financial literacy, offering skill training and greenskilling, providing entrepreneurship support, strengthening social safety nets and social protection, and facilitating safe, secure, and orderly migration, both for outgoing migrants and for those returning to their home communities.

If labour migration happens by choice and in a supportive environment of good policies, regulations, and systems, it can increase the resilience of households and communities and help them adapt to the impacts of climate change. The IPCC report acknowledges this potential: “Safe and orderly labour migration is consequently a potentially beneficial component of wider cross-sectoral approaches to building adaptive capacity and supporting sustainable development in regions highly exposed to climate risks,” such as Sri Lanka and South Asia.

It is important to further explore the interconnections between climate change and labour migration, and how climate impacts influence decision-making towards foreign employment. This includes the role of existing livelihood vulnerabilities, age, gender, socioeconomic background, geographic origin, awareness, coping capacities, and risk management on the household and community level. Beyond that, it also highlights the need to exchange information and strengthen policy and planning links between climate action, migration governance, and other related sectors, such as health, social protection, risk management, labour, or trade. If climate change is becoming a significant underlying factor that influences or even drives labour migration, it is important to understand the exact nature of this influence and find ways to support climate migrants through evidence-based and inclusive processes on all levels.

This blog post was originally published as a guest column in The Sunday Morning on April 24th, 2022, and is available here.

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About the Author
Dennis Mombauer

Dennis has close to a decade of experience working in research, and management and administration in the private sector as well as two years in coordination in the development sector. His research focuses on ecosystem-based adaptation, sustainable development, climate migration, and other topics related to climate change. He has published articles about these topics in numerous places, for example Earth Island Journal, Mongabay, The Environmental Blog, Daily FT, and Colombo Telegraph. He holds degrees in Education, English Studies, and Philosophy from the University of Cologne, Germany, and has additional qualifications in GIS mapping, video editing, translation, and publishing. ‍