Climate Migration Op-Ed

Cities Are at the Front Lines of Climate and Migration

This Op-ed first appeared on Al Jazeera’s website. MMC engages in content partnerships with several organizations, and cross-posting does not indicate an endorsement or agreement.

Earlier this month, the United States reached an agreement with its southern neighbours to step up security following an increase in the number of Central Americans attempting to migrate to the US. People are fleeing from multiple and often interlinked crises in their home countries, but a significant driver is the impact of climate breakdown; in addition to the devastation caused by last year’s record-breaking hurricane season, slower-onset climate challenges such as drought have contributed to a rise in food insecurity.

The climate crisis is rapidly becoming a key driver of migration; in 2019, 72 percent of new displacements were climate-related. Many of these journeys lead to cities. On the front lines of both migration and the climate crisis, city mayors are leading the way in responding, often moving faster than national governments to cut emissions, while providing humanitarian support to migrants even when they lack formal responsibility or budgets. But thus far nations have approached climate migration primarily as a security challenge and excluded mayors from planning and decision-making. Now, it is crucial that city leaders have a seat at the table where policy and investment decisions around climate migration are made.

Without urgent action on climate, many parts of the world will soon become uninhabitable. Sea level rise, crop failures and record temperatures will drive an unprecedented movement of people. According to a World Bank report, by 2050, climate impacts could force more than 140 million people to move within their countries in just three regions alone – sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Globally, it is estimated that up to a billion people could be driven from their homes within the next 30 years – less than half a lifetime. If so, human civilisation will not have experienced migration on such a scale in its history.

It is likely that those who leave their homes will settle in cities, which offer the most diverse opportunities for employment and access to services. This is especially true for the forcibly displaced, as more than 60 percent of refugees and at least 80 percent of internally displaced people (IDP) live in urban areas.

Moving to cities does not come without risks. Here, migrants and displaced people may settle in already marginalised neighbourhoods and be vulnerable to labour exploitation, dangerous working and living conditions or trafficking. Cities themselves are often acutely vulnerable to climate hazards, meaning that new arrivals may end up swapping one set of climate risks for another.

This leaves cities facing multiple pressures, as in-migration increases pressure on services and infrastructure, while climate impacts – from extreme heat and fires to flooding and landslides – may displace people within city boundaries. Despite this, mayors are taking action to protect their new and existing residents while preparing for an inclusive and green path forward that recognises the vital contributions newcomers make and the assets they bring.

In Freetown, where the population is expected to double over the next 10 years due in great part to climate migration from across Sierra Leone, Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr’s administration has been working with migrant youth to improve waste services in informal settlements. In the United States, Houston took in hundreds of thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 only to face its own major devastation when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017. In response, the city, under Mayor Sylvester Turner’s leadership, launched the Resilient Houston Strategy, which works to protect people in at-risk neighbourhoods and provide choices for residents who live in floodways. In Bangladesh, an estimated 2,000 people arrive in Dhaka daily, having migrated from other cities along a coastline that is increasingly affected by storms and rising sea levels. The Dhaka South City Corporation has developed a city-funded shelter for migrants designed to ease their transition to urban life.

Recent months have seen greater global recognition of the issue of climate migration. In February, US President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing officials to carry out a study of the impact of climate breakdown on migration, including “options for protection and resettlement” and opportunities to work with “localities to respond to migration resulting directly or indirectly from climate change”. In response, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and more than a dozen other US mayors issued a joint letter calling for the administration to include them in the development of this agenda.

In January, a French court ruled that a Bangladeshi man with asthma could not be deported due to high levels of air pollution in his country of origin, while the same month a year earlier the UN Human Rights Committee determined that countries cannot deport people who have sought asylum due to climate-related threats. At the UN Security Council’s recent meeting to discuss the climate crisis, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for deep partnerships to address its impact on migration patterns, food insecurity and increasing tensions.

However, while these are all positive steps, the policy frameworks that acknowledge climate and migration contain few accountability mechanisms. This means that those responding on the front lines – mayors – are left without the necessary legal, financial, or policy support they need to prepare, reduce risks, adapt and take care of their communities.

For many cities, the lack of access to finance and resources has been exacerbated by the pandemic. It has been predicted that local governments may lose 15-25 percent of their revenues this year alone. Local governments are doing much more with less and need both greater powers to raise their own revenues and greater support from national governments and the international community. Cities also need more access to local-level data to inform their planning and response efforts.

In a recent paper “Cities, Climate and Migration” C40 Cities and the Mayors Migration Council (MMC) have demonstrated the capacity of mayors to act on both climate and migration locally while outlining what cities need from national and international actors to do this work more effectively.

Cities are ready to meet the challenges and harness the opportunities at the climate and migration nexus. Yet mayors cannot change business-as-usual alone. We urge national governments and international bodies to join us in recognising the role of mayors in this space, giving them a seat at the decision-making table, and unlocking the financial support they need to realise smart and inclusive practices that improve the quality of life of migrants and displaced people, as well as the communities that receive them.


Subscribe to our newsletter to receive our latest news and updates.