Center for Interdisziplinary Research

ESF Research Conference
Environmental Degradation and Migration: From Vulnerabilities to Capabilities

Joint Conference of the European Science Foundation, Bielefeld University and the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF)

Date: December 5 - 9, 2010

Organizer: Thomas Faist (Bielefeld)

Expert bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have claimed that climate change induces and reinforces the deterioration of living conditions in many parts of the world. Moreover, they have also warned of a dramatic increase in the flows of so- called environmental refugees. More recently the plight of the Maldivians, some of whom are already emigrating to Sri Lanka due to the permanent threat of inundation, reached the main television news all over the world. What is often overlooked, however, is that the impact of climate change goes much beyond land-loss due to sea-level rise, and that it is not just climate change but environmental degradation in general that imperils the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people. Such degradation often results, for example, from overuse of natural resources, population pressure, and unsustainable development programmes. Current climate change — without much doubt itself predominantly anthropogenic — often aggravates such degradation and puts additional pressures on living conditions and the environment. As climate change increases vulnerability, experts and observers in the mass media have claimed that this vulnerability will be a major factor driving future migration flows, particularly in the global south. But as plausible as this argument may be, it neglects the fact that migration may not function simply as an expression of vulnerability but also of capability. Migration — in certain circumstances—serves to increase life - chances indirectly by insuring against risks such as crop failure or income loss more generally. Or it may open new possibilities for earning a living. This conference is meant to shed light on environmentally induced migration by integrating a capabilities perspective into current debates.
Refugees in the desert (Photo: Fabrizio Gatti)
The conference ›Environmental Change and Migration: From Vulnerabilities to Capabilities‹ was the first of a new conference series on ›Environmental Degradation, Conflict and Forced Migration‹. The European Science Foundation, the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) and Bielefeld University jointly sponsored the event. Thomas Faist from Bielefeld University’s Department of Sociology chaired the event and organized the programme jointly with Jeanette Schade.
It focused on how environmental change impacts the nexus between vulnerabilities on the one hand and capabilities on the other hand, and how this relationship affects mobility patterns. The conference served as a platform to facilitate intensive discussions on open questions and methodological challenges, and it was well-balanced in terms of geographic origin, gender, and academic status of the participants. The researchers invited represented a wide range of disciplines, such as sociology, ethnology, social anthropology, migration, conflict, cultural, gender and development studies, geography, political science, international law, and climate and environmental science. The conference drew an exceptional range of international scholars—seniors and juniors—and assembled participants from ten European states, including Russia, from seven Asian countries, including Central, South and South-East Asia, and from six African states as well as four nations from North and Central America, and Australia. It was a stated aim of the organizers to bring together their perspectives on climate change, vulnerability and migration, and to draw conclusions about the political implications of the knowledge scientists currently have available. Toward that goal, the conference was structured along three pillars.
The first pillar focused on methods for assessing and anticipating environmental and climate change as well as its impact on vulnerability of affected communities and groups, exemplified with selected case studies. Presentations included for example talks on (1) the application of the Geographic Information System (GIS) to assess the changing quality of soils and the qualification of an area for relocation measures in terms of environmental security; (2) an introduction to the functioning and the advantages of regional climate modelling for users in need for detailed regional climate change information, including up-to-date information on projections; and (3) qualitative and quantitative approaches to assess social vulnerability to environmental and climate change. Some contributions made an explicit link between the issues of migration and climate change by presenting a new approach to the migration-climate nexus and to the modelling of climate change related migration decisions.
Papers presented in the second pillar concentrated on empirical research on environmentally induced migration. One highlight was the discussion of efforts to overcome the dominant perspective of migration as an expression of vulnerability. It shifted the focus to aspects of capability and the enabling socio-political structures which play a role for mobility in times of environmental crisis. The empirical examples covered all continents as well as different modes of mobility and forced migration. Noteworthy, for example, were studies on (1) the interrelation between the environment, out- and in-migration and ostensibly stable population growth in remote areas of Canada; (2) decreasing mobility of pastoralists and their herds in Ethiopia; and (3) the role of governmental policies for rural-to-urban migration after the catastrophic fires in Russia.
The focus of the third pillar was clearly on the political dimensions and challenges of environmentally induced migration. It was particularly captivating with respect to (1) the likely challenges if climate change and imminent displacement are proceeding quasi simultaneously. The analyses presented included the search for policy frames that guarantee carefully planned and implemented resettlement measures (the case of the Carteret Islands, for example, showed the associated difficulties in detail), or as the advancement of existing law to allow for dealing humanely with persons already displaced. (2) The discussion of policies was complemented by reflections on the political and scientific discourses which currently frame the issue, and contributors expressed concern that the securitization of the debate may reinforce public policies driven by fear and resentment which are certainly not in the interest of those affected.

Individual contributions to the conference can soon be downloaded as working papers of the newly issued COMCAD Series on Environmental Degradation and Migration at For more information on the conference please visit


Godwin Anjeinu Abu (Makurdi Benue), Abebe Adisu (Addis Abeba), Tamer Afifi (Bonn), Christine Aghazarm (Genf), Saleh Ahmed (Rom), Idowu Mopelola Ajibade (London), Raiyan Al-Mansur (Khulna), Stefan Alscher (Chapingo), Anna Amelina (Bielefeld), Jones Lewis Arthur (Brong Ahafo), Shushanik Asmaryan (Yerevan), Nirmal Kumar (Kathmandu), Chandra Sekhar Bahinipati (Chennai), Glenn Banaguas (Manila), Soumyadeep Banerjee (Kathmandu), Adeyinka Oladayo Bankole (Lagos), Giovanni Bettini (Lund), Biruk Desta Birhanu (Addis Abeba), Richard Black (Brighton), Nikolai Bobylev (St. Petersburg), Volker Heinrich Boege (Brisbane), Megan Bradley (Ottawa), Salome Bronkhorst (Umhlanga Rocks), Olga Burukina (Moskau), Maria Zita Butardo-Toribio (Pasig City), Rosa Cordillera Castillo (Manila), Mikulas Cernota (Bratislava), Diotima Chattoraj (Bielefeld), Kooj Chuhan (Manchester), Jane Chun (Ho-Chi-Minh-Stadt), Gemedo Dalle Tussie (Addis Abeba), Narantuya Danzan (Ulaanbataar), Nicole De Moor (Gent), Kenel Delusca (Montreal), Anne Dölemeyer (Leipzig), Ines Dombrowsky (Bonn), Priyanka Dutta (Bangalore), Han B. Entzinger (Rotterdam), Ahmed Gamal Eldin (Oldenburg), François Gemenne (Paris), Ghada Hamdan (Edmonton), Mohammad Mahmodul Islam (Bremen), Daniela Jacob (Hamburg), Jill Jäger (Wien), Ronald Sebba Kalyango (Oldenburg), Cleophas Karooma (Oldenburg), Aslihan Kerç (Istanbul), Jacob Kinai (Honiara), Jackline Kirungi (Oldenburg), Peter Kivisto (Rock Island, IL), James Krung'u (Nairobi), Isa Dlama Kwabe (Abuja), Gudrun Lachenmann (Bielefeld), Monika Lanik (Euskirchen), Bishawijt Mallick (Karlsruhe), Manish Priyadarshi Manish (Delhi), Franz Mauelshagen (Essen), Robert Mcleman (Ottawa), David Mechin (Le Cheylard), Prince Chinedu Mmom (Port Harcourt), Vahagn Muradyan (Yerevan), Amon Ashaba Mwiine (Oldenburg), Veronica Nakijoba (Oldenburg), Victoria Namuggala (Oldenburg), Calum Thomas Monteath Nicholson (Oxford, UK), Ebenezer Yemi Ogunbadewa (Akungba-Akoko), Wendo Mlahagwa Olema (Oldenburg), Jennifer Tino Opio (Oldenburg), Neha Pahuja (Neu Delhi), Suraj Pandey (Bulawayo), Basant Pant (Kathmandu), Giovanni Pesce (Mailand), Alessandra Piccolotto (Brüssel), Alexandra Quintern (Bielefeld), Ahmed Rabia (Portici), Mira Ragunathan (Bielefeld), Theodor Rathgeber (Kassel), Angélica Elizabeth Reyna Bernal (Pachuca De Soto Hidalgo), Jeannette Schade (Bielefeld), Kerstin Schmidt-Verkerk (Sussex), Myrtle Seepersad (Göttingen), Shreya Sen (Bielefeld), Karl-Heinz Simon (Kassel), Nalin Singh Negi (Roorkee), Christopher Smith (Brighton), Jennifer Smith (Sooke), Joseph Ssenyonga (Oldenburg), Cecilia Tacoli (London), Tanvir Uddin (Kensington), Yakob Mohammed Umer (Arba Minch), Chloe Vlassopoulos (Amiens), Oliver Witt (Euskirchen), Sam Wong (Liverpool)

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