Reasons for migration: Are people really fleeing climate change? Current study dispels myth

29 degrees Celsius in April: Spring is good on the Thai holiday island of Phuket.

Reasons for migration: Are people really fleeing climate change? Current study dispels myth

29 degrees Celsius in April: Spring is good on the Thai holiday island of Phuket. Normally. But last year temperatures climbed well above the spring average; According to media reports, it felt like 54 degrees in April 2023. Thailand's government issued a heat warning and people should temporarily not leave their houses and apartments. Other regions of the country are not only struggling with high temperatures, but also with rising sea levels. Example Ban Khun Samut Chin. People there try to protect themselves with mangroves and dams.

Thailand ranks in the top ten on the list of countries most affected by climate change. Will people be able to protect themselves permanently from the consequences of global warming? Or have to leave the country sooner or later?

Aid organizations and governments in several countries have long been rumoring about so-called climate refugees. Germany wants to take them in. A climate passport should make this possible. But scientists are skeptical. The reasons why people leave their homeland couldn't be more different. Climate change is a factor – but perhaps a rare one of many. (Here you can read more about it.)

An international team of researchers now wanted to know more. Using Thailand as an example, the scientists examined the circumstances under which people leave the country and what role climate change plays in this. People from over 1,000 households in four rural regions of Thailand were surveyed. The researchers also spoke to more than 16,000 internal migrants in the Bangkok metropolitan region and 301 Thais in Singapore and Germany about their decision to leave their homeland.

Previous studies focused too much on "climate migrants" - that is, they assume that climate change alone is driving people from their homes, the authors write. Other, possibly more crucial factors would be neglected. This is now also proven by the study published in the journal “Pnas”.

A large proportion of Thais live from agriculture. In the study, 48 percent of households surveyed cited agricultural activities as their main source of income - which are affected by temperature extremes, droughts, irregular rainfall and floods. Nevertheless, first author Patrick Sakdapolrak is certain: "There is no monocausal connection between migration and climate change. Migration is determined by many factors, such as a person's financial status, gender or age," he explains to the Austrian broadcaster "ORF".

Those who emigrate within the country usually go to the industrialized region of Bangkok or follow the tourists to the south of the country. The study authors also point out that internal migrants are less likely to leave their homeland out of necessity, but rather go somewhere else voluntarily.

The most popular foreign destinations include Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Israel. Overall, more men (77 percent) than women (23 percent) emigrate. However, they are distributed differently across individual countries. According to the study, Singapore is the destination for migrant workers: men in particular go there to work in the construction or port sector to conclude temporary contracts.

Thai women, on the other hand, end up in Germany; They make up 87 percent of the 60,000 Thai nationals in the Federal Republic. Most of them are married to Germans, which is why scientists speak of marriage migration.

More than half of those surveyed said they were leaving their homeland for a secure livelihood. Increased costs for health, education or general expenses were cited before climate change.

“We were able to show, for example, that households and their members sometimes consciously accept challenging circumstances such as poorer working conditions in order to improve the situation in the long term,” says study author Sakdapolrak. Migrant workers accept precarious conditions abroad in order to transfer the income they earn to their families at home.

Climate change therefore plays a minor role. Because “migration – regardless of climate change – is already a widespread social phenomenon in our globalized world,” says Sakdapolrak.

However, the research team is of the opinion that flight and migration can be part of the adaptation strategy to climate change. "Our study confirms (...) that migration has the potential to support adaptation to climate-related and other general risks, but that migration outcomes in terms of livelihoods and adaptation are unequal," the study says.

However, when people leave their homeland, it also has positive consequences, for example on the use of resources in a certain region. There are many examples of this, such as "a returned migrant who introduced organic farming in her village of origin," the researchers write.

Sources: "Pnas", ORF, German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), Deutschlandfunk.