Extreme Vulnerability to Migrate due to Sea Level Rise

Southeast Asia is at risk to the impacts of climate change, particularly sea level rise (SLR), given that it is comprised of low-lying coastal and island nations, and is home to vulnerable populations. While estimates of future SLR vary, it is expected that any level of SLR would impact and displace large groups of coastal communities. Displacement and migration is most likely in places with growing populations and rapid urbanisation, as well as pre-existing social vulnerabilities and poverty. SLR is linked to migration through a few pathways, (i) permanent and irreversible inundation of low-elevation areas, creating uninhabitable conditions, (ii) SLR-related hazards, such as storm surges, coastal flooding and saltwater intrusion, that have knock-on effects on property and infrastructure, and (iii) threats to livelihoods, such as coastal tourism and fisheries.

There exists a significant research gap with regards to SLR-induced migration in Southeast Asia. Studies that cover the region are global and near-global in scope, which have limitations in terms of (i) divergent estimates of exposure, depending on the definition of ‘at-risk’ populations and (ii) consideration of exposure to SLR as the sole predictor of migration. In order to more reliably project future migration patterns, localised studies are needed to account for smaller-scale environmental changes and coastal geomorphology changes that interact with SLR, as well as to account for local economic, sociocultural and political contexts that are critical to decision-making. Given that the empirical links between SLR and migration are still tenuous, it is necessary to investigate the underlying drivers from both biophysical and social dimensions, to accurately determine migration that would be primarily borne out of SLR.

It is necessary to reliably predict SLR-induced migration as it has ramifications for the resilience of vulnerable communities and will have policy implications for governments. In order to build adaptive capacity, migration must be facilitated by supporting policies that account for the economic and adaptive roles of migration. Without political acceptance, sufficient planning and adequate funding, migration policies would not succeed, and if mismanaged, the process of migration may worsen the vulnerability of communities, such as through difficulties in securing housing and jobs. Furthermore, in the context of international migration, there has yet to emerge consensus on the definition of climate refugees as well as the rights and protection that should be accorded to such displaced persons. Therefore, empirical research into SLR-induced migration will help to shed light on the expected scale of displacement, and would inform corresponding policy responses.