Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Kayly Ober & Gunnar Stange

Kayly Ober & Gunnar Stange

Kayly Ober is a research associate/PhD candidate at the University of Bonn, where she works for the TransRe Project. She has over five years of professional experience on issues relating to climate change, adaptation, migration, gender, and human security. She has previously worked at the World Bank, Overseas Development Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center, and World Resources Institute, among others. Gunnar Stange is assistant professor at the Department of Geography and Regional Research at the University of Vienna where he is member of the research group “Population, Environment, and Development” led by Patrick Sakdapolrak. His research interests lie in the fields of peace and conflict studies, development studies, and forced migration. He received his Master’s degree in Languages, Economics, and Southeast Asian Studies from the University of Passau, Germany, and his PhD from the Department of Anthropology at Goethe-University in Frankfurt/Main, Germany.

Jan 11th 2017 by Kayly Ober & Gunnar Stange

Of Timeliness, Interdisciplinarity, and Policy Relevance – Some Notes on The Hugo Conference on Environment, Migration, Politics

The Hugo Conference (#Hugo2016) was held on 3-5 November, 2016 in honor of the late professor Graeme Hugo, a world leading expert on demography and migration and one of the founding fathers of the relatively young research field of “environment and migration.” The conference also marked the official launch of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège. Led by François Gemenne, host of the conference and internationally renowned specialist of environmental geopolitics, the Hugo Observatory is the first scientific research structure in the world solely dedicated to environmental migration – a pioneering step in further institutionalizing the field.

Interdisciplinarity: “Over-complex” and “Under-theoretical”

The Hugo Conference attracted a diverse crowd of participants, including human geographers, political scientists, climatologists, anthropologists, legal scholars, sociologists, policy makers and, last but not least, practitioners and activists from the fields of environment and migration. Although this enumeration is most likely far from being exhaustive, it shows just how heuristically challenging interactions in the field are.

These distinct fields and experiences made for complex and, at times, disparate viewpoints on theory and research. Indeed, the only panel dealing with “theoretical perspectives,” while provocative, did not have a cohesive framing. For example, Etienne Piguet and Raoul Kaenzig of the University of Neuchâtel gave an overview of their CliMig database on research on environment and migration, which has served to illustrate interesting insights in the field. Of particular note are the compiled maps which show where funding from such projects come from (the Global North) and where research is being done (the Global South, particularly Bangladesh, Mexico, and West Africa, among others); as well as what disciplines dominate the research landscape. These examples help to show the skewed nature of existing research and propel us to question the ultimate aims and framing of such research. Piguet ended with a provocative call to be introspective about the traditional framing of “climate refugees” being the poorest of the poor and most vulnerable people in the Global South.

Meanwhile, Patrick Sakdapolrak showcased TransRe’s innovative research framing and progress, taking care to discuss the context and literature strands that gave it shape and scope. At the same time, Ingrid Boas of the Wageningen University introduced her upcoming project dealing with climate change, migration, and information and communication technologies (ICTs). She argued that ICTs – such as mobile phones and smart phones – play a crucial role in decisions and practices of migrants, and we must understand the ways in which ICT-enabled information exchange shapes practices and flows of environmentally-related migration.

It appears that while one project takes stock of the current state of research, another makes a nod towards its provenance, while another explores new frontiers.

[D]istinct fields and experiences made for complex and, at times, disparate viewpoints on theory and research."

These contrasting presentations are not problematic, but rather should serve to exhibit the divergent imaginations and expectations of the emerging (and continuing) field of “environment and migration.” In our opinion, there is room to zoom back even further – with the need to sort through established theories in the field and even the heuristical challenges of inter- and trans-disciplinary research that it consists of.

Policy Relevance and Independent Research

The Hugo Conference was not all about research, but also about bringing in the policy angle. An impressive range of environment and migration practitioners from the most important international organizations working on environment and migration, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) participated in a policy session. Each gave particular voice to their position in the field and existing work. While informative, there was less room for critical reflection. While the “Critical perspectives on climate migration in the policy arena” session may have touched on some of these points, including Sarah Nash of the University of Hamburg that highlighted tensions between/amongst actors on defining environment and migration issues; and Calum T.M. Nicholson’s argument that policymakers and practitioners fall into recurring traps; the two worlds did not meet or sort out their inevitable tensions.

While the research field of “environment and migration” will continue to establish itself, not only through academia but also on an equal footing in dialogue with policymakers, time is running out, especially against the backdrop of recent electoral outcomes in the Northern Hemisphere. Perhaps with this in mind, the Hugo Conference served as a spring board for the inaugural meeting of the Association for the Study of Environmental Migration. It remains to be seen how this will evolve in parallel with changing geopolitics.


For some highly artistic, and less alarmist conference impressions, visit the Facebook account of “Morning Frost”.