For Climate Migration, Tech Should Support Human Security Not Border Security

Blog Post
Feb. 8, 2023

In 2022, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced a grim milestone: for the first time on record, the global population of forcibly displaced persons topped 100 million. Despite wars in Ukraine, Myanmar, Ethiopia, and elsewhere, it was not armed conflict but rather the impacts of climate change that have caused more people to flee their homes. Flooding in Pakistan, drought in the Horn of Africa, intense tropical storms in Bangladesh and the Philippines – these events were just a few of many that forced displacement.

As the planet continues to overheat and this trend worsens -- with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting up to 143 million people will be displaced by climate catastrophes alone over the next three decades -- nations will have to grapple with the complex practical and political challenge of accommodating climate migrants and refugees. And at the center of those efforts will be technology, which, if deployed conscientiously within ethical frameworks and a lens of human security, can mean greater safety for migrants and less disruption for societies -- but if misused can mean discrimination, privacy violations, and other forms of harm.

A big reason technology figures prominently in climate-forced migration is that the politics are so combustible that policymakers will see little choice but to turn to technical fixes. Even though the majority of climate displacement will be internal -- the narrative of mass south-north migration notwithstanding -- climate change denialism and inflammatory, often xenophobic national discourse hamper sound policymaking or stall it altogether. Despite the urgency of the issue, climate-forced displacement did not feature meaningfully as an agenda item at COP27 in Sharm al-Sheikh in November. In the United States, advocates have called out the Biden administration for failing to see through its promises after raising expectations with an Executive Order and National Security Council analysis that promised a plan to address climate migration. In Europe, the Swedish presidency of the EU will likely stall progress on humane migration management policy.

As policy efforts to address climate-forced displacement inevitably run into political stalemate, it becomes tempting to look to tech and data-related solutions to “solve climate migration.” But there may be more risks than benefits, if mishandled. Some tech and data-related proposals are sound – for example, there is a big push to expand early warning systems to underserved regions using climate data and modeling for migration forecasting efforts. Yet, even with the best available data, it is difficult to draw a straight line from climate impacts to people’s migration decisions. Both these variables interact with a number of other factors such as conflict, political fragility, economic development, and urbanization trends.

We have to remember that technology is not a magic wand. By itself, it does not address the fundamental challenges posed by climate-forced displacement, and it can also pose significant risk to the rights and wellbeing of those displaced. For example, we are likely to hear calls for greater digital surveillance of people displaced by climate change. Proposals of this sort are already out there – they suggest increasing the use of biometrics and AI models combined with anonymous cell phone data to track those displaced by climate-induced disasters.

These kinds of proposals are both born of and also bolster broader trends to track and control migrants, refugees, and others on the move with tools ranging from social media monitoring to cell phone data extraction to drones and other border surveillance technologies. The border security industry has already begun using climate change in its marketing and is profiting from plans to increase the use of biometrics and surveillance technologies to track and monitor migrants including in the UK, United States, and Europe. These programs are expanding.

But this increasing reliance on tech-enabled surveillance is both dangerous and ineffective. There is growing recognition these technologies can worsen discrimination, violate privacy, chill free speech, and drive people off the grid and into more perilous migration routes. Moreover, the tech used for these purposes is often experimental, rolled out in migration settings where there are fewer regulatory constraints.

As one climate refugee advocate argued, “We’ve got to approach climate displacement as a human security issue and not a border security issue.” Setting aside the deeply concerning problems with these kinds of surveillance technologies, we may find that they are not all fit-for-purpose, given the specific challenges posed by climate displacement. For example, technologies designed to track cross-border migration may not be relevant for addressing climate displacement, the vast majority of which occurs within a single nation’s borders. Moreover, the unstated purpose of digital surveillance is often to facilitate deportation and return of migrants, which is becoming increasingly untenable as countries of origin become less habitable because of disasters or sea-level rise.

Treating climate migration as an issue of human security means widening the aperture to look at a variety of upstream and downstream solutions. We already have an array of tools and solutions at our disposal to help those who have been displaced. Most importantly, we should focus on investing more in climate change adaptation and disaster mitigation. We can also further develop legal frameworks and multilateral efforts to plan for climate impacts, building on, for example, the Platform on Disaster Displacement and the efforts of regional initiatives such as the Africa Climate Mobility Initiative and the Rising Nations Initiative.

We can also improve existing protection for those displaced by climate by expanding alternative avenues such as temporary protection, humanitarian visa programs, labor pathways, and free movement agreements, including the IGAD Free Movement Agreement, which includes specific provisions for disaster displacement. We should also double down on supporting local governments who are receiving and serving those displaced by climate and are also setting out a bold agenda on climate and migration. These initiatives are promising precisely because they endeavor to address fundamental political challenges rather than proposing digital band-aids.

Between 2013 and 2018, the biggest emitters of greenhouse gas spent 2.3 times more on border security ($33.1 billion) than they did on climate finance ($14.4 billion). That border security spending includes growing budgets for tech and surveillance technologies. Now is the time to reconsider these investment strategies. There may be a place for technology in addressing climate-forced migration, but our starting place needs to be a recognition of migration as a legitimate adaptation strategy and prioritizing the adaptation and protection needs of people on the frontlines of the climate crisis, as well as the dignity of those on the move.