Framing environmental migrants for policy action
Ransan-Cooper, H., C. Farbotko, K.E. McNamara, F. Thornton, E. Chevalier. 2015. "Being(s) Framed: The means and ends of framing environmental migrants." Global Environmental Change. 35: 106-115. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.07.013
The concept of "framing," in its very basic terms, is used to understand complex issues by identifying and highlighting their central ideas. Environmental migrants, people who migrate because of environmental changes or natural disasters, are commonly understood and defined through four framings: victims, security threat, adaptive agents, and political subjects. These framings help to organize the complex issues around environmental migration into central ideas and to translate these ideas into policy action. It is important to understand how various actors — from nonprofits and governments to researchers and journalists — influence and use these framings to shape all types of policy from international environmental policy to humanitarian laws.
A study published in the journal of Global Environmental Change looks at how frames of environmental migrants are constructed, by whom and for what reasons. By looking at the four framings of environmental migrants – victims, security threat, adaptive agents and political subjects – the study analyses how the framings of environmental migrants have been interpreted and translated into policy, advocacy and other arenas across sectors and across time.
The researchers assert that for decades environmental migrants have been framed as victims. This framing has been used by a variety of actors, including non-profits, media, researchers, and government. Framing environmental migrants as victims is often used to raise awareness, promote policy action, or to create media attention. However, such framing is not aligned with how the migrants themselves want to be defined. The opposite of the "victim" frame is the framing of environmental migrants as a security threat. The researchers find that this type of framing is mainly used by sections of media, military, researchers, and civil society. They find that framing environmental migrants in this way often leads to an underlying myth that environmental change will ignite tension over natural resources and lead to conflict. The evidence to this myth is mixed. The researchers find that actors such as humanitarian agencies, migrant support networks, and environmental non-profits do not use this framing as they do not traditionally focus on security issues.
More recently environmental migrants are also framed as adaptive agents and political subjects. The researchers find the adaptive agents framing to derive from a shift where environmental migrants are no longer seen as a negative consequence of climate change but rather a solution where migration is used as a method to adapt to a changing environment or a natural disaster. This framing focuses on migration as a positive adaptive solution to climate change. However, it may also take the focus away from strategies that allow communities to adapt to climate change without moving. The framing of political subjects is less driven by certain policy or institutional interests but rather by morality and human justice. Nonprofits and community groups use this framing to raise issues concerning the justice and fairness of resettlement or migration policies. The researchers raise the question of how policy can be reformed in a way that allows potential migrants or non-migrants to decide for themselves whether to migrate or stay.
The study shows that these framings have evolved across time and across sectors; categorizing environmental migrants is difficult and the boundaries between these frames are at times obscure. The framings are built and used by various actors and inherently involve their beliefs and assumptions. The researchers conclude that the processes through which these framings are built, by whom and for what reasons are important in defining how the framings contribute to policy action. For all types of policy action, from humanitarian to environmental law, it is increasingly important to take into consideration not just the various actors involved in the framing but also the interests of the migrants themselves.
In the context of the climate negotiations in Paris, we can see how these framings of environmental migrants play a role in shaping environmental policy. The researchers have studied some of these links between framing and policy; however, they call for further empirical research on how framings are used to influence policy, law making, and corporate action across different cultural contexts.