12/23/2014 12:13 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

Migration for the Good

Have the migration debates erupting all over the world all missed a crucial point? Climate change is pulling the rug from under poor rural people's feet; destroying their natural resources and taking away their ability to decide their own fate. Migrant remittances and skills are becoming vital for their survival, but also crucial for global peace and political stability in many countries.

For five decades we have failed to check land degradation. Now, extremist groups and criminal gangs are exploiting the situation. They radicalize youth and children, and enslave women and girls for perverted, political ends. When your farm won't produce, your children have no future. It can lead to radicalization, and everyone suffers.

In many places, land degradation has left much of the land barren. We have reached a fork on the road. The path to a peaceful and secure future is paved with decisive action against losing more productive land. Here, voluntary migrants can be part of the solution. The other path is to maintain the status quo. Climate change will determine the end-game and forced migration, radicalization and violence may become the new 'normal'. The tipping point is close. There is no time to dither.

Disasters Rise, Migration Rises
Disasters doubled from 200 to 400 in two decades. As natural resources decline and land disputes increase, inter-communal conflicts are on the rise. In 2013, internal migration due to armed conflict rose to a record high for the second year running, especially in the countries at the frontline of climate change - Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan - and these are but a few.

Rapid-onset disasters such as floods, cyclones and landslides are increasing, and these accelerate land degradation. But slow onset disasters, such as drought, desertification and land degradation, are the most devastating for the rural poor. These have lasting effects on their vital natural resources. They have lasting effects on communities, whose hunger and unemployment force them to permanently migrate. Take for example Burkina Faso. A study found that drier areas experienced higher levels of out-migration than wetter areas.

About 600,000-700,000 people migrate permanently from Mexico's drylands every year. Over the next 70 years, up to seven million could migrate to the United States as climate change, drought and desertification batter crop yields. The UK's 2014 Ministry of Defence report estimates that by 2050, up to 135 million people worldwide could be displaced by desertification alone.

This is the path we are on. It will cost us dearly.

Between 1948 and 2011 the UN led 68 peacekeeping operations. A quarter of these missions are linked to natural resource conflicts. Todate, they have consumed half of the total UN peacekeeping operations costs - some 42 billion dollars - according to UNEP. Estimates suggest that 4.1 million dollars are being spent daily just on the foreign military presence in Mali.

We are paying more, much more, financially, than we would by restoring the land. With the radicalization of young people from dry areas, we reap instability. But this path is not fated. We can choose a path with returns for everyone, where migrants are part of the solution.

Migration for the good
Family members who migrate to find work elsewhere can be critical lifelines for their families living in rural areas. Their remittances nourish millions of deprived households and fund demand-driven development projects. Returning migrants are introducing new, climate-resilient farming methods and creating jobs for the rural youth who might have otherwise migrated.

Remittances are particularly effective because they can reach rural households where poverty is concentrated and priority needs are often unmet.

In a study of Ethiopia, Anderson finds that household remittances average out to about 500 dollars per year. Most of it is used for short-term consumption needs like food. But in the rural areas, remittances are an investment. They are mostly used to repay debt, to invest in housing and in the land.

Migrants and their remittances bridge acute financial and human resource skill shortfalls in the rural areas. The World Bank estimated that remittances into and within sub-Saharan Africa in 2010 amounted to a tidy sum of 40 billion dollars. In the same year, the total development aid to the region was about 26.5 billion dollars, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Migrants working in France, originally from the Senegal River Valley, have financed health care, school, water and education projects in their home areas. Mali's Diaspora Association of Engineers of the Sahel has supported and advised more than 200 projects in the country's Kaye region.

In the Senegal River valley, out-migration started in the 1970s drought. Migrants' remittances have financed 70 percent of the water projects and co-financed the remaining 30 percent.

This positive road is much less traveled - perhaps because it is muddied by a view of migrants as mostly illegal and dangerous.

Turning lifelines into investment
The successes of migrants in enabling rural people to stay and invest in their lands act as clear pointers to effective policy direction.

It costs as little as 65 dollars and takes just two years to rehabilitate a hectare of degraded land in Niger, and only up to 300 dollars in badly-degraded Mali. But the resources needed by the rural poor to adapt to climate change are just not available, and they are not planned for in the new climate agreement under negotiation. Migrant remittances can boost the limited donor funds available for development and adaptation activity.

Drought and land degradation can be predicted well in advance. We know the problem is coming. Let us identify and map the migration hot spots before disaster strikes. In these areas, we can make the land profitable again and create stable jobs, thwarting extremism and violent conflicts.

The spill-over benefits travel across the world. Sustainable land management draws excess carbon out of the air, reducing global warming. We all eat food grown in these vulnerable dry areas.

The main obstacles are the lack of public policies and private sector instruments to reach these ends.

If communities are secure and their homeland is productive, most people will remain in their communities. Migrants often return home. Sustainable land management gives people the power to decide. What could be more precious?

Today (18 December), we are celebrating International Migrants Day. What path have you chosen, and how will you use your voice?