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The centrality of social ties to climate migration and mental health
© The Author(s). 2017
- Received: 6 January 2017
- Accepted: 14 June 2017
- Published: 6 July 2017
Climate change-related hazards and disasters, known to adversely impact physical and mental health outcomes, are also expected to result in human migration above current levels. Environmentally-motivated migration and displacement may lead to the disruption of existing social ties, with potentially adverse consequences for mobile populations as well as their family members who remain in places of origin. We propose that the disruption of social ties is a key mechanism by which climate-related migration may negatively impact mental health, in particular. Existing social ties may provide social and material resources that buffer mental health stressors related to both prolonged and acute climate events. Preparation for such events may also strengthen these same ties and protect mental health. Communities may leverage social ties, first to mitigate climate change, and second, to adapt and rebuild post-disaster in communities of origin. Additionally, social ties can inform migration decisions and destinations. For example, scholars have found that the drought-motivated adaptive migration of West African Fulbe herders only occurred because of the long-term development of social networks between migrants and non-migrants through trade and seasonal grazing. On the other hand, social ties do not always benefit mental health. Some migrants, including those from poor regions or communities with no formal safety net, may face considerable burden to provide financial and emotional resources to family members who remain in countries of origin. In destination communities, migrants often face significant social marginalization. Therefore, policies and programs that aim to maintain ongoing social ties among migrants and their family and community members may be critically important in efforts to enhance population resilience and adaptation to climate change and to improve mental health outcomes. Several online platforms, like Refugee Start Force, serve to integrate refugees by connecting migrants directly to people and services in destination communities. These efforts may increasingly draw upon novel technologies to support and maintain social networks in the context of population mobility due to climatic and other factors.
- Human migration
- Climate change
- Mental health
- Social support
- Social ties
- Environmental justice
Humans have long migrated due to changing climates, but have never before faced such rapid, global, anthropogenic change . 2016 was the hottest year on record and recent reports find accelerating sea-level rise . If high greenhouse gas emissions continue, oceans could rise by as much as 6 ft by the end of the twenty-first century . Acute weather events, along with related protracted environmental and economic changes may contribute directly and indirectly to the dislocation of populations . From 2008 to 2015, climate and weather-related disasters displaced an average of 22.5 million people annually . However, because migration and climatic hazards are multi-causal, scholars have been hesitant to attribute any single migratory flow to climate change directly.
Nevertheless, even with successful adaptation–or activities that reduce impacts from climatic changes, such as crop substitution or new reservoir construction–climate change is expected to result in some migration above current levels . Migration can also represent a positive adaptation to climate change  when remaining in place is no longer tenable; communities that face environmental hazards and lack the social or economic resources to move may become “trapped” in place .
Social ties are also a central driver of migration decisions, given that information about the costs and benefits of movement is transmitted in large part through pre-existing social networks (i.e., multiple, connected social ties) . Social ties have also been linked to population health, through protective mechanisms of resource sharing (i.e., social capital) and emotional support, as well as through stress-inducing mechanisms of social and financial burden . In general, populations in motion may face stressors related to the disruption of their social networks, for example, through separation from family and community members due to migration or displacement. Mobile populations may also face substantial social isolation and marginalization in destination contexts. On the other hand, they may work to maintain pre-existing social networks at a distance, by sending remittances or making phone calls to family and community members who remain in places of origin or who have also migrated . These social ties may serve as a source of substantial resilience–or capacity to cope with adverse events while maintaining function, identity, and capacity to adapt, learn, and thrive–if they are characterized by high levels of trust and support (i.e., social cohesion). Social ties may have additional benefit when they provide resources for coping both emotionally and economically in the aftermath of climatic events.
Scholars and policy makers have identified numerous health consequences of climate change, including the spread of infectious disease, injury and death due to acute natural disasters, heat-related illness, as well as adverse mental health outcomes . Discussion of the health consequences of climate migration has been more limited, but has included altered distribution of infectious diseases , increased violence , and reduced access to healthcare .
Throughout the commentary we provide examples of research on each component of our conceptual framework (Fig. 1). We draw on a broad body of evidence, including examples that are not directly related to climate change, but that may provide an indication of what might occur in the aftermath of acute and protracted climatic events. This includes evidence of health and mobility outcomes after earthquakes, or in the context of labor or conflict-related migration flows. While we incorporate examples from across the globe, we note that vulnerability to climate change and climate migration is heterogeneous both across and within country contexts. Low and middle-income countries are disproportionately impacted by climate change, although they have received relatively little economic benefit from the activities that have fueled global warming . Low-income, rural populations are also at greater risk for the loss of livelihoods due to climate change, while their low-income urban counterparts face risk due to the fragility of housing and infrastructure in poor urban neighborhoods across the globe. We elaborate below on specific population groups that may be more vulnerable to adverse mental health outcomes as the result of climate migration and disrupted social networks. Finally, we discuss the practical implications of the research on climate change, social ties, migration, and mental health. In particular, we highlight the potential for leveraging novel technology in order to help maintain social ties in the context of climate migration.
Although migration patterns are complex and multi-causal, environmental conditions have always been an important driver of individual and population-level mobility  (Fig. 1, path 1 → 3). Nevertheless, rapid anthropogenic change in climate patterns and an increase in climatic events are likely to contribute to population mobility above current levels. In a recent example, Syria experienced the most severe drought in recorded history from 2006 through 2007, the result of both cyclical and long-term declines in precipitation and groundwater. The drought contributed to the collapse of small and mid-scale agriculture and the migration of 1.5 million Syrians from rural areas to urban peripheries . While no certainty exists regarding the direct, causal effects of climate change on migration, in this and other examples non-cyclical climatic change is a contributing factor, and climate-related resettlement has commenced globally .
Climate-related population mobility may take many forms. Circular migration, defined as fluid movement between countries, may entail short- or long-term moves and is often linked to labor demands in places of destination . Temporary or permanent movement of individuals or entire families may occur as the result of either protracted or acute climatic events. In the most extreme form, planned permanent resettlement may lead to the relocation of entire communities, as with low-lying coastal or island populations . These migration patterns are not mutually exclusive: in the aftermath of the same climatic event, some members of a community may temporarily move while others may permanently resettle elsewhere if the economic and social benefits of staying in their new location outweigh the perceived benefits of returning home . Population mobility may also occur within countries or internationally, although climate-related migration has been linked primarily to internal (i.e., within-country) migration .
Finally, environmental factors may intersect with other micro- (e.g., family) and macro-level (e.g., national policy) circumstances to influence population mobility . We discuss the intersection between environmental and social factors below. However, we note that political, economic, and demographic factors may also critically influence population vulnerability to climate change, and environmental migration patterns. In charting the aftermath of the recent historic drought in Syria, Kelley and authors  describe that the collapse of much of the country’s agricultural production. Mass rural-to-urban internal migration also occurred in the context of the Syrian government’s restrictive economic policies that exacerbated food shortages, as well an influx of Iraqi refugees that may have strained resources. The intersection of climate change with these factors contributed to the Syrian civil conflict, which has in turn triggered mass population displacement. In another example from Pakistan, two consecutive years of flooding (2010–2011) combined with deforestation and a nascent national disaster response system, resulted in mass displacement of 150,000 people to relief camps .
There are important practical implications that emerge from an understanding of the centrality of social ties for population mobility and population mental health. International aid organizations are already involved in re-connecting family members who have been separated by large-scale population mobility or natural disasters. Historically, the Restoring Family Links program through the International Committee of the Red Cross has transmitted letters between refugees, displaced persons, and their family members .
Mobile technologies have become increasingly critical for refugees and migrants seeking to reunite with family members in these acute disaster contexts [58, 59]. For example, Google People Finder was used to locate missing individuals in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake in Japan. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has developed RapidFTR (or Rapid Family Tracing and Reunification), an open-source mobile phone application to help reunite children with their caregivers in disaster settings (https://github.com/rapidftr/RapidFTR/wiki). Another online platform, the Refugee United Project, allows individuals to register in and search through a database to trace missing family members. Other technological advances, like unmanned aerial vehicles that provide post-disaster communications networks , may also support maintenance of social ties.
Collaboration between international organizations, national governments, and the private sector will further serve to incorporate rapidly developing technological advances into efforts to re-connect mobile populations  as well as providing long-term resources for maintaining everyday social and economic ties, given the potentially protracted nature of many migratory flows. For example, the World Bank has partnered with national authorities to understand the potential for leveraging mobile technologies to decrease the excess cost of sending remittances, e.g., via smartphone applications that allow migrants to compare international money transfer fees across multiple financial agencies . Again, remittances represent an important economic connection between migrants and their family and community members who remain in places of origin, but also have important symbolic value for family members seeking to maintain social connection in the aftermath of migration . These collaborative efforts should also include evaluation, as there is little empirical evidence of the effectiveness of technology-driven strategies for maintaining and/or strengthening social ties disrupted due to migration or displacement.
Climate change may result in other large infrastructure adaptation projects like sea walls and dams that displace entire communities. Investments in enhancing community social cohesion would benefit population mental health both before and after individuals move. Evidence from Three Gorges Dam suggests that even anticipating the large-scale displacement of one’s community is associated with significantly increased depression . While other cases of planned resettlement have thus far been rare, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has awarded its first grant aimed at resettling an island-dwelling community in Louisiana. One of the guiding principles for carrying out this voluntary resettlement is that “activities must include building and bridging social networks as part of the process and outcome,” which if followed should benefit the mental health of relocated individuals . This case provides a critical opportunity to track the impact of planned climate-related resettlement on social ties and mental health, and to evaluate policies aimed at maintaining social networks throughout the resettlement process.
Even among those who have been temporarily displaced by acute climate events, efforts may aim to maintain and strengthen community social ties. For example, mental health interventions targeting those who survived the 2004 tsunami in India included individual therapy, but also engaged community members in re-building and activities that provided survivors with a sense of purpose (e.g., caring for children) and generated social cohesion . Ongoing efforts must implement and evaluate programs that strengthen social cohesion in the face of lost livelihoods and population mobility.
For those who are permanently displaced, public and private-sector efforts may support social integration within destination communities. Some qualitative evidence suggests that mobile technologies may be critical for facilitating social connection between newly arrived refugees and those in the host societies . Several online platforms serve to integrate refugees into destination communities. With the slogan “connecting people, creating networks,” Refugee Start Force (https://refugeestartforce.eu/) uses their online platform and groups on networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn to connect refugees with professional opportunities in the Netherlands. Airbnb, the popular online lodging rental site, has created a response tool that when activated in the aftermath of disasters allows hosts to open their homes to displaced persons free of charge (https://www.airbnb.com/welcome). In Germany, Help To (http://helpto.de/en) offers a range of services to refugees including offers of and requests for legal advice, donations, and transportation. Nevertheless, to our knowledge, there is currently no empirical evidence of the effectiveness of these programs. Moreover, these novel efforts should not supplant public policy efforts to integrate migrants and refugees, as there is evidence of the causal effect of naturalization on increased social integration, particularly for the most marginalized migrants .
Strengthened social ties between migrants and those living in destination or settlement communities might have additional important co-benefits for population health. For example, social isolation is a key risk factor for heat-related health problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for preventing heat-related illness include buddy systems and formal check-ins with vulnerable persons; efforts that draw in part upon existing social ties among family and neighbors . Such network-building to address climate change might also create greater community social cohesion, and consequently, improve population mental health.
Certain populations are expected to face a disproportionate share of adverse health outcomes resulting from climate change and increased population mobility. Climate change itself may also compound population vulnerability over time as feedback loops erode economic, social, and political conditions . Indigenous communities face particular threats related to food insecurity and loss of native lands, although local knowledge may aid adaptation [69, 70]. Older adults in general face greater health risks in the context of climate change and older migrants may also experience high levels of social isolation in reception communities and reduced social support in places of origin if family members migrate . Children also face considerable vulnerability in the context of climate migration, including potential separation from primary caregivers and the disruption of educational trajectories, which may, in turn, have lasting, adverse mental health consequences .
For those living in poverty, efforts to facilitate continued social and economic ties among mobile populations are critical. Remittances sent from migrants to origin communities provide resources to those not covered by formal, social safety net programs . On the other hand, the obligation to remit may represent a substantial financial burden for migrants, many of who are laboring in low-wage sectors. While there is some evidence linking remittance sending to improved mental health among remittance-senders , others have reported the opposite effect . Adverse mental health effects of remittance sending appear particularly strong among women, who may bear a larger burden of maintaining family networks and providing emotional and financial resources to family members who have remained behind .
Although estimates remain uncertain, climate change is expected to result in human migration above current levels. This increased population mobility is a potentially important mechanism linking climate change and population mental health. One pathway by which environmentally-motivated migration may negatively impact mental health is through the disruption of existing family and community ties. The disruption of these social ties may adversely impact migrants or displaced persons, potentially compounding the effects of other adversities, including traumatic experiences before and during the migration passage. Disrupted social ties resulting from out-migration may also impact those who remain in communities of origin, including populations already facing the loss of livelihood, natural landscapes, and cultural heritage sites as the result of climate change. Reconnecting and strengthening social ties in both origin and destination communities may increase resilience and buffer some of the adverse mental health impacts of acute and protracted climate events. Relevant strategies may increasingly involve leveraging novel technologies. Nevertheless, there is a need for rigorous evaluation of the effectiveness of these technologies for improving social cohesion and/or mental health for mobile populations and their family members. In addition, strategies to promote social connectedness should factor in the potential for social and economic strain among migrants and displaced persons. In particular, the obligation to remit to family and friends who remain may represent a substantial financial burden for migrants.
The costs and effort related to supporting migrants and displaced persons should reflect global responsibility for the consequences of climate change. Indeed, environmental injustice led to anthropogenic climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change have simultaneously propelled the economic growth of wealthy countries and individuals . Now, developing countries and the poor will experience the greatest impacts, including increased risk for displacement, disrupted social ties, and adverse mental health consequences. It is a matter of social justice to invest in the mental health of these populations in motion. This includes implementing strategies that support and strengthen existing social ties as well as efforts that enhance social integration within destination communities for migrants who may be permanently displaced from places of origin.
The authors thank Shang Yip for his assistance with the literature review. The authors also thank Sarah Meyer, Rachel Morello-Frosch, and Jonathan Samet for reading earlier drafts of this manuscript.
At the time of writing this manuscript the authors were supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars program. The opinions expressed in this manuscript do not necessarily reflect the views of the RWJF Health & Society Scholars program. Publication made possible in part by support from the Berkeley Research Impact Initiative (BRII) sponsored by the UC Berkeley Library.
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JT and JC jointly conceived the idea of the article. Both authors conducted the literature review. JT led writing the manuscript with contributions from JC. Both JT and JC revised the manuscript content. Both authors approved the final version of the manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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