The Role of Sustainable Energy Access in the Migration Debate
UN Photo/Christopher Herwig
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Providing access to sustainable energy can help addressing economic and environmental drivers of migration.

Energy access planning should therefore be holistic and integrated with other sectors, such as agriculture and urban development.

Doing so requires enhanced cooperation between the humanitarian and development sectors to create mutual benefits for both host communities and migrants.

Further research is needed to enable no-regrets interventions that acknowledge the complex linkages between energy access and migration.

The world currently faces an unprecedented displacement crisis, which puts particularly the most vulnerable populations at risk. According to the UN International Migration Report, 244 million people worldwide were registered as living outside their country of origin in 2015. According to estimates, 740 million internal migrants moved to another place of residence within their country of birth. As a result, migration has been high on the agenda of the international community.

The Council of the European Union acknowledges that the lack of, or uneven, access to energy is part of the root causes of irregular migration. Irregular migration can be described as a “movement that takes place outside the regulatory norms of the sending, transit and receiving countries.” It includes unplanned mass migration, economically and socially induced migration due to vulnerability, poverty and lack of economic opportunities, and environmentally induced migration in slow onsets. Despite the acknowledgement of energy as a basic human need in Sustainable Development Goal 7 (Ensure access to affordable, reliable and clean energy for all), 1.1 billion people still do not have access to electricity. A remarkable surge in international activity in the field of energy development cooperation can currently be witnessed, with EU institutions and member states at the forefront. But what role does energy play in the decision to migrate? How does access to energy influence the decision to migrate? How can the lack of energy be addressed after migration has occurred? The EU Energy Initiative Partnership Dialogue Facility (EUEI PDF) under the mandate of its donors – the European Commission, Austria, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden – has set out to investigate the link between energy and migration.

Energy is acknowledged as an enabler of economic activity and for the improvement of livelihoods. It is therefore assumed that some of the structural causes of irregular migration could be prevented through improved access to sustainable energy. Addressing access to energy as indirect driver of migration could, for example, help mitigating the more immediate effects of economic and environmental drivers of migration, such as (rural) poverty, food insecurity, insufficient economic opportunities, unemployment, and deficient healthcare and education services.

Sustainable energy access can alleviate economic drivers of migration by: upgrading value chains; diversifying economic structures and livelihoods; releasing time for paid work, childcare, social life and leisure, which is particularly important for rural women; and enhancing business productivity. Furthermore, access to sustainable energy has the potential to mitigate environmental drivers of migration, including environmental degradation caused by the inadequate management of natural resources, poorly planned urban development, climate variation or natural disasters. Mitigating these drivers reduces a population’s vulnerability, which often stems from a strong reliance on biomass and agriculture. Natural disasters, on the other hand, result in a sudden exacerbation of vulnerabilities and migration patterns. A rise in renewables can help increase resilience, decrease disaster risk, and enable swifter recovery as their provision is less dependent on fuel supply routes or critical grid infrastructure.

Regarding the humanitarian context, it must be noted that energy practices in refugee camps are often inefficient, polluting, unsafe and environmentally damaging. Worldwide, 89% of refugees do not have access to adequate lighting and rely on firewood for cooking and heating, causing premature death and deforestation. Additionally, humanitarian and development actors often take conflicting approaches in humanitarian contexts. Humanitarian interventions focus on meeting acute needs as fast as possible, whereas development interventions engage in transitional assistance on a medium- to long-term basis. Furthermore, governments of host countries may see the provision of sustainable energy access as an indicator of a settlement becoming formalised. They may interpret efforts to provide access to sustainable energy as a threat to their ability to provide economic opportunities and public services to displaced populations, which could cause social tensions with host communities. It is therefore essential to approach energy planning in a coordinated way, involving all stakeholders and linking short-term relief measures with long-term development programmes.

As outlined, the link between energy and migration is complex and intertwined with many aspects of the humanitarian and development agendas. Nonetheless, ensuring access to sustainable energy is central to improving living conditions and to stop people from being forced to leave their homes. Addressing the link between energy and migration includes tailoring development policies to migration patterns, and enabling energy sector specialists to contribute their sectoral expertise. It also involves rigorously understanding the drivers and causes of migration, and deploying this knowledge to ensure that measures are taken to provide sustainable, long-term solutions, and enable synergies and co-benefits for local, host and migrant communities. In this spirit, work on energy-migration linkages also calls for the stronger collaboration among stakeholders and partners, including across humanitarian and development communities.

Learn more about the sustainable energy and migration nexus in the EUEI PDF’s recently published paper titled, “The Role of Sustainable Energy Access in the Migration Debate.”

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