Islander Migration and Local-to-Global Change

Island catastrophe is not inevitable, even as nature and society change swiftly.

Posted Feb 27, 2021

Our planet is changing rapidly, although society and nature have undergone alterations throughout human history. During these shifts, migration has always been one societal response, driving human expansion and continuing as typical human behaviour today.

 Ilan Kelman
Waste management problems and coastal engineering in Malé, Maldives.
Source: Ilan Kelman

Islanders are now experiencing and must address significant changes. In particular, low-lying islands such as Maldives are often suggested as going through catastrophic environmental changes, from local to global, which threaten their existence. In these situations, how prominent should migration be as an option?

Historically, long ocean voyages led to island discovery and settlement. Today, diasporas return remittances and temporary migration supports seasonal work, adventure, education, and fun. Meanwhile, many local activities drive interest in migration, from poor waste management increasing pollution to political instability to overfishing and sand mining ruining local environments.

Simultaneously, human-caused climate change affects the world. Storms intensify while precipitation patterns fluctuate toward longer periods with too much or too little water. Sea-level rise morphs coastlines (although not always eroding them) as warming and acidifying oceans stress marine and coastal ecosystems.

These interacting transformations from the local-to-global levels seem unlikely to halt in coming years or decades. Options to migrate remain attractive for many islanders who are also aware that migration is sometimes not a choice, but can be forced. The latter could be due to a flood or volcanic eruption which wrecks an unprepared town or from a slow livelihood decline leading families to depart one-by-one.

Yet no environment or society is static. For millennia, islanders have experienced tempests, droughts, conflicts, invasions, dynamic coastlines, ecosystems thriving and dying, and numerous other changes. Availability and quality of livelihoods wax and wane with environmental and societal changes. Species become extinct, ecosystems evolve, cash crops and animals are introduced alongside cultural aspects, and mass tourism and the internet forge global connections.

As population numbers and consumption per capita both increase, resource use rises. New species arriving naturally or from human activities can take over local ecosystems and can provide new sources for food, materials, and income.

Management decisions regarding these changes can help to avoid forced migration. Drought-resistant crops to deal with less precipitation and salt-resistant crops to deal with sea-level rise have potential, although people’s health ought to be monitored regarding their level of salt intake. Traditional designs for island construction can deal with intense storms and floods by withstanding the forces or by being quickly dismantled and reassembled.

No islander is a passive victim. The people do not sit around waiting for something to happen to them in order to suffer or leave. Certainly, numerous influences are out of their control, with xenophobia and human-caused climate change being prominent for islanders who consider moving. This does not stop them from grasping opportunities to adapt to continually changing local circumstances or to thrive by settling in new places.

Not all such decisions and preferences produce positive outcomes. Voluntary dietary shifts around the Pacific have led to high rates of diabetes and obesity. Islanders living in other countries lament the loss of their cultures and languages as generations progress. No guarantee exists that all environmental and social changes can be constructively adjusted to at the local level.

Additionally, situations arise in which islanders would wish to move from their current homes, but a lack of resources prevents them from doing so. These are “trapped populations” who are often the poorest people in a place. They might then be left behind while the more affluent or opportunistic groups depart.

Immobility is not necessarily bad. As with migration, islander histories and cultures are rife with immobility. Many people prefer to remain living where they are now, on their land, with their heritage, and alongside their ancestors’ spirits. Working through difficulties from social and environmental changes is far better for them than moving involuntarily.

For people to live where they want, either through migrating or not migrating, combining local and global actions produces options to adjust to local circumstances. Positive action for positive change counters the doom-and-gloom often pervading external narratives and instilling a sense of hopelessness.

There is no need to discourage islanders, even those in low-lying settlements, from investing in their future. While some catastrophic scenarios are realistic and may yet happen, they represent only a small set of possible trajectories. Outcomes depend much more on directions selected globally and locally for tackling known problems, than on being a slave to disaster.

Continual catastrophising helps no one and permits long-refuted myths, such as “climate refugees” and “climate change as an existential threat,” to dominate policies and practices. Instead, immobility and migration sit within the expected and desired contexts of people from low-lying islands who are dealing with change, whether the changes are from local choices or are imposed externally.


Kelman, I. 2017. "How can island communities deal with environmental hazards and hazard drivers, including climate change?" Environmental Conservation, vol. 44, no. 3, pp. 244-253.

Kelman, I. 2018. "Islandness within climate change narratives of small island developing states (SIDS)". Island Studies Journal, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 149-166.

Kelman, I. 2020. "Islands of vulnerability and resilience: Manufactured stereotypes?" Area, vol. 52, no. 1, pp. 6-13.

Kelman, I. and R. Stojanov. 2020. "Islander migrations and the oceans: From hopes to fears?" Island Studies Journal, forthcoming.