The effects of climate change are uneven around the world and those regions in the Global South will be the most affected ones. However, it is also obvious that the impact varies among the population in all regions affected by climate change, in other words, some sectors of the population are inevitably more vulnerable than others. The film Parasite (2019) offers a beautiful glimpse of this disparity, presenting two contrasting families living in Seoul (South Korea). The heavy rainstorm is an important inflexion point in the film that affects the two main families very differently. On the one hand, the sudden rain is a minor problem for the Parks (the rich family) as it only interrupts their camping trip. Indeed, they are even grateful for the rain because it cleaned the pollution and led the way to a very nice day.
On the other hand, the rain has had terrible consequences for the Kim family (the poor family) since their basement apartment was completely flooded, many of their belongings ruined because of the water, and they had to find shelter in a gymnasium. This case illustrates how the same environmental event impacts populations with different resources so differently, indeed, the Kims have to flee their house while the Parks continue with their life as nothing happened. Let’s take the example of the Kim family and think of it in terms of climate displacement. Although the Kims would clearly prefer living somewhere else, they will have to go back to their basement apartment, which has been destroyed and will surely flood again with the next heavy rain. This raises the following question: what about those who want to leave a dangerous area, but are unable to do so?
WHAT IS THE PHENOMENON OF THE ‘TRAPPED POPULATIONS’?
The case of the Kims relates to the so-called ‘trapped populations’, that is, ‘those people who not only aspire but also need to move for their own protection but who nevertheless lack the ability. Although it is not the only factor, climate change can be significantly immobilizing, in which case these trapped populations are also known as ‘climate hostages’. The Foresight Report (2011) already mentioned this pinning reality, used the term ‘trapped’ and highlighted their double vulnerability, that is, that the poorest people tend to live in the most environmentally risky places. Pointing this reality out shows the problem of climate migration goes beyond people living in climate-vulnerable locations and fleeing their homes, indeed, it also involves those who despite having to live with all these negative conditions are unable to do anything about it. At the same time, this is a reminder that not all those who are affected by climate change or extreme environmental events decide to displace. Although it is not easy to calculate the number of people in this situation, the World Bank estimates that the figures could reach 140 million by 2050.
Despite the importance of the concept of ‘trapped populations’ to shed light on an otherwise hidden reality, it also masks the complexities of why some populations decide to remain due to its emphasis on the lack of economic resources. An argument solely based on money is not enough to understand the decision to either leave or stay, and it is important to take further non-material aspects into account.
WHO ARE THE ‘TRAPPED POPULATIONS’?
As mentioned above, these immobile populations tend to be those that are already particularly vulnerable. In spite of this type of statement that might oversimplify complex realities, it can be said those with lower levels of capital (financial, human, social) are less able to migrate. This means that ‘vulnerability to extreme environmental events is widely recognised to be inversely correlated with wealth, such that poorer people face a double risk: they are more vulnerable to disasters but less able to move away from them’. Therefore, in those cases where migration is an adaptation form to climate change or extreme environmental events, being trapped heightens situations of marginalization. A sadly well-known example of this is Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (USA) in 2005, where around 80% of the city and surroundings were flooded and thousands of people were trapped. The order of leaving (or not leaving) the city clearly shows what was just mentioned. The first ones leaving, even before the hurricane arrived, were the ones with economic resources or those who had family or friends with whom they could stay. The ones staying were ‘largely the poor, African-American, elderly or residents without a private car’. Thus, it can be seen that the concept of ‘trapped populations’ overlaps with many other issues and inequalities.
As a final note, and in contrast to what happens with internally or internationally displaced profiles of migrants, ‘trapped populations’ do not face a lack of legal status, rather, it is a lack of options that requires a different public policy response. Therefore, both national and international policy regarding migration should acknowledge the different realities, also allowing resources to support those populations that need but cannot migrate.
Climate Researcher & Writer, Act for Displaced
Studied Social Anthropology at the University of the Basque Country, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh. Currently working on the inclusion of migrants in Southern Italy. Interested in current migration trends, particularly in irregular migration in the Mediterranean Sea.