As one of the lowest-lying island nation-states in the world, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is acutely vulnerable to heat, drought, flooding, storms, hurricanes, and the associated impacts on freshwater supply and habitable land. Climatic change often acts in concert with socio-economic factors to drive displacement.
The number of Marshallese residing in Hawaiʻi has rapidly risen over the past two decades. The Marshall Islands Climate and Migration Project conducted 280 interviews with Marshall Islanders in the RMI and Hawaiʻi (see: Methodology) and a geospatial analysis of migration and environmental change (See: Spatial Analysis) to study the extent to which climatic stressors, and their impacts on ecosystems, livelihoods, and habitability, are already driving migration in the RMI.
The results show that the Marshallese primarily cite education, healthcare, and work as motivations for migration to Hawaiʻi (see: Key Findings). However, the picture that emerges is more complex. Many interviewees identify impacts of climate change and weather shocks that affect food security, water security, infrastructure, public health, and safety in the RMI, which are at times enmeshed with migration rationales. This research provides insight into Marshallese perceptions of their migration decisions--past, present, and intended--and indicates where direct correlation and statistical significance fail to emerge at present (see: Linking Climate Change, Ecosystem Services, and Migration).
As depicted in the conceptual framework graphic below, the prevailing understanding of climate-induced migration is that people do not migrate because of climate change as such. Rather climate change's impact on ecosystem services, livelihoods, food security, and well-being will spur movement.
This map uses non-household, geospatial data regarding recent flood extent measures to interpret migration decisions in the context of experience with storm surges.
The following maps present a spatial rendering of ecosystem services as perceived by respondents in the RMI:
Map of household views on the state and trend of food provision
Map of household views on the state and trend of water provision
Map of household views on the state and trend of fuelwood provision
Map of household views on the state and trend of safety provision
Primary research methods
A household survey and 40-question Q-Methdology, each undertaken with the same research participants, were designed to explore perceptions, drivers, and justifications for migration. The household questionnaire generated qualitative and quantitative information, including socio-economic data, the risk-proneness of respondents' homes, the impacts of environmental stressors, trends in ecosystem services, respondents' migration history, and future migration intentions. Use of the Q-Methodology allows respondents to rank statements (from 'strongly agree' to 'strongly disagree,' see image below) and provides a means for researchers to convert qualitative, subjective data into quantitative information by statistically representing these rankings, allowing for the analysis of different and distinct groups within the survey population, beyond individual perceptions.
Photo: Respondent sorting Q statements using the Q-Methodology
A mixed-methods research approach
The Marshall Islands Climate and Migration Project conducted quantitative and qualitative analysis of migration rationales for movement both within the RMI (from the outer islands to Majuro, for instance) and to the state of Hawaiʻi (as well as the Pacific Northwest). A desk study was conducted in order to understand the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, and to further contextualize respondents' perceptions and experiences with the changing climate. Geospatial information from environmental and population databases and censuses was collected to visually depict the decision-maing of participant households, whose GPS locations were recorded during the study.
In the RMI, participatory research methods (transect walks, contextual change listings, fuzzy cognitive mapping, and mobility mapping) were undertaken with the aim of gathering qualitative and visual data to complement the household survey. In Hawaiʻi (and other destination states of the study), outreach was initially aimed at NGOs, the Marshallese Consulate, and known community leaders with the goal of building relationships and exchanging information with the community, primarily using 'snowball sampling' to identify participants.
Photos: An example of a fuzzy cognitive map (left), example of a mobility map (right)
In the RMI, we surveyed 199 households across Majuro (99), Maloelap Atoll (50), and Mejit Island (50)*. The distribution of these households is representative of the total population of the RMI (half live in urban Majuro, the other on outer islands). Majuro is both a source of international migration and a destination for internal migration within the RMI, whereas the two outer islands represent an atoll (Maloelap) and a raised coral island (Mejit), of which there are twenty-nine and five, respectively, throughout the RMI. Additional reasons for selecting these sites was ease of transport (to and from Mejit and Maloelap) and the work already underway with the Marshall Islands Conservation Society (MICS), which offered in situ data on ecosystem services.
In Hawaiʻi, 40 households on Oahu and the Big Island (Hawaiʻi) were selected due to the concentration of diaspora groups, support from community based organisations able to facilitate introductions to the communities, and the provision of interpretation and translation services. Hawaiʻi itself was selected on account of it being one of the primary destinations of Marshallese migrants in the continental U.S.
*This study makes no claim about the relevance of these findings to all islands of the RMI. It is possible that sea level rise, coastal inundation, drought, and freshwater scarcity are more severe in other parts of the RMI, and the legacy of nuclear testing--and related compensation--may affect other islands and their population's migration decisions.
Most households (70.4%) have adopted measures to prevent or adapt to impacts of climate-related stressors, noted below by site:
The following table shows future migration intentions as stated by respondents, when asked if anyone in their household would migrate within the next ten years:
The following graphic indicates the drivers of migration past, present, and future, as perceived by those in the RMI:
The study shows an interesting divergence in findings regarding the reasons for migration among respondents in the RMI and in the U.S. Many more respondents in the U.S. cite environmental problems at home as drivers for moving to the U.S. than those in the RMI.
Top-rated 'Strongly Agree' statements (Q-Methodology)
Top-rated 'Strongly Disagree' statements (Q-Methodology)
On average, education (80%), healthcare (72.5%), economic opportunities (70%), and familial networks (70%) were the drivers of migration respondents most frequently selected/identified. However, 42.5% of respondents stated that environmental factors played a role in influencing their decision to migrate to Hawaiʻi.
Respondents across the study sites also noted that periods or instances of drought, king tides, and heat waves have increased in severity in the last 5-10 years. On average, king tides are perceived as having increased most dramatically, as shown in the above table.
Respondents living in Hawaiʻi also noted their perceptions of the impact of climate-related stressors on ecosystems in their past residences, identifying sea level rise as the most threatening factor (where 1 is a low threat and 5 is a severe threat), shown above.
The questionnaire allowed us to understand the role that environmental factors played in the decision to migrate, but also, more specifically, whether environmental factors affected livelihoods when these respondents did live in the RMI. A small differential in percentage is shown above.
It is also clear that environmental concerns play a role in the consideration of whether to return to the RMI. Above, 65% of respondents in Hawaiʻi stated this influence was present in their thinking. Nonetheless, 62.5% of RMI citizens interviewed in Hawaiʻi plan to return to the Marshall Islands in the future on a more permanent basis. 42.5% plan to migrate elsewhere in the continental U.S.
The Marshallese communities in the RMI, Hawaiʻi, Oregon, and Washington
Please visit our project website here: https://rmi-migration.com/