Care and act as soon as you can: Engaging with children on environmental migration

Our work at the UN Migration Agency (IOM) targets migrants and their communities, through an engagement with public representatives from the national, international, regional or local level. We often work in partnership with researchers, academics, media or non-governmental organizations. In our daily work on migration, environment and climate change our usual interlocutors are adults. We do have a tendency to be carried away in specialized language, drifting away from simple words.

However, at the 2016 climate change conference in Marrakech the IOM Migration, Environmental and Climate Change experts were challenged into responding to questions raised by a different kind of audience: children.

This led to a first engagement with the initiative Globe Reporters, an association that aims to build a bridge between journalism and schools. Children asked us why people have to leave their countries because of climate change and where do they go; how do they manage to eat and sleep while they are on the move? They asked us to tell them the stories of people moving because floods make homes inhabitable or because deserts eat up arable lands.

Based on this initial work, we moved from the global climate talks to the local daily life to engage with a new initiative targeting children. The local public school in Geneva welcomes and integrates children from a large range of countries, and these migrant children and their families experience the everyday lives of migrants by starting a new life in a new country, in a new city and in a new school.

Three dedicated, passionate and dynamic teachers, who “like challenges”, Elodie Ferrantin, Monika Fischer and Clémentine Guinand teamed up with IOM to translate our work on environmental migration into a children friendly experience. They opened their classrooms at the de Budé school and we had the chance to engage with them and with the third and sixth grade children (ages 6-7 and 9-10).

The initiative led to an affluence of ideas that all translated into small practical workshops aimed to make children experience how natural disasters, climate change and the slow degradation of the environment affect the lives of people. The workshops were especially intended to make the children think about how migration comes into the picture: when do you have to leave or when do you choose to leave? When are you trapped in dangerous areas, how do you get out of harm’s way and how can you start a new life in a new environment?

The teachers invented games and led sea level rise, storms, volcanoes and earthquakes experiences in the class room! Puzzles, cross words, memory games, drawings, ice melting and sinking a Playmobile village, and even exploding sugar and chocolate volcanoes, villages and double cream biscuits as a way to understand tectonic plates’ movements have all raised the interest of the kids to the highest level.

Children wondered in particular why people still live in areas at risk, in particular near volcanoes, in seismic regions, in areas affected by regular cyclones and storms, when they know there is such a looming danger. What can be done for them in case the worst happens? They also wondered what they can do in order to preserve the environment so that people do not have to move away. They also imagined how it is to start a new life in friendlier environments but far away from their initial homes. What do you lose and what do you gain through migration?

These questions by children showed how much preventive measures should be wide spread to limit the risks of families tragically losing their homes, cultures and lives. Their own experiences showed how much migration is a parcel of their lives and that many of these children have themselves, or through their families have experienced migration due to floods, storms, earthquakes, drought and sinking deltas.

The earlier we give our children the tools to care about the affected people and about the environment the more we offer a chance for their own children to enjoy a peaceful life.

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Dina Ionesco is the Head of Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division of IOM