Press "Enter" to skip to content

Climate change claims its share in the refugee crisis

by Raul Cazan

There is definitely a link between climate change and international refugee movements, says Gregory White, associate professor at Smith College and author of Climate Change and Migration: Security and Borders in a Warming World.

“But as soon as one acknowledges and explores that link it has to be deeply contextualized. The linkages are very complicated. Throughout the last decade or two, Syria and the entire Mediterranean basin has experienced the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. The evidence is profound. This has affected water supplies, crops, and economic performance,” adds White for 2Celsius Network.

And it has contributed in complex ways to other political dynamics.

Fayed, a Syrian youngster in his early 20s, told 2C on the train from Szeged to Budapest, that his family moved from a rural locality in central Syria to Aleppo in 2010 and then to Al-Bab. The reason was the neverending drought that emptied the village in a couple of years. They all left for the big city.

At the Keleti Station in Budapest, Ali, an elderly Syrian mechanical engineer, but born in Tikrit, Iraq, said the same thing, but from a rather different perspective: the population of his neighbourhood in Aleppo doubled in the years before the civil war due to inflows of people from the regions of Ar-Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor.

Refugees at the Keleti Train Station in Budapest, Hungary. Photo: 2C
Refugees at the Keleti Train Station in Budapest, Hungary. Photo: 2C

From 2007 to 2010, Syria experienced the worst drought in its history of records. “This drought is part of a trend of declining winter precipitation in the region, that has been linked to climate change (Hoerling et al, 2011). According to a more recent study, climate change made this drought 2-3 times more likely (Kelley et al, 2015)”, explain for 2C, Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, Co-Founders and Directors, The Center for Climate and Security in Washington, D.C.

Combined with natural resource mismanagement by the Assad regime, who subsidized water-intensive agriculture such as cotton-farming, and encouraged wasteful practices such as flood irrigation, this drought led to the loss of a significant percentage of Syria’s crop and rangeland, and the displacement of at least 2 million farmers and herders, many of whom fled to urban centers, add Femia and Werrell.


A few years ago, just before the signing of the Cancun Adaptation Framework in 2010, Mohamed Mijarul Quayes, ex-Foreign Secretary at Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, mentioned a phenomenon known as the tadpole effect. In short, the metropolis is growing with people wiggling their way for food and other resources into the city from the rural provinces due to environmental stress.

This massive internal displacement went largely unnoticed by the international community, and in 2011, Syria was broadly believed to be immune to the instability that other “Arab Spring” countries were experiencing, say Femia and Werrell. And they add, “while it is not clear exactly how this displacement contributed to the revolutionary movement, it is clear that Syria was already an unstable place, and that climatic stresses were playing a role in that instability.”

Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, The Center for Climate and Security, Washington, D.C.
Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, The Center for Climate and Security, Washington, D.C.

Thus, Femia and Werrell assert, from 2007 to 2010, a climate-exacerbated drought contributed to a mass internal displacement of peoples in Syria; that displacement contributed to the instability that preceded the conflict, and that conflict is driving the current refugee crisis.

“I agree with the Bangladeshi diplomat,” says White. “Climate change can contribute to more proximate, intra-country or intra-regional urbanization. This is a real challenge for cities, of course. And it can prompt subsequent migration pressures.”

On the other hand, “to migrate internationally takes resources that are often unavailable to poor rural and urban dwellers, so to treat cities as way-stations for climate migration is […] incomplete,” adds White.

So to ignore the past and future impact of climate change on migration would be naive.

“Yet, at the same time, to point to a direct causal link between climate change and large scale refugee movements would be worse than naive; it would ignore more immediate and pressing causes of the refugee and forced migrant flows (e.g., conflict, failed governance, inadequate diplomacy, outright intervention and support for combatants, etc.). People are fleeing Syria and Iraq and Eritrea and Libya for all kinds of complicated reasons, of which climate change is a piece,” says White.

The current flow of Syrian refugees into neighboring countries and Europe is directly the result of a brutal civil war being waged in that country, assert Femia and Werrell. The impossibility of a secure livelihood, as a result of the war, is the proximate cause of this refugee crisis. No one is claiming to be leaving Syria “because of climate change.”

Sheep herder in Eastern Syria. (Photo free from copyright)
Sheep herder in Eastern Syria. (Photo free from copyright)

“However, an Assad regime that was incapable of, or unwilling to, adequately manage the country’s water and food resources in the face of a changing climate, set the conditions for a significant amount of internal displacement in the years leading up to the conflict. It is difficult to argue that Syria was a stable nation, as many analysts were at the time, while such a significant internal displacement was occurring,” add Femia and Werrell.

So, Femia and Werrell conculde, a changing climate, and extreme drought, are simply part of the picture of a weakening Syrian state prior to the uprising.

There are also the “involuntarily immobile.” The most vulnerable populations sometimes do not even have the resources or networks necessary for moving to a better place, and those populations can find themselves trapped in increasingly inhospitable environments, mention Femia and Werrell.

Migration as adaptation

Migration has been referred to as a problem. It also is a solution. In the global community there are these propensities of building walls, assessed Quayes, however migration is part of adaptation. Displacement, however, is a phenomenon that will have to require multiple levels of response. Adaption issues are extremely complex, but migration refers only to mobility. “Migration is a choice, so I would use the term displacement,” ends Quayes.

Treating migration as a necessary adaptation to future climate change “is not a bad thing per se”, says White. Of course, he adds, “if/when people have to move because of gradual climate change or a cataclysmic event prompted by climate change, then they are definitely adapting.”41WlDGwpX4L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

The one problem, however, with adaptation as the focus is that it (again) absolves governments, firms, and people from the necessary efforts to mitigate the causes, stresses White.

In a world where climate change is likely to place increased strains on natural resources, it is reasonable to project that migration flows will increase, believe Femia and Werrell.

“The key is for the international community to focus on helping people build resilience to these climatic changes, as well as to lessen the changes themselves. And in situations where adapting in situ is impossible, the international community needs to provide institutions that are capable of absorbing, in a humanitarian way, increases in migration. Security establishments across the world are telling us that it is past time to prepare for and lessen climate change risks. It’s now up to our civilian policy-makers to take action.”

Migration, displacement, and relocations were featured for the first time in the text of the Cancun Adaptation Framework in 2010 as technicalities and international cooperation issues, which underline certain activities that qualify for adaptation funding. Human mobility in the context of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is different from other international protocols such as the Geneva Convention (1951).

Jose Miguel Guzman with the UNFPA (United Nations’ Population Fund) mentioned that “migration and climate change are linked deeply. Rapid urbanization will occur in the next years in Asia and Africa, especially.”  Two factors have to be combined – high movements of populations and plans for adaptation with subsequent start funding under the UN.

Climate refugees. Security issues

Professor White thinks that we cannot name the refugees arriving in Europe “climate refugees.” “I think it would be a grave error. It would contribute further to treating climate change as a security challenge (to be met by border security measures and useless handwringing) and it would absolve sending and receiving governments from dealing with more immediate causes.”

Most of the individuals in the Middle East are fleeing from conditions precipitated by political violence, not a changing climate, assess Femia and Werrell. “However, it is important to not forget the role that extreme climatic conditions, and the inability of governments to adequately manage those conditions, plays in stressing livelihoods, and weakening the social contract between governments and publics. In the case of Syria, climatic change seems to have played a role in dramatically declining winter precipitation, which has played a role in decimating livelihoods and displacing millions of people.”

Given that future projections for the region paint a picture of continued drying, it will be critical for governments in the region, and the international community, to do something serious about climate change, water and food security. Otherwise, the two researchers add, “nations will find it difficult-to-impossible to rebuild in a resource-stressed world.”

Migration is going to happen anyway and it is not the solution, but just an opportunity. Migration as adaptation is bringing a little difference – it is perceived on the long term and it has to be planned. Displacement and migration are the deepest human dimensions of climate change. Even the IPCCC cautioned in the 1990s that population is one of the most powerful effects of climate change.
A famous author was saying anecdotally that failed states and poverty are more important determinants of climate change than even CO2. Eradicating poverty and stabilizing the population is the first step of the response to climate change in Lester Brown’s Plan B.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.