Global (Warming) Instability 

Is Europe’s refugee crisis actually a climate crisis?

Somali refugees in Kenya
Somali refugees wait for water at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya on April 28, 2015.

Photo by Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Experts have been issuing dire predictions for years that the effects of climate change will eventually lead to an unprecedented number of displaced people. And while the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe has been sparked primarily by violence in the Middle East and North Africa, it has prompted some to ask whether the era of climate refugees has already begun.

To the extent it has entered the public consciousness, the term climate refugee tends to conjure images of Pacific Islanders or people living near the coast of Bangladesh, heading for higher ground when their homes disappear. But it is worth considering whether what we are witnessing in Europe today is the beginning of the climate refugee wave. This raises the tricky issue of how to disentangle overlapping causes of conflict and displacement. Most people displaced by climate change will not be displaced just by climate change. Will we be able to recognize a climate-caused humanitarian crisis when we see it?

Syrians, displaced by the brutal fighting that has wracked their country since 2011, are the largest group among those attempting to reach Europe. Including those displaced within the country, more than half of Syria’s population has been uprooted since the war began, and Syrians are almost single-handedly driving the recent uptick in displaced people around the world. A number of studies have suggested that factors related to global warming, notably a prolonged crippling drought that drove a mass migration of rural workers into Syrian cities between 2006 and 2009. This influx added to other social stresses that led to the 2011 uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s government, which preceded the civil war. And it’s not a coincidence that control of water supplies has been a major strategic priority of the multiple groups fighting in Iraq and Syria, including ISIS.

Drought is obviously only one of the factors that led to the war in Syria. I’m uncomfortable with any theory that downplays the specific decisions of the Syrians who rose up against the government and a leader who would rather gas and barrel bomb his own people than give up power. But more than one thing can be true. Violence can be caused by human folly and cruelty as well as driven by structural factors. There are numerous examples of access to food and water exacerbating underlying tensions and driving political instability. If we accept that this is happening to some extent in Syria, then many of the refugees making the northward journey over the Adriatic or up through the Balkans are, in some sense, climate refugees.

The link is a bit stronger when it comes to the those fleeing Eritrea and Somalia, who account for a great number of those traveling the dangerous “central Mediterranean route” from Libya to Italy and Malta, where some of the crisis’ deadliest tragedies have occurred. Scientists have linked worsening droughts in Northern Africa to the substantial recent rapid warming of the Indian Ocean. Like Syria, Somalia experienced a devastating drought in 2011; this year, an early end to the rainy season and a poor harvest have caused a 17 percent increase in people in food crisis. Two-thirds of those people are internally displaced. Despite official denials and a dearth of reliable statistics about the isolated country’s authoritarian government, Eritrea is also believed to have been badly affected by recent droughts.

Again, the weather is not the only factor driving this migration. Somalia has been in a state of ongoing internal conflict since the late 1980s. Eritrea has one of the most repressive governments on Earth and many of those who leave are fleeing the country’s abusive forced conscription system. The chaos in Libya since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi has also opened a previously closed route north. But changing weather patterns are almost undoubtedly playing a role in displacement as well. As an elderly Eritrean farmer in an Ethiopian refugee camp quoted in a 2012 report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees put it, “The weather has become odder and odder. There used to be floods but today there are no floods. People suffer from famine during the droughts. If there is an absence of rain, nobody can do anything—it is a decision of God.” The report found that most people displaced solely by environmental factors stay within the border of their own countries, but when these factors are combined with ongoing violence, people flee for uncertain sanctuary abroad.

There are signs elsewhere of climate playing an increasing role in human migration. A surge in undocumented immigrants from Central American countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, crossing the southern U.S. border, received national attention last year after the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied minors. Those migrants left their home countries after catastrophic crop failures put thousands at risk of food insecurity. In the United States, they’re rarely seen as refugees at all, never mind climate refugees. In the years to come, nations and bodies will have to decide whether those forced to flee by environmental factors should be accorded the same refugee status as those displaced by war or political oppression.

To some degree, when you’re looking for them, every refugee starts to look like a climate refugee. The world faced massive surges of displaced people crossing borders long before climate change, after all, and in none of the cases above is climate the sole or even the primary cause.  But the difficulty in drawing the line between “refugee” and “climate refugee” is itself telling.

Secretary of State John Kerry said last week in Alaska, “You think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival.” That picture of a future world is distressing enough, but the more alarming question raised by the uncertainty over the current refugee crisis is whether we’ll even know when we’ve entered that world, or if we already live in it.

Also in Slate, see the latest photographs from the European refugee crisis.