The Correlation between Climate Change and Migration: from the Margins to the Mainstream?


While the situations in Syria and at the Mexican border are often understood as traditional refugee crises, the role of climate change as a factor of migration is being left out of the discussion

Teaser Image Caption
Mexican border fence

While the mass movement of people fleeing war-torn Syria is widely recognized as a refugee crisis, the growing number of men, women and children fleeing Central America are more often labeled as economic migrants. In fact, a vast majority are fleeing extreme levels of violence in their communities, from gangs, or at the hands of human traffickers. Yet, this does not necessarily qualify migrants for refugee status under the framework of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Yet, despite the differences in the two crises, an important contributing factor in both migration movements is actually the same: climate change.

Climate change is increasingly becoming a top political priority for global policymakers. One of the first acts proposed by the newest United States House of Representatives was the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to fight climate change, but one that failed to mention climate-induced migration. While referencing provisions for “frontline and vulnerable communities,” the proposal does not include any measures for those who are forced to migrate due to climate change.  Similarly, while the majority of Syrians coming to Europe have qualified for refugee status, the EU has not put in place legal measures to adequately deal with climate migrants from the Sahel region. The Joint Africa-EU strategy that came out of the Africa-EU summit in 2007 does address the need for a common migration policy, as well as to fight illegal migration and human trafficking, but fails to mention climate migration from Africa to the EU. Yet solutions to the growing challenge of climate migration are urgently needed.

Climate change exacerbated the Syrian crisis

Climate change was an important contributing factor to the Syrian conflict in 2011 and the subsequent refugee crisis. Syria lies in the Fertile Crescent, a region considered the birthplace of agriculture, urbanization, writing, science, and trade, which was plentiful in rich and fertile soils that were watered by the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile and Jordan rivers. Yet this “birthplace of agriculture” has, in recent decades, experienced some of its worst droughts in history. As a report published by the Environmental Justice Foundation noted, between 1999 and 2011 Syria experienced two of its worst droughts in history, which resulted in major crop failures. The first occurred in 1999 and caused the barley crop production to drop to less than half of the previous year, leaving nearly 30,000 people food vulnerable. In the period between 2006 and 2011, between 1.3 and 1.5 million Syrians were forced to migrate from their farms due to drought. What followed was an influx of people into the already economically poor cities of Syria, including Aleppo, Damascus, Dara’a, Hama and Homs. According to a World Bank report of 2014, by 2011, 82.5% of Syrians used migration as an “adaptation strategy” in response to the droughts in Syria. The report noted that the increased migration into urban areas led to more unemployment in these already struggling cities, while the lack of action by the Assad regime to help alleviate these pressures contributed to growing political unrest. In the words of Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, climate change functioned as a “threat multiplier,” exacerbating tensions and helping to precipitate the ensuing conflict.

Droughts across Central American are driving migration

Syria is not a unique case in which the consequences of climate change led to migration. In 2018 and 2019, the United States/Mexico border saw a significant influx of migrants from Central America that is likely also linked to environmental factors. In Central America, there is a strip of land called the Dry Corridor, which stretches through Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. The area frequently experiences irregular rainfall and seasons of extreme drought followed by heavy rainfalls. Farmers in the Dry Corridor had developed strategies over centuries to cope with the dry land. However, more recently, climate change has made the land nearly impossible to cultivate. A UN report from 2016 noted that the Dry Corridor experienced its worst drought in ten years, leaving 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. In a region where the economy is highly dependent on agriculture, one bad season of a crop can have a deep impact on the livelihood of local residents. For example, 14 percent of the Honduran economy, and 21 percent of the economy of El Salvador is dependent on agriculture. One of the greatest crops affected in recent years has been the coffee crop, which is also one of the four largest exported crops from Central America. NPR reported that in recent years, 70% of the farms producing coffee plants in the region were affected by the drought, and 1.7 million people lost their jobs in the coffee industry. As a result of this devastation many people decided to leave their land and find work elsewhere. Those who leave can accurately be described as economic migrants, because they are no longer able to make a living from their land. Yet, the underlying problem is that climate change has made their land unsuitable for agriculture.

Farmers are displaced across the Sahel

A growing body of research suggests  that climate change is also an underlying factor in migration both within Africa and from Africa to Europe. Just like farmers in Syria and Central America, farmers in the Sahel Belt of Africa are struggling to continue traditional agricultural activities under increasingly erratic climate conditions. The most affected countries include Northern Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Mali. A UN report of 2013 shows that these countries are experiencing their worst droughts in history and that over 80% of the region’s land is degraded. Similar to the cases of Syria and Central America there is a population that is heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture and no longer able to make a living off of the land. People are forced to leave their homes and about 10% attempt to migrate to Europe.

Climate migrants need international legal protection

As it stands today, there is no internationally binding legal framework to protect the rights of  climate migrants across international borders. The UN 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as having a “well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” Although there is a growing call to develop new legal frameworks for climate migrants, or climate “refugees” as they are sometimes called,  it has most often led to initiatives or conventions with non-binding resolutions. Relief programs are generally designed to help people after a natural disaster or major incident has occurred, but there are no international preemptive measures in place for regions that are severely affected by climate change already.

As climate change increasingly becomes a global policy priority (the recent European Parliament elections have been described as the “climate elections”), there is a new awareness of the need to incorporate climate-induced migration into international legal frameworks in order to better and more proactively address it. The Global Compact for Migration, signed in December 2018, for the first time mentioned climate change as a key factor in migration. Prior to this, there have been a few significant instruments created which reference to climate refugees. The Kampala Convention, which was adopted by the African Union and implemented in 2012, is the first legally binding document in the world which obliges states to protect internally displaced persons (IDPs), including those displaced by natural or man-made disasters. Although an improvement, the Convention still only applies to internal displacement within the states of the African Union. This means that African states are obliged to help persons displaced within their own borders due to climate change, but there is no legal obligation to help those crossing international borders. The UN has also hosted multiple human rights and environmental conventions where the topic of climate refugees and displaced persons have been discussed, without agreeing on legally enforceable instruments.

Growing awareness about the victims of climate change

Mainstream news outlets are increasingly drawing attention to climate migration. The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian have all reported on  climate change as an underlying factor of the migrant caravans from Central America. There is also a growing body of  scholarly articles on climate change as a  factor in the Syrian civil war. In civil society, one of the organizations that has tried to bring the issue of climate migration into the public debate is the Nansen Initiative, which came out of the Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement in Oslo in 2011. The initiative, led by Norway and Switzerland, aims to address cross-border challenges that have arisen due to climate change, including climate refugees. The International Organization of Migration has also outlined policies to address the correlation between migration, climate change and the environment

Yet the most promising momentum is at the grassroots. Movements like the Sunrise Movement, which inspired Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal, or the student-led  “Fridays for Future” movement sparked by the teenage activist Greta Thunberg have succeeded in drawing global attention to the climate crisis. They have had far more success than traditional policy initiatives in overcoming entrenched political interests and advocating for the rights of affected communities. So far, these prominent movements have failed to connect the climate crisis to some of its most vulnerable victims: the poorest farmers forced to abandon their land in Honduras, in Niger, or Syria. Yet it is precisely these people who bear the brunt of the climate crisis and who need a movement to advocate for their rights.