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Climate Migration: The Value of Refugee Perspectives

Author: Jessica Powell of Department of Geography, University of Zurich

Climate migration has been the topic of increasing speculation over the last decade. While the term “climate refugee” is not currently recognized in international law, climate change is a new reality, which may force amendments to this stance. Europe holds the largest share of the global international migrant population; many of these are asylum seekers who take contentious and dangerous routes over the Mediterranean, often to a lukewarm or even hostile reception (Migration Data Portal; McAuliffe & Triandafyllidou). What effect will worsening climate change impacts have on an already increasing flow of global migration?

Mavrovouni Refugee Camp, Lesvos, Greece. Photo by Jessica Powell.

Current methods of estimating climate migration leave many gaps, especially in understanding the influence of gradual, complex relationships – for example between drought and conflict (Migration Data Portal; Gemenne; Hoffmann et al.; McAuliffe & Triandafyllidou; Burrows & Kinney). These difficulties stem from the inherently local and multi-dimensional nature of migration decisions, and the broad, large scale nature of climate and migration datasets. Migration decisions happen at the individual and community level, and are influenced by a range of factors from geopolitical and socioeconomic status, to knowledge networks and cultural perceptions of hazards (Van Praag; Migration Data Portal; Henry et al.; Gemenne; Hoffmann et al.). Research gaps also arise from a lack of meteorological stations and climate data collection in many parts of the world, which leads to uncertainty in observed trends and future models, especially on a regional level (IPCC Interactive Atlas; IPCC WGII AR6 report). The inclusion of refugee perceptions of environmental change and its influence on migration can therefore be very valuable (De Longueville et al.; Koubi et al.; Brüssow et al.; Parsons & Østergaard Nielsen; Steynor & Pasquini).

Our Interview Study

In early 2022, we conducted 27 semi-structured interviews with refugees and asylum seekers in Greece from eleven different countries. Questioning focused on how the climate had changed over their lifetimes and whether it was inducing migration in their countries of origin.

The majority of interviewees, 93%, did not believe climate change had played a role in their personal migration, but 59% did believe that climate change is a reason that people migrate from their country in general. When asked if climate change is reason people migrate from their country, 33% from the Middle East region, 67% from the Sahel, 100% from Sub-Saharan Africa, and 100% from Horn of Africa said yes.

The distribution of mentions of each climate-related impact in the interview transcripts. Created by Jessica Powell.

“If you ask me about the weather, the weather has changed a lot, from what I know when I grow in this world. It changed a lot, like not like before – the season even they change. Like the winter is not coming exactly on time, and the summer is not coming exactly on time. Before the flower, when you put it in the earth, she come quick, and she give a lot (of flowers). But because the weather is changing, it doesn’t come like before,” a refugee from Syria explained.

“In Iran, I was there 35 years, climate change I was feeling. There are 7 or 8 cities in Iran, with climate change over there, with no water…no water for (farmlands). The water from the well, there was nothing, because they get dry, the wells over there, and for these reasons they migrated to another city or someplace good for farming. Before, when we dig the well, in 60 meters you can reach the water. Right now, you just can’t reach the water, drinkable water…right now it doesn’t make sense to even (dig wells) because there is no water, even rain. There is a (drought). Forty years ago it was good water, everywhere there were wells. Now they are completely dry,” an Afghan refugee described.

From the Middle East, migration was mentioned most frequently in connection to water scarcity, followed by agricultural difficulties. Interviewees spoke of sinkholes due to groundwater shortages, empty wells, difficulties finding water, entire cities which had dried up and been abandoned, decreases in lake sizes, rivers drying up, transboundary water disputes, changes in seasonal and rainfall patterns, difficulties producing the same crops they once could, and farmer livelihoods struggling for this reason. Increased cold spells and snowfall were also mentioned, as well as air pollution, heat waves and wildfires. 

From the Sahel, agricultural difficulties were said to be the primary climatic drivers of migration, followed by water scarcity and changes in precipitation patterns. An interviewee from Burkina Faso explained:

“For some years, it has been getting much worse, because the dry season is much longer and the rains are more rare, and that is very difficult for the population who lives on agriculture. You know even until now every day people are dying.”

This is a population highly dependent on rain-fed agriculture and monsoon seasonality, so interviewees emphasized that changes in seasonal rainfall patterns were causing great challenges for the region. The death of animals, difficulties growing crops, famine, aridity, drought, deforestation, and high numbers of rural-urban migrants facing unemployment in cities were the primary climate related drivers of migration mentioned by interviewees. In Nigeria, sea level rise and pollution were said to be the primary climatic drivers of migration, due to loss of homes and land.

An interviewee from Guinea stated: “The water sometimes is very difficult for us there, yes, to find water sometimes is not easy… Maybe 40% of people migrate for the climate.”

From the Horn of Africa, agricultural difficulties were said to be the primary driver of migration, followed by water scarcity and land change. Agricultural famine, drought, aridity, decreasing rainfall, changing seasonal patterns, transboundary water disputes, loss of vegetation, unsustainable practices, land use change (both deforestation and desertification), death of animals, famine, and rural-urban population growth were reported in the interviews from this region. These factors were said to interact with each other in worsening cycles.

“They always wait raining time to farm, to get some water. It starts some few months it’s raining, and in summer there is no rain, and sometime rain comes late, and people dying for hunger for that. Because of climate change, because rain is getting late. They were waiting, and then no rain coming, because of climate change,” an interviewee from Somalia said.

Interviewees from Sub-Saharan Africa mentioned flooding as the primary climatic driver of migration. Increasing intensity of devastating flood events, deforestation, agricultural difficulties, pests and disease, and changes in seasonal precipitation patterns were mentioned, often interacting with each other in cycles. Interviewees from the Democratic Republic of Congo focused on deforestation, while those from South Sudan said the country is heavily affected by flooding, leading to displacement events, in addition to worsening locust plagues. In Ivory Coast, climate change effects included increased disease. The flow chart below highlights the complexity of factors associated with climate migration.

Flow chart of how socio-economic, geopolitical, and physical factors interact to play a role in migration, based around the subject of water scarcity. Created by Jessica Powell.

Discrepancies with Climate Data

Perceptions are a subjective study, and while they can reveal climate change effects in poorly studied areas, they do not always align with the available climate data (De Longueville et al.; Koubi et al.; Brüssow et al.; Parsons & Østergaard Nielsen; Steynor & Pasquini). These discrepancies can nonetheless provide interesting insights. An instance of this was seen in the interviews, regarding one notable climate impact mentioned by those from Syria and Afghanistan: an increase in intense cold spells. Both past observations and future projections for cold spells have high confidence in decreasing trends, according to the IPCC data (IPCC Interactive Atlas; IPCC WGII AR6 Report). One explanation for this could be that wars in these countries are causing fuel shortages for the citizens, hence they do not have heating during the winter as they once did, and the cold is perceived to be more severe. Fuel shortages were mentioned by three interviewees, one in Syria and two in Afghanistan. One interviewee from Afghanistan mentioned that families were burning old tyres to keep warm. However, it could also be that cold spells are getting more intense, yet happen less often, so the statistical mean is still decreasing – this inverse perception/statistical mean relationship is a common phenomenon. This is one reason why perceptions are important to include in climate assessments, and why broad scale climate data has its limitations in determining climate migration decisions (IPCC Interactive Atlas; Gemenne; Hoffmann et al.; McAuliffe & Triandafyllidou; IPCC WGII AR6 Report).  

Moria Refugee Camp post-fire. Photo by Jessica Powell.
Mavrovouni Refugee Camp, Lesvos, Greece. Photo by Jessica Powell.

Sustainability and Agricultural Practices

Feedback cycles and perceptions of environmental damage are also important to investigate in the context of mitigating climate driven migration. One study in Somalia found that perceptions of negative climate change impacts amongst young people increased their willingness to use sustainable farming techniques, and turn away from the charcoal trade (Jama et al.). The damage from this trade was explained by one refugee from Somalia,

“They don’t know more about the environment, they cut the trees… They cut the trees, and make (charcoal) so they can cook the food, and they also send to other countries, export the cut trees. And the main reason is every ship who come to Somali ports, bringing food or clothes, they will go back full of woods, they call it black wood (charcoal). More desert, yeah more desert now….  My father told me it was forest, and now you can see it’s desert.”

“And there is also another problem in Somalia; they farm lemon, before they farmed something like beans, for the people and the animals, but now they start to farm lemon, or other things that they export. And also (sesame seeds). Every time the farmer (grows these seeds) he gets cash very easily. So before they were farming food they could eat, and they dig the hole to keep it safe, so all year they can eat, and also the animal. So all the people, they start farming this (sesame seed) and lemon, and this (gets sold) outside of Somalia. So once there is no rain, they suffer a lot (because they don’t have any food.) Before they had a culture of saving food…but now they don’t have anything saved, so they suffer.”

Transboundary Water Resources

“I was in 17 cities in Iran. Everything has changed in this time since I was a child. 25 years ago I went to (a city in the middle of Iran), in the desert, and after 20 years I went over (again) to the same place, the same village, and it was completely destroyed, there was nothing there, everybody left, because there was no water over there. Right now, they migrate to big cities in Iran…those who have some money or can travel, prefer to go to Europe or some other countries,” one Afghan refugee explained.

The sharing of water resources between countries can be a source of conflict or cohesion, and is another important research area in the context of climate migration. For example, the Afghan damming of the Helmand River flowing between Afghanistan and Iran has caused a rift between the countries, as the water is no longer flowing into an already water-strapped Iran from the mountains in Afghanistan (Goes et al.). Three of the interviewees mentioned the Helmand Dam as a source of conflict, leading to frustration with the government, protests, and migration to Europe. Afghan refugees in Iran already face ethnic discrimination and are often unable to ever fully integrate into the country or society (Hugo et al.). Now they are being used as a bargaining tool against the Taliban to coerce the group into opening the Helmand River again, according to the interviewees. When asked if scarcity of water is a big problem in Iran, an interviewee replied: “Yeah. Especially with Afghanistan, in Afghanistan right now there is a dam, because of this no water comes to Iran. And for that the Iranian people, and the government are angry, and so they deport the Afghan people. Maybe 1 week or 2 weeks ago they put a big truck, full of Afghan people, and they send them back to Afghanistan. Because they escape from the Taliban, but because they have no water (in Iran), they send them back to Afghanistan. (You think they send them back because of the water?) Yes, every time it’s like this.”

A similar conflict was mentioned by an interviewee from Somalia,

“We have two rivers in Somalia, and we get it from Ethiopia these rivers. And when Ethiopia feels there is no water, they need a lot of water, they close. Like now, there are two rivers, the backbone of Somalia. They build dams, so they close (the river) in Ethiopia. So now the river is like highway, there is no rain coming, and they don’t have the (tools) to get the water from the ground; they suffer a lot, and the main reason is climate change.”

A Need to Reframe Climate and Economic Migration

Interestingly, what is considered climate migration often overlaps with “economic migration” – the influx of migrants only seeking out job opportunities. It seems people are more willing to accept the narrative of “climate refugees,” who were forced to leave because of drought, than those who can find no livelihood in country and come in search of jobs. The fact that is ignored here is that those who leave because of drought and other slow onset events are more often than not leaving because their livelihoods are no longer viable. As farming becomes impossible, people move to cities with high unemployment rates, and subsequently migrate internationally to find work – at what point does it stop being climate migration and start being economic migration? Maybe it is time to rethink the terminology altogether.

An interviewee from Somalia explains:

“Most people when they lost their animals, and they find there is no rain, they try to escape. And they try to reach the cities so they can get food, and once they get there, they think they have no way to go back, because all the animals died – cows, goats, camels, so they stay there in the cities. And now there are many people in the capitals, and there are no more opportunities for jobs. You can find every street, many people sitting there, and the main reason is climate change. And now a lot of the people start to come to the cities, especially the capital. And when you walk you see other people packing. They said we are in famine. There is a line in the city, father, children, grandfather, grandmother…they suffer and they pack, and they walk to camps…because of climate change.”

Similar sentiments were echoed from an interviewee from the Gambia:

“Climate change really has affected my country. The rain really dropped…its not raining anymore as it was before. And then also so many countries on my journey coming to Greece here which are also facing the same kind of dry, especially the countries close to the Sahara, like the desert – Mali, Niger – they are very dry, and climate change is affecting so many of those countries as well, places relying on agriculture. ‘Cause if the climate is not suitable for them, the agriculture system goes down. They don’t have enough rain to grow the crops… If you’re farming, if your livelihood is on the farm, in the end you see your family suffering all the time, like famine. They would rather go out and look for greener pasture. It affects so many people.”

Suggestions Going into the Future

While those interviewed in Greece had fled because of war, conflict, and persecution, there was a pervasive awareness of others from their countries who had been displaced by climate change. Lessons to be gained from this going into the future could be that international policies ought to be reframed to include the category of climate migrants, with an eye to a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of how it presents itself. Simultaneously, there needs to be an improvement of adaptive capacities in countries of origin in order to build resilience to climate impacts. For instance, inclusive planning in cities with high numbers of rural migrants, to equalize economic opportunities, may be one immediate solution. Developed countries most responsible for climate change should drive this, but begin with and make a concerted effort to understand local perceptions, needs, and culture, while also helping to improve monitoring systems to improve the evidence base. By using a more holistic approach, a clearer understanding of the nature of climate migration should surface, allowing humanity to respond to it in an appropriate and equitable way.


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