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Slate Mag.: ‘Refugee crisis or climate crisis’: ‘Is Europe experiencing the long-predicted first wave of climate refugees?’




Global (Warming) Instability




Is Europe’s refugee crisis actually a climate crisis?


By Joshua Keating

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.


Joshua Keating


Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs.


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.


Will we be able to recognize a climate-caused humanitarian crisis when we see it?

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.