People in the Ahr valley were forced to abandon their homes when they were destroyed in the flood disaster of July 2021. Should we think of them as German climate refugees? This was the question recently posed by the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, and it was really quite remarkable. For when most people in Germany hear the term “climate refugee”, they immediately think of people from Africa, the Middle East or South Asia carrying their last belongings through flooded or otherwise devastated landscapes, desperately seeking shelter.
Many are quite certain that a large proportion of these non-European climate refugees will seek this shelter in Europe. This is a theme much loved by the media too: back in the 2000s, for example, the Financial Times was already expressing the fear that climate change would create a “human tsunami” heading towards Europe. So, is climate change about to unleash a huge refugee crisis at the borders of Europe? Or will the challenges facing Europe as a result of climate change-induced migration take a different form entirely?
Research into “climate migration” is putting fears of a possible “mass influx” of climate refugees into Europe in the near future well and truly into perspective. For when people leave their homes as the result of droughts, floods or other effects of global warming, they generally do not go very far. The vast majority of them stay in their own country or flee to a neighbouring one.
Since climate and environmental change mostly affects poorer populations in the Global South – smallholder families, for example – they simply do not have the financial resources to migrate to Europe. Some of them are so poor that they cannot migrate anywhere at all. These are the people, sometimes termed “trapped populations”, who will be hardest hit by the effects of ecological change.
Moreover, migration and flight are rarely caused by climate change alone. Armed conflicts, economic insecurity, the political environment or demographics almost always play a role too. This is the main reason why there is no generally accepted legal, scientific or political definition of terms such as “climate refugee”, “climate migration” or “climate migrant” – and also why they should always be put in quotation marks.
Added to this is the fact that climate-related flight and migration is usually a circular process: many people do not leave permanently, instead returning to their homes at some point, sometimes quite soon. In the case of temporary labour migration, this can also have beneficial effects: individuals work elsewhere for a time, earn money and may then be able to offset the climate-related damage and losses experienced by their households. Whether and at what point migration constitutes an adaptation strategy in the face of the impacts of climate change has become a key question in “climate migration” research over the last few years.
Even if predictions of an apocalyptic, largely climate change-induced refugee crisis at the borders of Europe are unlikely to come to pass, there are still no grounds for equanimity, much less complacency. Rising sea-levels alone will cause more and more territory – or even, in the case of some island states in the Pacific, entire countries – to become uninhabitable or disappear altogether within the next few years and decades. Consequently, “climate migration” is inevitably going to become an even greater social and political challenge throughout the world. Exact projections are impossible, but it seems likely that these mobility processes will continue to take place primarily within affected countries and regions.
It is also important to note that neither the direct effects of climate change, nor the migration of which they are the main cause, automatically or inevitably result in more armed conflicts. As with the relationship between climate change and migration, the relationship between climate change and conflict is also highly complex. Whether or not more, or more extreme, droughts or flooding events increase the likelihood of armed conflict in a country also depends to a very large extent on political, institutional and socioeconomic factors.
What is clear, however, is that climate change and climate-related migration are often risk-multipliers that have the potential to trigger instability in the immediate vicinity of Europe as a result of resource conflicts or social tensions – and that this then has knock-on effects for Europe too. And, as we have seen from the question about German climate refugees from the Ahr valley, something else is clear too: even people in the “Old Continent” are not immune to climate change-induced migration. A rise in sea-levels of more than one metre could make most of the Netherlands plus coastal areas in other parts of Europe virtually uninhabitable within a few decades.
So what should political actors in Europe and around the world be doing about “climate migration”? The complex interactions between climate change and migration demand differentiated, context-specific answers. Nevertheless, all these answers should be guided by the following principles: forced migration should be prevented wherever possible; the potential benefits of migration (financial remittances to home countries, for example) should be promoted; and human rights-based strategies should be adopted in order to ensure decent living conditions for migrants, their families and vulnerable population groups in general.
The multifaceted nature of “climate migration” means that action is required at all levels, from the global to the local, and that those responsible for migration policy, climate policy, rural development and urban planning should be working closely with a wide range of community groups. There are already a few programmes and initiatives in place to address particular aspects of climate/environment-related migration at the global level – the Platform on Disaster Displacement (PDD), for example. However, ideally there would be a central body that could bring together a wide range of different organisations and actors with a mandate to develop comprehensive norms and guidelines for handling the complex challenges posed by “climate migration”.
This body would also support related efforts at the regional, national and local levels, since these are of particular importance. Proper funding would be essential, and Europe would have a particular obligation to commit itself accordingly since, as part of the Global North, it has been responsible for a large proportion of the global greenhouse gases emitted since the start of the industrial era. It is also very much in Europe’s own interests to support neighbouring regions in dealing with the various issues arising from climate change, including mobility.
Above all, EU and European governments must also prepare themselves for the fact that climate change will increasingly lead to migration and resettlement within Europe, too. As an important first step, scenario planning should take place in order to predict the likely scale of this and, even more importantly, to generate concrete proposals as to how governments can tackle the challenges arising from it. This will require a deep grasp of the issues – something that Europe needs to develop as a matter of urgency.
Translated by Paula Kirby, Voxeurop.
Dr Benjamin Schraven is an independent researcher and consultant, and an Associate Fellow of the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS). He advises the European Union and other bodies on flight and migration, always with a focus on the links with climate change.