Migration and climate change

Sawsan Samy Elawady , Wednesday 15 May 2024

Al-Ahram Weekly sheds light on human stories of migration in Africa and the MENA region as a result of climate change.



People move for many reasons, economic, social, and political. Today, climate change has emerged as a major driver of migration, pushing increasing numbers of people to move from vulnerable areas to more livable ones where they can rebuild their lives.

However, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, the world is not “prepared for the increasing waves of migration due to climate change,” where “90 per cent of the refugees in the world come from areas that are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.”

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) also warned last September that “the world has officially entered the era of climate migration” and called for action to be taken to address the impact of climate change on population movements.

The climate crisis is reshaping the world through changes in temperature, rainfall patterns, the frequency and intensity of weather phenomena, and in other ways. These things are also affecting poorer people the most in some of the most vulnerable places in the world. It all adds up to a bleak picture of the loss of livelihoods, the inability of governments to adapt and build the resilience of communities, and, in some cases, political instability and conflict.

A new World Bank report says that by 2050 the worsening effects of climate change in three densely populated regions of the world could cause more than 140 million people to move within their countries’ borders. It identifies “hotspots” for climate-related internal and external migration that include risk-prone areas from which people are expected to move and locations to which they will attempt to move to build new lives and livelihoods.

It looks closely at three countries, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and Mexico, each of which has different climatic, livelihood, demographic, development, and migration patterns. When reading the report, it must be remembered that behind the trends it describes are real people with dreams, hopes, and ambitions, people like the two whose lives have been transformed in different ways by the effects of climate change described below.

Asaad, a Sudanese boy who immigrated to Egypt from Sudan, tells how he was playing with his cousin in the courtyard of their house built of mud in the Sudanese countryside when suddenly “the world became dark, and I could no longer see anything.” Water was pouring in from every direction as a result of floods, and the fragile walls of the house were demolished. The wooden supports fell, turning the family’s only shelter into ruins.

His cousin was seriously injured, while Asaad suffered scratches on his arms.

Asaad left Sudan for Egypt and settled there after a journey that experts call “climate migration”. Thousands of other children consider him to be “the lucky one”, as they wait in long lines to complete immigration procedures. Or, as Asaad says, they hand themselves over to smugglers to take them across the border illegally.

Tears fill his eyes as he remembers his ordeal. He managed to survive, “but what about my comrades,” he asks.

Asaad says that life in Egypt is safe, but he still thinks of Sudan and his heart is attached to his fellows there. In a hoarse voice filled with emotion, he said “stop climate change and help reduce its effects for our sake... for the future of today’s children.”

Thirteen-year-old Asaad was lucky that he was not among the many who lost their lives as a result of the floods that struck Sudan between May and September last year, harming about 300,000 people and damaging more than 45,000 homes as well as destroying more than 17,600 others.

The floods also threatened food security in the country after affecting more than 5,000 hectares of agricultural land, leaving a fifth of Sudanese people facing one of the worst food insecurity crises in their history.

Famuta, a woman from Niger, says the fields “turned into desert” in her native country. The animals “died, and it was as if nothing was alive.” She was displaced by drought as a result of climate change and forced to leave her home. She left behind everything she owned, saying that “the drought had nothing to eat except our possessions.”

Famuta took refuge in an area adjacent to the Nigerian border to live in difficult conditions. “My children do not go to school, and we cannot access drinking water and food,” she said.

Despite the support provided by international organisations in Niger, this is not enough “compared to the scale of the successive disasters.” Famuta said that her people need “much greater international support,” as in Niger “incomes are low, capabilities are limited, and the disasters are horrific.”


HUMAN RIGHTS: The human-rights impacts of climate change-related migration are the focus of a new report prepared by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The report focuses on the Sahel region in Africa, which includes Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea and Chad, and highlights some of the basic human-rights challenges that this region faces due to the close interrelation between climate change and migration. It calls for the adoption of measures to help prevent climate change and mitigate its effects.

The report outlines some of the “many, multifaceted, and complex” impacts of climate change on human rights in the Sahel region, such that the right to life, health, housing, food, water and sanitation, all of which are at risk of sudden disasters.

Most people’s livelihoods in the Sahel depend on agriculture, pastoralism, and fishing, and these are severely affected by climate change. Scientists expect that climate change in Mali could eventually cause a decline in agricultural capacity of between 30 and 40 per cent, for example. Fish stocks off the coast of Senegal declined by 80 per cent in 2017 alone.

The decline in agricultural production in Nigeria constitutes a “weapon against peace”, the report says.

Climate change also has significant impacts on the right to life in the Sahel region. Rising sea levels in coastal areas exacerbate the risk of death, injury, and physical and mental illness. Floods and heavy rains may increase exposure to water-borne diseases and insects, while dry seasons may increase the likelihood of people consuming unsafe water.

In some cases, people choose to leave their homes to avoid these effects. However, they may not have safe routes, a clear plan, or adequate support, and they may face increased risks during their journey and upon arrival in their places of refuge.

Others may have little choice but to remain, and in doing so they may be more vulnerable to human-rights threats.

Othman Al-Bilbisi, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) at the IOM, warns of the repercussions of climate change in the increase in internal displacement in the region.

Twelve of the 17 countries that suffer most from water stress are located in the MENA region, he says, and in 2022 alone 305,000 people were internally displaced due to disasters in the region, according to reports from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, an international NGO.

According to Al-Bilbisi, Iraq is the fifth most vulnerable country to climate collapse. It is affected by rising temperatures, insufficient and decreasing rainfall, worsening droughts and water scarcity, frequent sand and dust storms, and floods, all of which have led to an increase in climate migration.

At the end of 2021, the IOM recorded nearly 20,000 people displaced due to water scarcity in 10 out of 19 Iraqi governorates, and high salinity, and poor water quality throughout the country. A study conducted by the Norwegian Refugee Council in 2021 found in areas affected by drought that one person from every 15 families had to migrate in search of work.

A World Bank report predicts that up to 19.3 million people will be internally displaced due to the effects of climate change by 2050 in North Africa alone. In addition, there were 12.7 million people who remained displaced due to conflict, violence, and fragility at the end of 2022 in the MENA region.

In Egypt, although the country’s total area is one million square km and is divided into four environmental and geographical regions, agricultural production is mainly concentrated in the Nile Valley and the Nile Delta. The River Nile is the main source of irrigation water, which has led to greater population density in the Valley and Delta ogvernorates.

There is a link between desertification and other environmental problems and migration. Cities in Egypt are vulnerable to climate-induced migration and will suffer environmentally, socially, economically, and politically from climate change or disaster-induced rural-urban migration.

The results of the last census in Egypt in 2017 showed a significant change in internal migration trends in the country, with the total number of migrants from the coastal and Delta governorates reaching about 3.5 per cent of the total number of migrants. Alexandria governorate came in first in terms of numbers, followed by Sharqiya, Damietta, and Port Said.

Lower temperatures attract more work migration, family migration, and marriage migration. A study conducted in 2021 confirmed that much of the population had migrated to Cairo and Giza, where temperatures are lower and job opportunities are greater.

Migration has been concentrated in productive age groups or those of working age, which indicates that internal migration in Egypt is often aimed at obtaining better job opportunities.


EGYPT AND CLIMATE MIGRATION: Africa is the most affected continent to climate change and has also witnessed the emergence of refugees over a long period.

 The continent has witnessed climate migration for decades. However, scientists did not link migration to climate change before the 1980s, when drought displaced large numbers of Ethiopians to neighbouring countries.

People who flee their countries due to the risks of climate change are considered environmental migrants, not refugees, and it is the IOM that registers them, not the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Climate change has caused patterns of displacement within the continent in specific countries. More than a million Somalis have been displaced to neighbouring countries due to deadly droughts, and hundreds of South Sudanese are displaced annually due to the rainy season, which has been becoming more and more intense, for example.

Egypt is one of the top destinations for environmental migrants due to its geographical location and moderate climate.

Many Sudanese come to Egypt every year owing to the persecution of members of non-Arab tribes. In addition, refugees arrive daily in Egypt from Somalia due to drought and from South Sudan due to heavy rainy seasons and persecution by various agencies of the government or rebel groups. Egypt has become a refuge for migrants from neighbouring countries due to climate change.

Today, no area is safe from environmental hazards. The frequency of sudden and latent risks, including extreme heat waves, floods, and droughts, will only become greater in a warming climate.

It will be crucial to take urgent action to mitigate and adapt to climate change and facilitate the safe, orderly, and regular migration of people affected by it, including by strengthening and providing access to regular migration pathways and ensuring decent work for migrant workers.

This could help to dissuade the affected people from resorting to unstable or irregular migration, including falling into the hands of smugglers, while providing greater certainty and predictability for all.

Comprehensive community-led adaptation and mitigation measures reinforced by adequate climate financing could also allow affected communities to develop resilience and increase opportunities for people to migrate voluntarily, rather than involuntarily.

There are calls for countries to integrate human-mobility scenarios into their climate-change policies, plans, and actions. Key to this is the recognition that the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are all interconnected and provide a mutually reinforcing framework that should be implemented simultaneously.

Policy measures or legislation regulating or relating to migration in the context of climate change should remain consistent with human rights and labour obligations.

In particular, human-mobility scenarios should be included in national climate-change action plans on the basis of meaningful consultation and the systematic assessment of the impact of climate change on population movements and the movements of migrants themselves, ensuring the collection of relevant data disaggregated by age, gender, and migration status among other characteristics.

Integrated, principled, and comprehensive measures and plans in the field of climate-change adaptation and mitigation should be developed and implemented to avoid, reduce, and confront the negative impacts of climate change and environmental degradation on local communities, including losses and damages, while giving priority to interventions with significant social, economic, and health gains. All this should be done while respecting the human and labour rights of migrants.

People affected by disasters, climate change, and environmental degradation, especially young people who are more likely to be reactive to non-climate-related shocks, should be involved in planning and implementing response measures at the national and local levels. They should be engaged in effective and informed participation in relevant decision-making processes, risk assessment, and the planning and implementation of climate-based measures.

Human rights, a focus on decent work, the safeguarding the interests of children, and sensitivity to gender differences should all be emphasised.

Safe, orderly, and regular migration should be promoted by protecting, promoting, and fulfilling the rights of migrants and their communities and promoting regular migration pathways through the implementation of established guidelines. Services and systems for migrants should be established and measures taken to maintain essential services after disasters. Climate resilience and mobility should be included in long-term strategies, budgets, infrastructure and sector capacities to ensure the uninterrupted functioning of key services.

The provision of sustainable and predictable financial resources should be prioritised for vulnerable countries, including Least Developed Countries, landlocked developing countries, and Small Island Developing States, to enhance their capacity to adapt to climate change, including through expanding and increasing contributions to the UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund in Support of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the development and implementation of climate-change policies including national adaptation plans and nationally determined contributions.

Recommendations issued by the Task Force on Displacement within the framework of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage Associated with the Impacts of Climate Change, affiliated with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, should be implemented.

The writer is an environmental and climate change expert who works with local and international bodies and has represented Egypt at conferences on the environment and climate abroad.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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