Options for Europe to Address Climate Refugee Migration

Matthew Ader is a first-year undergraduate taking War Studies at King’s College London. He tweets inexpertly from @AderMatthew. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Climate refugees are people who, due to factors related to climate change, are driven from their country.  Climate refugee movement has the potential to cause instability.

Date Originally Written:  April 11, 2019. 

Date Originally Published:  May 27, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a first-year undergraduate student at King’s College London with a broadly liberal foreign policy view. The article is written from the point of view of the European Union (EU) towards African and Middle Eastern countries, particularly those on the Mediterranean basin. 

Background:  Climate change is expected to displace an estimated 200 million people by 2050[1]. Many of these individuals will originate from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.  

Significance:  Extrapolating from current trends, it is likely that most of these refugees will attempt to flee to Europe[2]. Such a mass movement would have serious impacts on European political and economic stability. Combined with other impacts of climate change, such a mass migration is likely to destabilise many nations in the Middle East or North Africa. The movement of climate refugees is a significant concern for policy makers both in Europe and its near abroad. 

Option #1:  Pan-European countries increase their border defences to keep climate refugees out, by force if necessary. 

Risk:  This option would lead to the deaths of a relatively large number of climate refugees. It would also demand a significant commitment of resources and expertise, potentially distracting European nations from near-peer threats. Further, turning away refugees would impact the European reputation on the global stage, and breed resentment and instability among nations on the Mediterranean rim who would be left having to accommodate the refugee influx with limited support. Some climate refugees would also be resentful, and many others desperate, providing opportunities for non-state armed actors – as has already taken place, for example in the Dadaab refugee camp[3]. 

Gain:  This option would push the risk off-shore from Europe, avoiding significant domestic political challenges and instability. It would also protect economic opportunities for low-income workers, particularly in Mediterranean basin countries. 

Option #2:  Pan-European countries take in and integrate significant numbers –in the low double-digit millions – of climate refugees. 

Risk:  This option would lead to significant political instability in Europe, as there is already dissatisfaction with current rates of immigration in broad swathes of European society[4]. Current immigration rates – substantially lower than under this option – have already caused the greatest rise in far-right political parties in Europe since the 1930s. Moreover, this option would stress the structure of the EU, as Mediterranean basin countries would be unwilling to take all the refugees, leading to a quota system forcing all EU nations to take in a certain number of refugees. Quota systems have historically caused resentment and would likely do so again. Lastly, it is unclear whether EU nations could avoid unintentionally ghettoising and marginalising refugees, to negative political and economic effect.  

Gain:  This option would avoid destabilising fragile states in the Middle East and North Africa, denying potential staging grounds to terrorist groups and soaking up EU resources on heavy border protection. Further, it would enhance EU standing abroad, as the German policy of compassion – taking in over 1 million migrants in 2014 – previously did. 

Option #3:  Heavy investment in Middle Eastern and North African countries to increase their capabilities to deal with the climate challenges that cause climate refugees. 

Risk:  It is unclear whether such investment would be effective[5]. Many of these nations have fragile security situations and high rates of endemic corruption. Development assistance in this environment has previously given a low return on investment and expecting different could result in the expenditure of billions of euros for limited impact. Secondly, even if success could be guaranteed, the amount of money and time required would be substantial. At a time when the popularity of foreign aid budgets is low, and the pressure on the EU’s eastern flank from Russia is high, convincing nations to contribute substantial assets could prove very difficult. A discontinuity of investment from different nations would further north-south recriminations in the EU. 

Gain:  This option could forestall a climate refugee crisis entirely by increasing the internal capabilities of Middle East and North African states to deal with the impacts of climate change. In the event that climate refugee movements still take place, the EU would be shielded by capable partners who could take the brunt of the negative impact without destabilization to the extent of seriously damaging EU interests. 

Other Comments:  The climate refugee challenge is not immediately pressing and therefore can be dismissed by European nations embroiled with other priorities. Climate refugees will be a definitional security challenge to the EU in the mid and late 21st century. Unless serious thought is applied to this problem now, unpreparedness is likely in the future. 

Recommendation:  None.  


Endnotes: 

[1] Kamal, Baher. “Climate Migrants Might Reach One Billion by 2050.” Inter Press Service News Agency, August 21, 2017. Retrieved From: http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/08/climate-migrants-might-reach-one-billion-by-2050/ 

[2] No Author Stated, “Refugee crisis in Europe.” European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, June 20, 2016. Retrieved From: https://ec.europa.eu/echo/refugee-crisis 

[3] McSweeney, Damien. “Conflict and deteriorating security in Dadaab.” Humanitarian Practice Network, March 2012. Retrieved From: https://odihpn.org/magazine/conflict-and-deteriorating-security-in-dadaab/ 

[4] Silver, Laura. “Immigration concerns fall in Western Europe, but most see need for newcomers to integrate into society.” Pew Research Centre, October 22, 2018. Retrieved From: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/22/immigration-concerns-fall-in-western-europe-but-most-see-need-for-newcomers-to-integrate-into-society/ 

[5] Dearden, Lizzie. “Emmanuel Macron claims Africa held back by ‘civilisational’ problems and women having ‘seven or eight children’.” The Independent, July 11, 2017. Retrieved From: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/emmanuel-macron-africa-development-civilisation-problems-women-seven-eight-children-colonialism-a7835586.html 

Environmental Factors Matthew Ader Migrants Option Papers