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Europe’s Migration Crisis and Climate Change

By Joyce Iwashita, Transatlantic Security and Economy Analyst


European leaders are struggling to manage a massive influx of refugees and migrants into the region, with accompanying domestic opposition, threats of violence, disagreements among themselves, and fear on all sides. Illegal border crossings into the EU began to surge in 2011 as thousands of Tunisians fled the Arab Spring. More recently, Syrians running from their country’s civil war, Afghans fleeing the ongoing war with Taliban rebels, and Eritreans trying to escape forced labor comprise most of the latest flood of refugees and migrants into Europe. The International Organization for Migration recently estimated that almost 500,000 refugees and migrants have reached Europe by sea so far this year, more than double the number of Mediterranean arrivals in all of 2014. The EU’s recent deal to distribute 120,000 of them among member states falls far short of addressing this challenge. With no sign of slowing down and over 70 percent of all refugees likely to qualify for asylum, this crisis is not going away anytime soon. In fact, experts predict that migration will increase over time as climate change alters agricultural production and fuels violent conflict. As Europe’s leaders struggle to adopt substantive measures aimed at tackling the current inflow of refugees and migrants, will they act to address this longer-term driver of migration?

The climate change factor

Critics are quick to point out that violent conflicts rarely have a single cause and warn that singling out climate change as a cause of migration is too deterministic. Overstating the role of climate change in migration may understate the role of other factors that lead people to flee such as political movements, oppressive regimes, terrorist groups and corruption. While it is not the only driver of migration, studies suggest that climate change has been a factor in recent migration patterns and predict that it will drive future surges. A recent synthesis report, analyzed by hundreds of climate scientists in November 2014, predicted with “high confidence” that climate change will undermine food security as temperatures rise and said there is “medium evidence” that climate change will increase migration, especially from poorer countries. Numerous climate scientists and international organizations estimate that severe drought, flooding and extreme weather could displace as many as 200 million people around the world by 2050. Similarly, a March study in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Scientists found evidence that Syria’s 2007-2010 drought, which caused widespread crop failures and the mass migration of farming families, was worsened by climate change. The resulting internal displacement and social unrest helped fuel the Syrian civil war and, now, Europe’s migration crisis.

Pushed to the limit

This trend of climate-driven migration has long-term political implications for European countries. Policies to welcome more refugees have already faced a backlash in countries such as Germany, where refugees have been met with mass demonstrations and arson attacks on their housing. Citizens fear that migrants pose threats to their jobs and safety, especially in the wake of terrorist shootings on European soil. This sentiment promotes nationalist, anti-immigrant parties and is muting some states’ humanitarian responses. Heightened security concerns over migrants moving through the EU’s visa-free Schengen zone may have more severe political consequences for the EU as well. As Center for Strategic and International Studies Senior Fellow Heather Conley argued, if countries reintroduce internal borders more frequently “they would have chiseled away at one of the main pillars of Europe, which is the free movement of people.”

In his first State of the European Union speech earlier this month, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for attention to “climate refugees” and warned that a failure to get serious about climate change could lead to another migration crisis. The EU’s recently-adopted plan to allocate 120,000 asylum seekers across the EU has faced criticism from Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which oppose opening their doors to more refugees for fear of encouraging more to come to Europe. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron does not even acknowledge that there is a common European crisis, calling the situation a “Syrian refugee crisis” facing the “countries of Europe.” Although Britain, along with Denmark and Ireland, are exempt from EU asylum policy, refusing to accept refugees that have reached Europe only exacerbates the problem, extending the humanitarian crisis, threatening the lauded system of borderless travel, and deepening fissures among EU member states.

Shift the European debate

Mitigating these effects and addressing long-term, climate-driven migration must start with public campaigns to inform skeptical European publics of the benefits and risks of migration. Often, the benefits are not mentioned and the risks are exaggerated by anti-immigrant leaders and parties that use xenophobia to their political advantage. In response to a widespread reluctance to accept more refugees and migrants, William Lacy Swing, director general of the International Organization for Migration, suggested that European countries “educate the public to reduce xenophobia and explain that [refugees and] migrants who are integrated and educated benefit society.” EU and member state-led public campaigns would bolster political stability as migration increases, and would help mitigate security concerns by degrading extremists’ ability to exploit xenophobia.

Specifically, it should be conveyed that migration could lead to economic gains for the Union. Although not all refugees and migrants are highly educated or skilled, integrating them into the European economy can help revitalize the EU’s aging and shrinking workforce. Economist Thomas Piketty, the author of Capital in the 21st Century, even described this crisis as an “opportunity for Europeans to jump-start the continent’s economy.” Studying immigration from 1990 to 2000, economists Frédéric Docquier of the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, Caglar Ozden from the World Bank, and Giovanni Peri of the University of California, Davis, found that immigration had a positive effect on the wages of native workers, including those of low-wage workers, in nearly all countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Besides its positive effect on wages, integrating migrants into the workforce has benefited labor force growth. From 2000 to 2010, as European countries witnessed low fertility rates and a slowly growing labor supply, migrants accounted for almost two-thirds of European labor force growth.

Additionally, public campaigns that link migration to climate change would give European leaders further political leeway to approach the migration challenge as a bloc. Compared to other countries around the world, EU members are already leading examples in their efforts to address climate change and adapt to its consequences. With this record of achievement at stake, communicating climate change’s growing link to migration would strengthen support for measures to integrate refugees and migrants.


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