Is climate change driving the surge of migrants to Europe? And is it just the start of much bigger global problems to come?

Perth-based Royal Scottish Geographical Association chief executive Mike Robinson
Perth-based Royal Scottish Geographical Association chief executive Mike Robinson

After the terrorist attacks which killed at least 129 people and injured hundreds more in Paris on Friday November 13, France imposed border controls as authorities discovered a Syrian passport near the body of one of the attackers.

While it’s not yet clear whether any of the assailants were migrants themselves, the attack has nonetheless reignited the debate over Europe’s migrant crisis and the security of the continent’s borders.

More than 300,000 migrants have set out from North Africa and the Middle East on the Mediterranean Sea for Europe so far this year, according to recent United Nations estimates.

Their flight from conflict-ravaged and impoverished homelands, in search of a more secure and stable life, comes as Turkey warns that a further one million people could flee war-torn Syria for Europe over the winter months.

Wars, terror and poverty are continuing to drive the surge, as thousands flee the brutal Assad government regime on the one hand and brutal ISIS attacks on the other.

But amid geopolitical turmoil and violence, is climate change an underlying driver behind the Syrian crisis and is climate change likely to make migration more of a global issue in future?

According to Perth-based Royal Scottish Geographical Society chief executive Mike Robinson, an extreme drought which affected large swathes of Syria between 2006 and 2011 may have been a significant catalyst for the social unrest that precipitated the civil war and helped result in the displacement of more than 11 million people.

The drought led to the loss of 85% of livestock, 50% of agriculture, increased poverty and the initial relocation of at least one million Syrians to urban areas.

That put further pressure on infrastructure ahead of the so-called Arab Spring which inspired an already-disgruntled population to stand against the Assad regime the torture of the so-called ‘Sons of Daraa’ sparking protests across the land in early 2011 and kick starting the war.

Mr Robinson said that in the Syrian context climate change was “realistically one of several underlying factors”.

But he warned that in future the impact of climate change could increasingly lead to migration crises around the world as droughts, floods and rising sea levels take their toll.

“Was climate change a factor behind what’s happened in Syria? For me the honest answer to that is it’s very easy to grab the bit you want to push. I could gleefully say it’s this bit or it’s that bit, but the reality is it’s a much more nuanced situation,” Mr Robinson told The Courier.

“Climate change is a significant contributory factor and will get more significant, but it is only one factor in amongst many, and I think it’s important to keep a perspective around that. Often it’s the pressures brought about by physical and environmental changes that stress the status quo, and it’s when you start to tip the status quo that you get these other sweeping factors.”

Mr Robinson said that since the Second World War the world’s migrant population had remained steady at 3%. With the world population now at an estimated seven billion, that 3% was “an awful lot of people”.

But with the UN estimating there are 60 million “displaced” people in the world at this time, Mr Robinson said the “big surge” of our era was definitely Syria.

He added: “One of the questions I find quite interesting is what ties you to a place? There are so many factors that tie you to where you live – family and friends, basic physiological needs including shelter, home, house, availability of food and water, and the benevolent climate.

“If you actually sit and just think, what would make me give up everything I have, everyone I know and everywhere I’m familiar with and take a punt on going somewhere else?

“Actually, when you think of that, it’s going to be something pretty seismic. And the big, big surge at the moment is Syria. Syria is a really unusual situation, but it’s not unique.”

Mr Robinson said, for example, that there were two or three million refugees after the Russian Revolution of 1917 who were displaced and had no identity and nowhere to live.

But he said the Syrian situation is “unusual” and the biggest immediate problem is what to do about the millions on the move. He added: “It’s a country of 23 million people and nearly eight million are displaced. Half a million are dead, possibly more, and four million are displaced internationally. But even of the ones who are displaced internationally, the majority are on the border with Syria in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. They are not necessarily trying to move, but you can understand the pressure to move. “

Mr Robinson added that the pressure on Europe might feel unprecedented in modern times, but it’s a fraction of international migration.

In Ethiopia, for example, a “mega drought” is pushing thousands out amid early warnings of a famine to rival that of 1984. In Asia, people are fleeing from areas besieged by flooding and crop damage. They tend to move to wealthier areas because they are often politically and economically more stable. The country with the biggest single immigration globally is the very wealthy Singapore.

Mr Robinson said there has been scepticism around human-induced climate change. But he said that the concensus now is that it is happening.

He added: “I was at an event at the American Embassy recently. Some island nations in the Pacific have started to acquire land in places which are not likely to go under water so quickly. It’s a real situation. There’s absolutely no question about that, and it will get worse.

“There are a lot of migrants in the world, and that will grow. Climate change is a very significant factor and will get more significant. It’s an underlying factor and the trend is not good.”

Mr Robinson said there was a forecast recently by the World Bank which concluded where the greatest stresses from global migration were likely to come.

He added: “And it is amazing. They listed the top 12 countries likely to be impacted on by drought, flood, coastal intrusion, agricultural losses and storms. When you look at that list there are no real surprises in there. When you talk about drought you are looking at places like Malawi and Ethiopia. There’s already a mega drought there and a lot of migration. When you are looking at flooding you are looking at places like Bangladesh, China, India.

“Bangladesh is a massive delta so anywhere like that is always going to be prone. When you start looking at the meaning of words it becomes less surprising too. In Pakistan the name Punjab means seven rivers lo and behold there are seven rivers but it floods like crazy!

“And then when you look at storm damage particularly, one of the areas is the Philippines. Lo and behold it’s right in the path of storms we regularly hear about on the news. So it’s not surprising.

“Agriculturally the country that topped the list was Sudan. What drove the division of Sudan? “Wealth, oil, but some of it was almost certainly agricultural losses and drought. It’s a factor in amongst others.”

Mr Robinson, 49, who helped set up Stop Climate Chaos Scotland and had a strong hand in the Scottish Climate Change Act, said the issue now was how bad is climate change going to be and how quickly will it happen.

The father-of-three added: “And more importantly, I think, what we can do about it? The quicker we start talking about solutions the better, because there’s a lot that needs to be done. But also it’s a much more positive conversation. “

Whilst controlling wars and human aggression was more difficult, some might say nigh impossible, he believes humans have it within their power to mitigate environmental damage and reduce the causes of mass migration.

He added: “It’s a real situation. There’s absolutely no question about that, and it will get worse.

“The issue is legitimately how bad is it going to be and how quickly? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

“I suppose my summary there is as a species we’ve never been sustainable because we’ve never really had to be, and I think for the first time in our history we need to learn how to be.

“It often feels like we can’t make a difference, but conversely it needs us to be resourceful, clever, brilliant, entrepreneurial, opportunistic, thoughtful, and I think there’s lots of opportunity to bring out the best in people to help solve this issue, and reduce the need for migration in the first place.”

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