Extreme weather events, including heat waves, destructive storms, heavy rainfall, floods, intense droughts, and rising sea levels, are an alarming consequence of climate change. The urgency of implementing concrete actions to limit global warming to well below 2°C, as well as increase resilience and strengthen financial flows to the most vulnerable countries, was reaffirmed at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP27). The MENA region suffers particularly from the effects of climate change, with its temperature rising two times faster than the rest of the Earth’s surface. At the same time, the region has been the area most affected by intense conflict since the middle of the last century, and the damaging effects on people’s living conditions are only amplified by the climate emergency—driving them to migrate.
The hazardous effects of global warming especially impact those in countries that are already vulnerable and plagued by violent armed conflicts, as the most fragile people living there are compelled more and more to abandon their homes due to the further worsening of precarious living conditions. Every year, over 20 million people in the MENA region are displaced to other parts of their country of origin due to extreme weather events, while others affected by these events are forced to seek protection in foreign countries. Moreover, many refugees, internally displaced people, and stateless persons wind up in the very areas that are damaged the most severely by global warming.
Climate-motivated migration in the MENA region
Extreme weather events resulting from global warming that are currently occurring or have already taken place across the globe are seriously endangering both human health and ecological systems. The most worrying and unfair aspect of climate change is that the devastating consequences of the phenomenon particularly impact those countries that have contributed least to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions—namely, the most impoverished countries of the Global South. Such destructive effects are a main cause of internal displacement, usually to cities in countries of origin, though the crossing of national borders to reach safer countries is increasing, especially when the impact of climate change is combined with conflicts or violence. Although the main cause of individuals fleeing their homes remains political in nature (i.e., unrest and armed conflicts), the repercussions of climate change and environmental degradation combined with such political factors exacerbate the phenomenon of displaced persons. In 2017, 60% of internal displacement was caused by climate emergencies and not by political difficulties, yet in the future, the main cause will surely be climate emergencies, considering that some 90% of forced migrants today come from such deeply vulnerable areas.
Overall, the MENA region is subject to severe climate emergencies, especially extreme weather events, due to a dramatic increase in the average temperature there, which has risen to twice the global average since the 1990s. Among the hottest countries in the region are Djibouti, Mauritania, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Also worrying is the decrease in rainfall, which aggravates the existing water crisis, as 12 out of 17 of the world’s most water-stressed countries are in this area. In turn, extreme temperatures and drought lead to lower agricultural productivity and worsen the spread of pests and diseases. The severe weather conditions characterising the MENA region result in the migration of people both within and outside of the region, as their existing poor living conditions due to political and economic instability are further aggravated by the severe impacts of global warming.
In Jordan, the displacement of people is a serious problem that will become even worse in the future, caused by ever-increasing aridity, deep drought, and less available freshwater. Similarly, Yemen is facing a major water crisis and increasing desertification, leading to persistent food shortages, which intensifies the phenomenon of displacement that already exists there due to war. In Syria, the lives of people endangered by the civil war are further threatened by the intense drought that continues to affect the country, causing more and more individuals to flee their homes. Iraq and parts of Iran also face a severe drought problem, which also affects crop production, and levels of available freshwater in Lebanon are currently close to absolute scarcity; all of these dangers are pushing people to move within or outside of their country in order to seek safety.
Weather conditions in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are characterised by unprecedentedly heavy seasonal rains that force people to abandon their homes. With regard to Mauritania, the intensification of the drought phenomenon, which started in the 1970s, is responsible for the decrease in agricultural and livestock production which is driving people to migrate. Overall, North Africa is affected by severe water scarcity and a significant decrease in rainfall, which could negatively impact freshwater resources. The most significant decreases in rainfall have occurred in parts of Morocco, Algeria, and Libya, while Egypt has experienced a smaller reduction. Furthermore, North Africa is seeing a sharp rise in temperatures, with prolonged heat waves. In all areas of the MENA region that are severely affected by extreme weather events, deteriorating living conditions are spurring the climate migration phenomenon.
The legal framework for the protection of people displaced in the context of climate change and disasters
Most people displaced in the context of climate change and disasters do not flee to other countries, but displace internally within their own country. Consequently, it is the obligation of the state to protect, promote, and fulfil the human rights of such people. On the other hand, those who cross national borders and displace to a foreign country are protected by international refugee law under strict criteria; otherwise, international human rights law is applied, which incorporates the principle of non-refoulement. The latter stipulates that it is forbidden to send a person back to a country where they risk serious and irreparable harm, including enduring torture, other forms of harmful treatment, and human rights violations in general. Moreover, humanitarian protection as well as bilateral or regional agreements on the free movement of people can be adopted to allow individuals displaced in the context of climate change to settle in other countries.
As mentioned, the ruinous consequences of climate change entail mostly internal displacement, though in some cases people fleeing in the context of climate emergencies do cross international borders. However, these people do not always enjoy protection under international refugee law. Indeed, the concept of “climate refugees” does not really exist in international law. Nevertheless, in some specific situations, people displaced in the context of climate change may fall under the legal definition of “refugee” as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention, or under the broader legal terms of regional refugee law.
There are two main regional instruments that offer a wider definition of “refugee”, the purpose of which is to promote people’s human rights in the presence of events unrelated to them that endanger their lives, by offering them protection. The 1969 Organisation of African Unity Refugee Convention extends the definition of “refugee” under Article 1(2) to those who leave their homes and cross national borders due to “events seriously disturbing public order”. Similarly, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration broadens the concept of “refugee” under Conclusion III(3) to include those who abandon their country because “their life, security or freedom has been threatened by…circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order”.
Moreover, people displaced in the context of climate change and disasters can only apply for refugee status under international law when certain specific conditions are met. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person who has crossed the borders of a nation “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. According to UNHCR’s legal considerations, it is therefore essential to note that people fleeing in the context of the harmful effects of climate change are abandoning their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution, and that national authorities are unable or unwilling to provide protection.
By preventing the enjoyment of human rights due to its destructive effects or lack of the state capacity and willingness to protect, climate change creates situations in which human beings develop a well-founded fear of persecution under the 1951 Convention. Indeed, individuals can be prevented from accessing and controlling land, natural resources, livelihoods, and freedoms, and furthermore, several human rights can be compromised, including the right to life, physical integrity, an adequate standard of living, health, water and sanitation services, as well as self-determination and development. With regard to the devastating effects of climate change, fragile individuals who are already members of marginalised groups will likely develop this fear of persecution, as will environmental activists and journalists. The willingness and ability of states to prevent and respond to the effects of climate change vary for particular social groups, exposing certain individuals more strongly than others to the hazards of extreme weather events, justifying fears of persecution that may develop. The damaging effects of climate change are also associated with armed conflicts and violence or weak government institutions; people may develop a legitimate fear of persecution and consequently apply for refugee status, as climate emergencies can aggravate the impacts of conflicts, or vice versa, and lead to major crises in the case of poor governmental structures.
Regarding future projections, the 2020 Ecological Threat Register (ETR) estimated that if global warming-related disasters progress at the same pace as they have in recent decades, 1.2 billion people will be displaced globally within the next 30 years. According to the 2021 sequel to the Groundswell report, which focuses on internal climate migration, in the most pessimistic future scenario with high emissions about 216.1 million people will move within their own country by 2050. Powerful global action is therefore indispensable to prevent climate change from threatening the lives of millions of vulnerable people living in already fragile countries, forcing them to flee their homes, and putting them at risk of not being recognised internationally as refugees if they seek protection in more developed and resilient foreign countries.
Addressing the causes of internal climate migration requires urgent, concrete action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and incorporate migration in green, resilient, and inclusive development plans designed to address human vulnerability. Furthermore, management strategies must be adopted for each stage of migration, and there must be increased investment in fully understanding migration, so as to implement efficient, humane policies. Finally, the Nansen Initiative, which protects people displaced across national borders due to climate change, has proposed measures that more resilient states can take to admit such people and ensure that foreign civilians are not sent back to countries hit hard by climate emergencies. The Initiative also aims to prevent the displacement of people within their countries of origin through enhanced disaster preparedness, including by working together to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience, for instance through development policies, and to aid in the facilitation of migration when it is inevitable.