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Climate stress drove wave of Arab Spring refugees - researchers

by Megan Rowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 23 January 2019 16:23 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: An internally displaced girl carries a scarf as she stands outside tents at a makeshift refugee camp in Sinjar town, in Idlib province, Syria, November 20, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

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Severe droughts helped fuel migration and asylum requests from the Middle East and North Africa, new evidence shows

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, Jan 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Severe droughts made more likely by global warming worsened conflict in Arab Spring countries early this decade, forcing people to flee, researchers said on Wednesday, publishing evidence they said proved the connection for the first time.

The study used data from asylum applications in 157 countries from 2006-2015, together with an index that measures droughts, as well as figures tracking battle-related deaths, to assess the links between climate change, conflict and migration.

The findings, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, showed a particular correlation between climate stresses and conflict in parts of the Middle East and North Africa from 2010–2012, when many countries were undergoing political transformation during the Arab Spring uprisings.

Those countries included Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria, which is still mired in a bloody civil war.

The researchers said they also established a climatic link with conflicts that triggered migration in sub-Saharan Africa over the same three years - but not during other time periods.

"Climate change will not cause conflict and subsequent asylum-seeking flows everywhere," said Jesus Crespo Cuaresma of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and the Vienna University of Economics and Business.

"But in a context of poor governance and a medium level of democracy, severe climate conditions can create conflict over scarce resources," added the study co-author.

The research chimes with other analyses of the war in Syria, highlighting record drought conditions that pushed rural farming families into urban centres.

Interpretations differ of how the internal movement of people fuelled political unrest, but the new data did not explore that, focusing on migration across borders.

Co-author Raya Muttarak, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia's School of International Development, said the study found that drought increased flows of asylum seekers by 95 to 146 percent compared with normal climate conditions.

The research was motivated by the record influx of migrants into Europe, which peaked in 2015 with the arrival of more than 1 million asylum seekers.

The study suggested migration pressures could be alleviated by better management of scarce resources such as water, as well as avoiding exploitation of ethnic differences, Muttarak said.

"If you think conflict happens because of drought, you can probably intervene and not let the conflict happen," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said this week that steps could be taken in West Africa's Sahel region to lessen the threat of conflict exacerbated by climate stresses that are shrinking usable land and water.

"Residents in Mali and Niger already know that the increasing scarcity of resources exacerbates the violence between pastoralists and agriculturalists," said ICRC president Peter Maurer after visiting the region.

"There is a lot of energy to find solutions, but we must help people strengthen their ability to cope with the effects of climate change and violence, as this explosive mix is not going away anytime soon," he added in a statement.

Local-level solutions could include increased use of solar-powered pumping stations and small dams that hold rainwater, allowing aquifers to be replenished, the ICRC said.

People also need better access to education, training and jobs, and to innovative financial help, to allow them to find new ways of making a living in fragile environments, the agency said.

Alex Randall, programme manager for the Climate and Migration Coalition, which was not involved in the new study, said the researchers' findings were important in establishing the causal chain between climate change as a driver of war which then forces people to flee and become refugees.

Such analysis - while tracking only a small part of movement linked to climate change around the world - could be useful to inform aid policies in at-risk regions, he added.

"We can say (this) is a particular area, a country or even locality that seems to have a potentially dangerous connection between climate impacts and violence," he said.

"We need to use that data to deploy aid and development funding, to deploy peacekeeping and to think about peacebuilding processes in those places to try and prevent it."

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering . Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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