The humanitarian emergency caused by the migration crisis has shocked the world. Desperate scenes of refugees risking their lives at sea or sleeping rough in European train stations are inescapable. But we should also be aware of what has brought us to this point.
One of the drivers of this crisis was a five-year drought – the worst ever recorded in Syria – that began in the 2007-8 cropping season. Farmers lost livestock, crops withered, and children went hungry. Many decided to move to nearby cities, hoping for work but finding instead unhealthy living conditions, a lack of community support and few jobs. During the drought, the UN estimated that levels of youth unemployment in Syria reached as high as 48%.
These factors undoubtedly contributed to the unrest that sparked the civil war four years ago and today’s migration emergency.
While we can by no means downplay the role of armed uprisings, climate change is also contributing to escalating conflict in these fragile states.
Dry areas in north Africa and the Middle East are getting hotter and drier, and droughts are becoming more intense and frequent. Syria and Jordan are predicted to lose 30% of their fertile land to desertification if measures are not urgently taken to combat desertification and land degradation. The Arab region as a whole already has the most significant food deficit in the world. While we can by no means downplay the role of armed uprisings, climate change is also contributing to escalating conflict in these fragile states.
This mix of poverty, food insecurity, tremendous water stress and high levels of unemployment has created an environment for extremism and violence to thrive. As long as such conditions prevail, these areas will remain “soft targets” for extremist organisations, more so as climate change makes living conditions harsher.
The long-term solution is clear: give rural people the ability to remain productive and employed in their own settings. We need to recognise this migration crisis as the canary in the mine on climate change.