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New study establishes link between climate change, conflict, and migration

Research involving a University of East Anglia (UEA) academic has established a link between climate change, conflict, and migration for the first time.

In recent decades climatic conditions have been blamed for creating political unrest, civil war, and subsequently, waves of migration, but scientific evidence for this is limited.

One major example is the ongoing conflict in Syria, which began in 2011. Many coastal Mediterranean countries in Europe have also seen the arrival of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict in Africa.

Researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, including Dr Raya Muttarak, also of UEA’s School of International Development, sought to find out whether there is a causal link between climate change and migration, and the nature of it. They found that in specific circumstances, the climate conditions do lead to increased migration, but indirectly, through causing conflict.

The findings, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, suggest that climate change played a significant role in migration and asylum seeking in the period 2011–2015, with more severe droughts linked to exacerbating conflict.

Dr Muttarak, a senior lecturer in geography and international development at UEA, said: “The question of how climatic conditions can contribute to political unrest and civil war has drawn attention from both the scientific community and the media. We contribute to the debate on climate-induced migration by providing new scientific evidence.

“The effect of climate on conflict occurrence is particularly relevant for countries in Western Asia in the period 2010–2012, when many were undergoing political transformation during the so-called Arab Spring uprisings. This suggests that the impact of climate on conflict and asylum seeking flows is limited to specific time periods and contexts.”

The political uprisings of the Arab Spring occurred in countries including Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, and Syria, where the conflict led to an ongoing civil war.

In Syria particularly, long-running droughts and water shortages caused by climate change resulted in repeated crop failures, with rural families eventually moving to urban areas. This in turn led to overcrowding, unemployment and political unrest, and then civil war. Similar patterns were also found in sub-Saharan Africa in the same time period.

Co-author Jesus Crespo Cuaresma, of IIASA and Vienna University of Economics and Business, said: “Climate change will not cause conflict and subsequent asylum-seeking flows everywhere. But in a context of poor governance and a medium level of democracy, severe climate conditions can create conflict over scarce resources.”

The researchers, who also include Guy Abel (IIASA and Shanghai University) and Michael Brottrager (Johannes Kepler University Linz), say that concerns relating to climate change-induced conflict leading to migration should be considered in the context of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

At present the link between climate change and migration is not explicit, and they are not treated as interrelated. Further research is needed to more fully understand migration flows.

Asylum seekers are more likely to be influenced by conflict than usual migrants, so the researchers used data from asylum applications from 157 countries from 2006-15 to study the patterns. This data was obtained from the United Nations High Commissions for Human Rights (UNHCR).

As a measure of climate conditions in the asylum seekers’ original countries, the team used the Standardised Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI), which measures droughts, compared to normal conditions, through identifying the onset and end of droughts, and their intensity, based on precipitation, evaporation, transpiration, and climatic conditions such as temperature. To assess conflict, the team used data on battle-related deaths from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP).

These datasets were fed into the researchers’ modelling framework, along with various socioeconomic and geographic datasets. These included the distance between country of origin and destination, population sizes, migrant networks, the political status of the countries, and ethnic and religious groups.

Climate, conflict and forced migration’, Abel GJ, Brottrager M, Crespo Cuaresma J, Muttarak R (2019), is published in Global Environmental Change

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