Climate-induced migration in the Middle East and North Africa

by Andrea Liverani and Quentin Wodon

The rise of early Nile basin civilizations can be traced back to one of the most significant climatic changes of the last 11,000 years, a period of protracted hyperaridity that led not only to North Africa’s deserts we know today, but also to a multi-generational exodus depicted in much Saharan rupestrian art.
Today the impact of climate change on migration remains a concern for policy circles. Norman Myers’s seminal work in 2001 spurred several guesstimates of future climate refugees, but these were rarely backed by solid research. The recent work by the UK Foresight Group, and the WGII/ IPCC Fifth Assessment Report represents important progress in our understanding of the issue, although country and region specifics remain lacking.

In 2009 we set out to shed some light on the relationship between climate change and migration in MENA. We fielded household surveys and qualitative research in five countries: Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, and Yemen. We focused on extreme, rapid onset weather events. The study showed that:

  • Climatic events affect households’ migration decisions, with climate probably accounting for between 10% and 20% of migration today. As climatic conditions deteriorate and warming proceeds unabated, this rate is likely to increase;
  • Migration is one of many coping strategies deployed by households who are often left dealing with climate change without much community or state support;
  • Migration is mostly domestic, and towards large cities. Migrants’ remittances have a positive impact on poverty and human development for beneficiary households.

Five implications emerge from these results.

  1. Climate migration needs to be recast as a domestic policy issue. Discussions around climate migration often emphasize trans-border flows. But in the countries studied, migration is mostly internal.
  2. Both rapid and slow onset events can affect political stability. The protracted drought in Morocco in the 1980s pushed entire villages into the suburbs of the major cities and led to food security-related rioting. The four year long drought that struck Syria in 2007 led thousands to flee their villages and is often highlighted as a contributing factor to the emergence of the current conflict.
  3. Spatial development policies need to account for climate-induced migration. Climate change will exacerbate settlement abandonment in marginal areas, stranding assets in sectors such as transport, electricity, and water. Investments decisions today need to factor in the future impact that environmental change will have on the utilization of infrastructure.
  4. Policy should focus on enabling communities in sending areas to better leverage the potential benefits of migration. To provide portable skills, education and training are effective regardless of the causes, timing, and destination of the migration decisions, and benefit not only those that leave, but also those that stay through rfemittances. Better safety nets can have immediate pay-offs in the short and long run by building resilience. The coverage of these programs is thin in the region and MENA Governments could strengthen them, learning from the Sahel initiative.
  5. Responses to climate migration are to be found in receiving as much as in sending areas. Urban development is key. As argued by Soonhwa Yi here, effective insertion for migrants leads to adaptation opportunities in sending communities through remittances. Leveraging the adaptive role of remittances entails encouraging forms of de-fiscalization of remittance-funded investments and community saving schemes. As highlighted by Dilip Ratha, there is a role for the Bank and otyher development organizations in this area.

Note: this post is reproduced with minor changes from a post on the People Move blog of the World Bank available at http://blogs.worldbank.org/peoplemove/

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