Total marginal effect of Standardised Precipitation-Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI) on conflict for the 2010–2012 period. Graphic: Abel, et al., 2019 / Global Environmental Change

23 January 2019 (UEA) – 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.

Asylum seeking flows by world region, 2006–2010 and 2011–2015. Graphic: Abel, et al., 2019 / Global Environmental Change

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 2006-2015 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.

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


Conceptual model of climate, conflict, and migration. Graphic: Abel, et al., 2019 / Global Environmental Change

ABSTRACT: Despite the lack of robust empirical evidence, a growing number of media reports attempt to link climate change to the ongoing violent conflicts in Syria and other parts of the world, as well as to the migration crisis in Europe. Exploiting bilateral data on asylum seeking applications for 157 countries over the period 2006–2015, we assess the determinants of refugee flows using a gravity model which accounts for endogenous selection in order to examine the causal link between climate, conflict and forced migration. Our results indicate that climatic conditions, by affecting drought severity and the likelihood of armed conflict, played a significant role as an explanatory factor for asylum seeking in the period 2011–2015. The effect of climate on conflict occurrence is particularly relevant for countries in Western Asia in the period 2010–2012 during when many countries were undergoing political transformation. This finding suggests that the impact of climate on conflict and asylum seeking flows is limited to specific time period and contexts.

CONCLUSIONS: […] Our results indicate that there is no empirical evidence backing the existence of a robust link between climatic shocks, conflict and asylum seeking for the full period 2006–2015. The estimates of our model support these causal linkages only for the period 2010–2012, where global refugee flow dynamics were dominated by asylum seekers originating from Syria and countries affected by the Arab spring, as well as flows related to war episodes in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Excluding these regions from the analysis provides further statistical evidence, that the link between climate shocks, conflict and subsequent migration flows might rather be interpreted as a local phenomenon and therefore very specific to these regions. Indeed, our study shows that an increase in drought episodes can drive outmigration through exacerbating conflict in a country with some level of democracy. This is confirmed by the finding that climate contributes to conflict only in a specific period of 2010–2012 and specifically to certain countries, particularly those in Western Asia and Norther Africa experiencing the Arab Spring. Climate change thus will not generate asylum seeking everywhere but likely in a country undergoing political transformation where conflict represents a form of population discontent towards inefficient response of the government to climate impacts.

Climate, conflict and forced migration

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