Climate change and immigration: when prevention is considerably more important than the cure


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Sophia Voultepsi
Sophia Voultepsi

Deputy Minister of the Hellenic Ministry of Migration and Asylum

Picture of Dimitrios Kantemnidis
Dimitrios Kantemnidis

Managing Director of Lesvos Migration Reception Center and Environmental Security Researcher at the Aegean University and the European Security and Defense College

Yuval Noah Harari predicts that the European Union, unable to adopt a unified and clear immigration policy, will collapse under the pressure of migratory flows. The award-winning historian argues that without central European planning for the reception and integration of refugees, it will be difficult to bridge the cultural differences between Europeans and citizens of African and Middle Eastern nations. In other words, if Europe continues in the coming years to rely exclusively on the individual efforts of some countries like Greece, turning a blind eye to what is coming, its survival is not guaranteed.

One of the factors already influencing migration flows is the environmental phenomena created as a result of the unprecedented climate crisis. Extreme natural disasters, such as earthquakes, fires, droughts, floods, desertification and sea-level rise, are expected to have a significant impact on the lives of millions of people. All of this together makes it imperative to develop a ‘Common European Immigration Policy’ guided by an integrated mechanism of risk analysis and assessment of our preparedness.

The need for such a policy is clear when we consider what happened in our neighbourhood and project the facts of the future that concern Europe. The recent earthquakes in Turkey have brought to the fore two stark realisations. First, states that fail to invest in anticipating the impacts of environmental phenomena will pay a heavy price in human lives and resources when they occur. Second, states that do not include the environmental factor in their foreign and security policy will be caught by surprise with limited capacity to react. Turkey’s president was forced overnight to abandon his aggressive rhetoric towards Greece and instead accept its help. In the absence of anti-seismic preparedness, he is now looking for ways of coping and alliances for his political survival as the lack of planning has brought anger even among his supporters.

How does the Union plan to deal with the consequences of the occurring climate crisis? What about the arrivals of refugees, both environmental and otherwise?

Given these findings and the analysis of the effects of climate change in conjunction with the demographic data of the EU, it is obvious that its member states must adopt a holistic approach to migration in order for each country to prepare for and bear its fair share of the burden.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), some 1.2bn environmental migrants will be displaced during the next 30 years. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stresses that natural disasters relocate ten times more people than war and conflict. The World Bank predicts that 216mn people will be internally displaced persons by 2050. Areas of the Middle East and North Africa are already becoming uninhabitable due to rising temperatures, water shortages and poor soils, while many scientists admit that human displacements for environmental reasons are expected to occur on a never-before-seen scale.

At the same time, Europe’s population is ageing, with Spain expected to see its population halve by 2100. The need for labour in the coming years will be intense and it will not be long until northern European countries that are turning their backs on first reception countries, such as Greece, will be competing to find labour from immigrants who have come to southern Europe. However, the Union’s inability to provide common solutions and preventive measures on the issue of the reception and integration of migrants into the European labour force is likely to call into question the cohesion of Europeans and the European vision as a whole.

The European Green Deal has put climate change mitigation high on the agenda of European officials. There is much discussion on the need to reduce emissions and the green path that countries must follow. But what are Europe’s reflexes in terms of adaptation and resilience? How does the Union plan to deal with the consequences of the occurring climate crisis? What about the arrivals of refugees, both environmental and otherwise? How will it support the work of the first reception countries? Could it use the phenomenon to the benefit of both the European citizens and the immigrants?

Proactive action must be chosen over reactive action so that immigration to be transformed from a threat into an opportunity

For the EU to be able to answer these questions, two basic mechanisms need to be put in place. The first is a comprehensive early warning mechanism, as described in Article 7 of the Paris Agreement. The second is a mechanism that will contain forecasts for all levels of administration – federal, regional, municipal and local – while also determining how prepared and capable all those involved are. In this way, any risks will be perceived at all levels and the possibilities for dealing with them can be assessed with feedback from the different levels of government and local authorities.

Today, the European External Action Service has a Conflict Early Warning System (EWS) and the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO) has an EWS for disasters. However, each of the aforementioned systems does not function as a comprehensive EWS that informs key stakeholders about their degree of preparedness or relays forecasts to those actors who are engaged in member states.

The effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that when Europe wants to succeed, it can do so, as long as it understands the risks involved. Today, the scientific community has the necessary tools and several governmental institutions, such as the Greek Ministry of Migration, have valuable experience with migration issues. This is a moment for all of us to acknowledge that when it comes to migration-related issues, early detection must take precedence over response. Proactive action must be chosen over reactive action so that immigration to be transformed from a threat into an opportunity.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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