Home » Climate Migration in North Africa: Seeking Protection in the Face of Climate Crisis

Climate Migration in North Africa: Seeking Protection in the Face of Climate Crisis

by Madaline Dunn

The climate crisis is one of the most pressing challenges of our times, and its implications for population movement are becoming clear.

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, worsening water scarcity, increasingly dangerous droughts, and rising sea levels threaten livelihoods and communities, prompting some to seek migration.

ESG Mena’s Hadeer Elhadary spoke with Alexis McLean, Research Officer at the International Center for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), to learn more about how the climate migration situation is evolving in the region, and the ICMPD’s recent study on climate migration in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

Titled ‘Is Climate Change a Driver of Mobility? A Mapping of Perceptions in Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia,’ the study, conducted with Euromed Migration and funded by the European Union, is based on existing analysis and incorporates expert insights from academia, civil society, public institutions, and international organisations.

The study, examining climate mobility and migration, illustrates the complexities of this phenomenon and its increasing impact on the region.

Alexis, tell me about the study and the challenges you faced in conducting it.

The study took a broader perspective on the role of perceptions regarding the link between climate change and migration decisions; and does not focus on specific movements of farmers or particular migration patterns.

Understanding the intricate relationship between climate change and migration is a challenge in itself. While immediate movements due to specific climate events (e.g., storms, floods) are evident, the long-term effects of gradual climate changes are less obvious.

● Migration decisions are often not attributed to climate change as such since climate-related effects often manifest indirectly in economic hardships – exacerbated by environmental factors – such as income loss and gradually shifting living conditions, which then influence actual migration decisions. This holds true for the region under the study as well. Climate change gradually affects environmental systems, potentially leading to a decline in living standards and exacerbating existing socio-economic challenges over time.

● These complexities are further compounded by the fact that these developments can, in fact, also lead to immobility rather than migration; and that populations may not be willing nor able to move. The fate of “trapped” population is particularly concerning given their limited visibility in national and international climate change narratives. Shedding light on these groups and their particular vulnerabilities is important to building just climate responses.

Tell me more about the difficulties linking climate change and internal and external migration movements in the three countries.

Understanding how climate and environmental stressors impact migration outcomes is still fragmented.

Discerning climate-driven migration in the region is rather complex. There is only very limited data available to clearly attribute a migration decision to climate change. This is partly due to the gradual nature of climate change impacts in the region that permeate environmental systems over time. Factors such as economic opportunities, governance issues, and access to education also significantly influence migration decision-making processes – which might, might not, or might only be indirectly connected to environmental changes, depending on people’s conditions and socio-economic situation.

Migration aspirations mainly arise from a perceived lack of opportunities. Livelihood-related drivers are found to apply consistently regardless of the journey’s dimension (internal or international mobility) and of the particular migrant group considered (inward or outward migrants).

An interesting observation is that affected people don’t always seem to associate this deterioration with climate change. Instead, they may focus and assign blame on more tangible and overt manifestations (e.g., quality of soil, etc.).

At the same time, the idea that public perception on climate conditions play a decisive role in mobility aspirations and in migration decisions is gaining ground.

In general, how has climate change impacted the migration and movement of farmers inside the three countries?

In the three countries studied, the nexus between climate and mobility primarily revolves around increasing water scarcity, which disproportionately affects farmers and rural water-reliant communities.

In Egypt, this includes the severe water scarcity exacerbated by reduced river outflow from the Nile; and deteriorating farming conditions in rural areas. These challenges have catalysed significant internal migration trends accelerating the ongoing urbanisation processes.

Additionally, rising sea levels notably affect coastal regions such as the Nile Delta, where projections indicate that half of its coastal zones could be affected by 2100, potentially triggering major demographic shifts.

While water scarcity affects all segments of society, its harshest impacts are felt by farmers, herders, women, and young people who bear the brunt of these developments. Unlike cities, rural places offer little perspective for meaningful off-farm employment or education opportunities.

In addition, these spaces are usually structurally marginalised, secluded from economic and investment flows and often neglected in development planning. Migration is then perceived as one of very few alternatives to maintain a source of income.

There is a growing public recognition that climate conditions significantly shape mobility aspirations and decisions, driven in part by prominent reports of droughts in rural areas highlighting the vulnerability of agriculture and rural livelihoods to climate impacts.

For example, the 2021 mango crop failure in Ismailia (Egypt) directly influenced the decision of many young farmers to move to urban areas to compensate for the significant losses. This highlighted the practical mobility implications of unforeseen climate risks.

In this light, and disaster displacement aside, climate mobility as a modern phenomenon is closely linked to agriculture and the well-being of farming communities.

At the same time, immobility holds equal importance. Attachment to land, culture, and community, in its emotional and affective dimensions, is an overlooked yet critical factor on people’s decisions to move (or not). Land is deeply associated with farmers’ norms and sense of identity. Very often, ancestry or trans-generational bonds explain why farmers may be reluctant to give up their lands, despite signals of decreasing commercial value and/or inevitable climate risks. This immobility represents significant challenges in the region amidst a changing climate reality.

As environmental pressures intensify, rural populations, including a substantial youth demographic, grapple with limited resources to cope with the effects of climate change and cannot afford better irrigation, technology and/or fertilisers that would maintain farming yields. 

The capacity and readiness of vulnerable people to move, even internally, is subject to various and sometimes conflicting considerations.

Importantly, the existence of formal and informal barriers to mobility in the context of climate change suggests the link between climate and mobility is much more nuanced than generally reported. Stakeholders agree, however, that immobility (national and international) represents a serious risk in the region, particularly as the effects of climate change intensify and become more tangible.

In essence, climate-induced migration in Egypt reflects a modern phenomenon deeply intertwined with agriculture and the well-being of the community. As climate change continues to reshape landscapes, economies, and livelihoods, it becomes crucial to address these challenges for sustainable development and future planning.

Are there proposed solutions to reduce climate migration rates?

The study does not advocate for or against migration; rather, it elaborates on the developments and consequences. Just as migration may pose challenges, so does immobility.

Experts stress the importance of building adaptation strategies through locally-led solutions by empowering farmers, fishermen, and other professional groups along with their communities.

This requires consultations and inclusive, participatory decision-making processes. Institutions must better integrate these communities to develop solutions tailored to their specific contexts.

Cross-stakeholder advocacy efforts on climate mitigation and adaptation are yielding positive results, with increasing awareness and understanding of climate change impacts on livelihoods across the region and demographics.

However, significant challenges remain. In all three countries, environmental issues and climate change are often viewed in isolation, disregarding the interplay with quality of life. This impedes effective and holistic approaches to addressing the underlying causes of environmental stress.

The study suggests increasing awareness in collaboration with the respective populations. This involves integrating their key concerns and social realities, particularly focusing on marginalised and low-income groups. Additionally, it advises enhancing these efforts through improved data collection, including comprehensive surveys in at-risk areas, to better understand the interconnected impacts of climate change on livelihoods and (im)mobility.

Policymakers are urged to sensitise relevant administrations responsible for infrastructure, agriculture, rural development, and social cohesion to the migration and mobility implications of climate change, especially in rural and vulnerable communities.

Lastly, the study underscores the importance of building comprehensive resilience strategies tailored to the specific needs of areas and demographics most affected by climate change, emphasising locally-led adaptation measures for greater sustainability.

By Hadeer Elhadary, Lead Journalist, ESG Mena – Arabic

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