A common refrain among activists advocating for a better, more globally-focused climate policy is that climate change is a global crisis. As former Secretary-General of the UN Ban Ki-moon once put it, “climate change carries no passport and knows no national borders.” This statement, however, belies the fact that neither the causes nor the effects of the climate crisis can escape the realities of our harshly-bordered world. The wealthiest countries in the Global North have produced this crisis, while the poorest in the Global South continue to pay for it. The United States, for instance, caused $1.9 trillion in climate damage to low- and middle-income countries between 1990 and 2014, even while profiting—as do countries like Canada, Germany, and Russia—from carbon-polluting industries.
While some climate advocates attempt to utilize the imagined threat of hundreds of millions of climate refugees knocking on the door of the world’s wealthiest countries as leverage to push for more cooperative climate policy, the use of violent border enforcement by countries of the Global North means that the vast majority of those displaced by climate change in the coming years will remain in the Global South. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region (also known as Southwest Asia and North Africa [SWANA]) provides a unique vantage point from which to consider the dimensions of climate-motivated migration and how it connects the world’s richest and poorest countries in a vicious cycle of exploitation.
Climate-Motivated Migration in Regional Perspective
The MENA region is a crucial node in a global network, given that it is an origin, destination, and transit region for those on the move. It is also one of the areas hardest hit by climate change: while the temperature of the earth is warming at unprecedented rates, the MENA region is heating up twice as fast. The region contains countries that are grappling with a deadly collision between environmental calamities and political conflict, as well as countries that amass their wealth by feeding the world’s seemingly insatiable appetite for fossil fuels. Oil-rich Arab Gulf states, which have money to spend but lack a sizeable local labor force, attract immigrants from within the Arab world and from South and Southeast Asia, areas that are struggling with extreme weather events and water and land insecurities. The climate crisis is an amplifier of disadvantage in these cases, making hard lives even harder and pushing more people onto existing migration pathways.
The climate crisis is an amplifier of disadvantage in the Arab world and South and Southeast Asia, making hard lives even harder and pushing more people onto existing migration pathways.
The MENA region also lays bare the complexity in addressing issues of climate-motivated migration. Immigration advocates have cautioned those interested in climate-motivated mobility not to exclusively use the language of refuge, or of climate refugees. One reason behind this insistence is that the vast majority of those displaced—including in the MENA region—never actually leave their country of origin because they lack the financial resources necessary to do so. In other words, the climate displacement crisis is largely one of internally displaced people. A second reason is that, with a few exceptions, climate degradation rarely works in isolation to motivate movement. Rather, it occurs in concert with other important factors, such as weakened state infrastructure and socioeconomic disadvantage, to compel people to leave their homes. Finally, not everyone who is motivated to migrate due to climate change is necessarily “forced” to do so. In many cases, environmental degradation in countries that lack strong opportunities for establishing a quality livelihood simply further reduces already limited options, and thus makes the choice to migrate more appealing. Those who do choose to migrate due to constrained economic opportunities follow longstanding immigration channels, and are therefore not easily distinguishable from climate migrants, unless the conditions in their home country are taken into account.
Internal Displacement and the Climate Crisis
The case of Yemen highlights the issue of internal displacement, and particularly how food scarcity caused by the climate crisis can become amplified in conflict zones. The war that began in Yemen in 2014 has internally displaced 4.7 million people, many of whom cannot afford to make a more expensive journey outside of the war-torn country. The lives of Yemen’s displaced are made even harder by the outbreak of diseases like cholera and malaria, and by the persistence of food scarcity and the threat of famine. And importantly, the reality of environmental degradation is interwoven with all of these tragedies. Food scarcity is inextricably linked to the climate crisis through the depletion of water resources and land erosion caused by desertification. In addition, extreme flooding in Yemen’s coastal areas often makes roads impassable, limiting access to medication and other crucial resources.
It is impossible to determine exactly how much of Yemen’s displacement crisis is attributable to each of the many calamities the country is facing. What is certain, however, is that Yemen suffers from weakened institutions and fractured governance, a common result of both the legacies of colonialism and of postcolonial meddling and extraction. This situation makes the country ill-equipped to withstand the ravages of either slow-burning or extreme environmental changes and events. Yemen simply cannot afford to build new roads and houses, to invest in irrigation or water purification systems, to build dams, or to deploy other strategies to resist environmental degradation and its impacts. What is more, the lives of people in countries like Yemen are systematically devalued by wealthy countries that are best positioned to help, a fact that is reflected in access to foreign aid. For example, a conference in 2021 that aimed to raise the $4.3 billion necessary to begin addressing Yemen’s humanitarian crisis only succeeded in collecting less than a third of that amount. This funding gap has had an immediate and harrowing human toll. According to the World Food Program more than 15 million people in Yemen are facing crisis-level hunger, including two million children on the brink of starvation.
A crucial tool of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, for example, is forced eviction coupled with the theft of both land and water resources, which limit Palestinians’ ability to manage shrinking resources.
Other people in the region also experience displacement, the result of a pernicious confluence of violence, environmental degradation, and global disinterest in their plight. A crucial tool of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, for example, is forced eviction coupled with the theft of both land and water resources, which limit Palestinians’ ability to manage shrinking resources. Nowhere is this situation more apparent than in the Gaza Strip, where 2.1 million residents are densely packed into a small swathe of coastal land, their mobility purposefully restricted in what has been called an open-air prison. A lack of electricity due to a 15-year Israeli blockade means that the territory is unable to treat wastewater, which has had a substantial impact on public health, with at least 26 percent of diseases in Gaza being water related. The Syrian war, which has displaced more than 13 million people, 88 percent of whom either remain in Syria or in nearby countries such as Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, is also connected to a severe drought that continues to harm the livelihoods of those whose lives have already been upended by war.
The Perils of External Displacement
Unlike people fleeing conflicts in Yemen, Palestine, or Sudan, many of those who migrate due to climate degradation would not qualify for asylum under legal definitions of “refugees” or “asylum seekers.” Instead, they are considered labor migrants who follow pathways for immigration that have long existed due to constrained economic opportunities in their home countries. For instance, migrants from countries like Egypt and the rest of North Africa are not typically thought of as climate-motivated, despite the fact that out-migration has been linked to desertification and the erosion of agricultural lands. For youth in these countries, the decision to migrate can seem like the best of a series of bad options, even if it involves taking dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean Sea and attempting to cross fortified borders.
Climate-motivated labor migration from other countries across the world is also what makes the MENA region a destination for migration. Seven out of every 10 workers in Gulf Cooperation Council countries, for example, are foreign born, coming from countries like India, Pakistan, Egypt, and the Philippines. These workers are commonly employed in construction and domestic service. While the migration of these workers to Gulf Arab states is nothing new, the climate crisis is already accelerating migration on a global scale. South Asia, where nearly a quarter of the world’s population lives, is suffering from high food insecurity. An estimated 8.5 million people have already fled the region, with many relocating to Gulf states, and the World Bank estimates that they will be followed by millions more.
For people who migrate because of constricted socioeconomic opportunities, prospects for economic mobility often come with substantial risks. For instance, the Gulf states are not a safe climate haven, whether for Arabs from North Africa, or for people from Asia.
For people who migrate because of constricted socioeconomic opportunities, prospects for economic mobility often come with substantial risks. For instance, the Gulf states are not a safe climate haven, whether for Arabs from North Africa, or for people from Asia. From a climate perspective, global warming in the Gulf is exceptionally dire. The region is facing a freshwater crisis, with supplies potentially running out as soon as 2050, and is also experiencing exceptionally high temperatures that are steadily mounting. What is more, labor protections in Gulf states are notoriously weak, with the kafala (sponsorship) system leaving workers beholden to their employers for residency status. Protections against assault and sexual violence on domestic workers—who are disproportionately women—are almost non-existent. But for foreign workers, migration to the Gulf often offers the best of what are very limited options to support their families, and indeed, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the highest remittance-sending countries in the world.
Interconnectedness in an Unequal World
Although observing the climate crisis from the perspective of the MENA region helps clarify the importance of local conflicts, economies, and labor laws in shaping the impacts of climate change, it also reveals the interconnectedness of both the causes and effects of this global calamity. Pakistan, for instance, recently experienced floods of unprecedented proportions, affecting at least 33 million people. And while experts have linked the flooding to global warming, they have also estimated that Pakistan is responsible for less than one percent of the world’s carbon emissions, which clearly shows that the greatest burdens of climate change continue to fall on the countries least responsible for the crisis. Meanwhile, the majority of people displaced by the floods will remain within Pakistan, a country that is grappling with high rates of poverty and food insecurity. Some, however, will migrate, following existing immigration pathways to the Arabian Gulf, to countries whose oil sales are responsible for a large part of the carbon emissions that caused their displacement in the first place, countries that will profit further from the labor of these desperate newcomers.
The majority of people displaced by the floods will remain within Pakistan, a country that is grappling with high rates of poverty and food insecurity.
As the plight of Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia, internally displaced Yemenis, and North Africans knocking on Europe’s door becomes impossible to ignore, activists have increasingly demanded climate reparations. Some advocate for direct “loss and damage” payments by rich nations to poor ones, rather than the neoliberal development loans and harsh interest rates that have formed the typical relationship between the Global North and the Global South, and rather than humanitarian aid that is portrayed as a form of benevolence rather than of justice. Others have advocated for open borders, for the abolition of restrictions that currently keep those who most harshly suffer the effects of climate change from having the chance to move to wealthier countries and to participate in economies that have historically been developed at their expense.
Today, at the borders of the European Union in places like Lampedusa, the Aegean Islands, and Ceuta and Melilla, people from Algeria, Yemen, Palestine, Sudan, and elsewhere are demanding recognition as asylum-seekers—recognition that, for many, will not come. Until the demands of climate activists and people displaced by climate change are met, the least affluent people from the world’s most impoverished countries—including those from the MENA region—will continue to pay the price of a disaster that others have caused.