Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Can Climate Change be Blamed for the Record Number of Refugee Deaths?

Timothy H. Dixon

Syrian and Iraq refugees in Mediterranean

2016 Sets Sad Record for Refugee Drowning in Mediterranean – Connection to Climate Change?


2016 saw a record number of deaths by drownings on the Libya to Italy refugee route, according to Frontex

I’m sometimes asked by students what the future will look like when global warming and climate change start to hit the planet in earnest. I usually answer that we will see:


  • More summer heat waves and more deaths from heat stroke, dehydration, and heat-related illnesses.
  • More droughts, especially in continental interiors.
  • Accelerating loss of sea ice, glaciers, and ice sheets.
  • Rising sea level.
  • More intense storms.
  • Increased coastal flooding.
  • Loss of marine species from ocean acidification.
  • Expanding range for tropical diseases.
  • Mass migration of people from low lying flood-prone areas to higher ground and from hot equatorial areas to cooler northern regions.


Astute readers will notice that most of these things are already happening.  Many experts argue that things are more complicated, and that especially for points # 8 and 9, there is more than one explanation.  For the problem of tropical disease expansion, for example, the rise of airline travel is certainly a factor. However, I think for both of these points, a case can be made that climate change is an underlying factor.

During a single week in May 2016, more than 1,000 migrants drowned trying to go from Libya to Italy.

Consider mass migration, perhaps the most controversial. Bangladesh, which struggles with land loss and resulting loss of economic opportunity associated with rising sea level, has already seen increased migration to nearby countries like India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The US and Mexico are seeing increased migration from Central America, a region where several countries struggle with high levels of poverty and violence. October and November 2015 saw more than 10,000 unaccompanied children, most from Central America, cross the US-Mexico border. The youngest was six years old. The 2015 numbers were nearly double those of 2014. The parents believe their children stand a better chance of being accepted as refugees if they are alone. It is difficult to imagine the level of desperation that would compel parents to send their children away, alone, into an unknown land and unknown future.

Climate change may have been an underlying factor

There were also large increases in human migration from Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa to Europe in 2014, 2015, and 2016, especially through Italy and Spain. People are so desperate to leave that they were willing to cross the Mediterranean in small boats, risking their lives and the lives of their children.   According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), more people have drowned in the Mediterranean from these crossings each year since 2014 than died in the sinking of the Titanic:  approximately 3,000 in 2015, 3,700 in 2015, and 5,000 in 2016. Frontex, the European Union’s external borders agency, reports similar numbers.  During a single week in May 2016, more than 1,000 migrants drowned trying to go from Libya to Italy.  These numbers almost certainly underestimate the number of drownings, since many are not recorded by UNHCR or Frontex, especially on the North Africa to Spain route.

Experts disagree on the main causes

Other parts of Europe saw huge increases in migration from Syria during the same period, reflecting that country’s brutal civil war. But even here, climate change may have been an underlying factor. Syria experienced a severe drought in the run-up to the war, from 2006 to 2009. Over 800,000 people, most of them subsistence farmers, lost their livelihoods, driving internal migration to that country’s urban centers, where most became unemployed. Within two years, civil unrest in those cities led to civil war.

After all, there wouldn’t be much profit in human trafficking if no one wanted to leave.

Of course there are other explanations for these events and significant differences among countries. Experts disagree on the main causes.  Economists tend to blame lack of economic opportunity or a poor business climate. For the Middle East, social scientists blame religious conservatism and lack of gender equality, while political scientists focus on poor governance and lack of strong democratic institutions. Syria’s current civil war is closely tied to the “Arab Spring” that swept through the region between 2010 and 2012, and a population disenchanted with a dictatorial government. Hydrologists will blame falling water tables and poor water management. Demographers (people who study population growth) point to overpopulation, high birth rates, and lack of educational opportunities for women; these certainly seem relevant.  Public health experts might point to the continued use of leaded gasoline in many Middle Eastern countries, and consequent health impacts on fetal development and young children.  These include reduced cognitive function, reduced IQ, and reduced impulse control, which can promote violent behaviour in later life.  Military and security experts tend to blame civil war, extremism, or the existence of criminal gangs that engage in human trafficking. All of these factors are germaine but, with the exception of demography, are not really underlying causes of mass migration. After all, there wouldn’t be much profit in human trafficking if no one wanted to leave.

The best and brightest tend to leave, hampering development of a modern industrial economy.

What’s the link between climate change and mass migration? Consider African countries such as Chad, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania.  All of these countries are suffering water shortages and desertification, all have rapidly rising populations, and all of them now have significant numbers of people leaving for Europe via the Mediterranean.  Rising temperatures and drought, together with rising population, have led to falling water tables, crop failures, and loss of income for rural families. Most of these countries lack a strong industrial base or major natural resources; agriculture anchors their economy. If you are a subsistence farmer here and lose your agricultural income, you can’t walk away from your farm and land a well-paying factory job. The region is already sweltering for much of the year, and many areas lack reliable electricity for air conditioning.  The best and brightest tend to leave, hampering development of a modern industrial economy. The resulting poverty fuels political instability, civil unrest, and a host of other social ills. Young people with no job and no prospects for a better life make easy recruiting targets for criminal gangs or extremist groups. It’s possible for a country to overcome these challenges with good governance, infrastructure investment, and economic growth.  But it’s difficult, and its only going to get more difficult as these countries get hotter and drier.


This article includes material from Chapter Eight of Timothy Dixon’s new book Curbing Catastrophe: Natural Hazards and Risk reduction in the Modern World.

About The Author

Timothy H. Dixon

Timothy H. Dixon, author of Curbing Catastrophe, is a Professor of Geology and Geophysics at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and a former commercial pilot....

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