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The Syrian refugee crisis is just the beginning of a terrifying new normal

In the next decades, nearly 20 million Bangladeshis will have to find somewhere else to live. Where will they go?


Skylar Baker-Jordan

Internet Culture

Posted on Sep 11, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 12:09 am CDT

His name was Alan Kurdi. He was three years old. And like so many refugees before him, he sought safety and hope in Europe—only to drown in the Mediterranean.

When his tiny, lifeless body washed ashore on a Turkish beach, it set off a global outcry, while the British broadsheets splashed it across their covers. “EUROPE DIVIDED” proclaimed The Times of London, above a photo of Alan’s corpse being gently cradled by a Turkish officer. The same image rapidly circulated on Twitter, with social media users shocked and aghast. How could something like this happen?

That theme—“Europe divided”—was prominent in EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union speech earlier this week. With almost 500,000 refugees making their way to Europe since the beginning of the year, addressing the crisis requires “a strong effort in European solidarity,” Juncker said. “We need more Europe in our asylum policy. We need more Union in our refugee policy.”

This call for international solidarity in response to the crisis has been heeded, however tepidly, by the global community. While Germany has pledged to house hundreds of thousands of refugees, the United States has agreed to take 10,000 over the next year, a number the International Rescue Committee—a global charity focused on displaced peoples—has criticized, calling it “cold comfort” to victims of the conflict. British Prime Minister David Cameron said his government is prepared to accept that same number over the next four years.

Meanwhile, millions of refugees continue to be corralled like cattle on the Hungarian frontier, on the beaches of Kos in Greece, and in putrid camps in Calais, situated on the French shores of the English Channel.

The same image rapidly circulated on Twitter, with social media users shocked and aghast. How could something like this happen?

This is not a tide that can be stemmed. Across the world, the number of displaced people is at an historic high: nearly 60 million in 2014, according to the United Nations. Lebanon and Jordan alone have taken millions of Syrian refugees even as other countries in the region, namely Saudi Arabia, appallingly keep their borders closed. As the head of the UN High Commission on Refugees told the BBC, “the world is a mess.”

There are many reasons for this record number of refugees. War, terrorism, political upheaval, and famine all contribute, sometimes in tandem. But there is one aspect that is routinely overlooked, one that Juncker touched on in his speech: climate change. “Climate change is… one of the root causes of a new migration phenomenon,” he said. “Climate refugees will become a new challenge—if we do not act swiftly.”

Yet there is ample evidence to suggest that climate refugees are already a challenge the world must address. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences directly links climate change as a contributing factor to the war in Syria. The study finds that a drought—the worst on record—in the years preceding the conflict has had a “catalytic effect, contributing to political unrest.”

Another study, from the Center for Climate and Security, found that over a million Syrians found themselves food insecure due to the drought—leading to massive forced migration. “That internal displacement may have contributed to the social unrest that precipitated the civil war,” one of the study’s authors, Francesco Femia, earlier this week told Time, “which generated the refugee flows into Europe.” Even President Obama has acknowledged the link, saying earlier this year that “drought and crop failures and high food prices helped fuel the early unrest in Syria.”

The notion that the current refugee crisis is the result of climate change is not universally embraced. Patrick Kingsley, the Guardian’s migration correspondent, told his newspaper that “in all my time interviewing people in the Middle East, no one has ever linked their struggle or flight to climate change,” adding that it is “a bit patronizing to the political movements that focused purely on the political change and fighting political injustice” in Syria.

But those who are saying climate change contributed to the Syrian crisis aren’t saying it’s the primary driving force. They’re simply saying it is part of the broader narrative, one that is overlooked and one that even Kingsley says will become a “driving factor” in future mass displacements.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said his government is prepared to accept that same number over the next four years.

It’s already a reality in sub-Saharan Africa. Extended drought and economic depression have resulted in 20,000 internally displaced people in Zimbabwe. They are moving to a fertile stretch of land in the eastern portion of the country and building illegal homes on government-owned land, intensifying conflict with the local population.

To the north, in Tanzania, prolonged drought has led to an influx of farmers into the cities, forcing the government to underwrite loans to keep farmers on their land. In the Sahel region, a stretch of land traversing the continent between the Sahara Desert and savannas, environmental factors have caused “migration [to] become an inevitable method of adaptation” for the people living there. This is according to one local quoted by the U.K. Climate Change and Migrant Coalition, an alliance of charities hoping to shed light on the issue of climate refugees.

They’ve got their work cut out for them. Elsewhere in the world, the threat is only beginning to be understood. In Bangladesh, rising seawaters and increased salinity are threatening the coastline, leading some experts to warn that as many as 20 million Bangladeshis could be displaced from their homes over the coming decades. Melting glaciers in central Asia are threatening freshwater supplies in countries like Tajikistan, where tensions over fresh water between that country and its neighbor Kyrgyzstan are already mounting.

Earlier this week, Think Progress ran a harrowing piece warning that a prolonged Mexican and Central American drought could eventually lead to a North American refugee crisis. Soil moisture south of the Rio Grande is on track to deplete to Dust Bowl levels by the end of the century, with multi-decade droughts becoming the norm. A 2010 study found that up to 6.7 million Mexican climate refugees could be expected in the United States over the next 70 years.

Considering the level of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment currently being expressed by the likes of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in America and U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage in Britain, you’d think there’d be a concerted effort to address the root causes before more immigrants and refugees arrive. 

In Bangladesh, rising seawaters and increased salinity are threatening the coastline, leading some experts to warn that as many as 20 million Bangladeshis could be displaced from their homes over the coming decades.

But neither is even willing to acknowledge that global climate change is an imminent threat. Instead, Farage—who is also a Member of the European Parliament—has repeatedly lambasted the decision to accept more refugees and called for an Australian-style system in which refugees are turned away. And far from taking Mexican refugees, Trump wants to deport those already in the U.S.

None of which bodes well for children like Alan Kurdi, whose parents continue to put them on boats in hopes of a safer, brighter future. The current European refugee crisis has been fundamentally mishandled by nearly every actor on the international stage, each trying to pass the buck of responsibility to someone else. When a lifeless little boy galvanized the world, global leaders took action—but the real question is whether they will be willing to continue to do so.

The current numbers are paltry and fall far short of the tens of thousands the International Rescue Committee is urging the U.S. and U.K. to take. One single village in Lebanon has accepted more Syrian refugees than the United States.

Meanwhile, the global community continues to talk about mass migration in terms of individual, as opposed to collective, state responsibility. Considering the sheer number of refugees currently fleeing to Europe, and the fact that global climate change is likely to spur on more in the coming decades, a global solution is needed more than ever. Countries must work together not just to address the immediate refugee crisis, but the looming one brought on by coming environmental disasters.

The Syrian crisis may not solely be the result of climate change, but it gives us a glimpse into the future of environmentally driven migration. The world has handled this abysmally, and it’s too late to prevent the current humanitarian crisis. But with tough, collective action on climate change, we might be able to prevent the next.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a Chicago-based essayist, commentator, and journalist writing about masculinity, the LGBT community, and U.K. politics. Follow Skylar on Twitter @SkylarJordan.

Photo via Bengin Ahmad/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 11, 2015, 12:53 pm CDT