Is Europe Ready for the Next Wave of Climate Migration?

Image Source: United Nations

While the war in Ukraine rightfully has the attention of Europe’s policymakers right now, there is a brewing crisis to the south that warrants preparation. The Lake Chad Basin (LCB) area’s climate change is increasingly connected to regional migration. Already, LCB countries are experiencing rapid population growth which is straining resources and climate change is making it worse. The ongoing global economic slowdown will exacerbate this interconnected migration and climate crisis. Europe is not ready to handle an influx of migrants. Despite the variety of issues that arose during the 2015 migration crisis and warranted policy action, the European Union (EU) has not significantly updated its migration policies to deal with the pending crisis. Had they done so, they would be better positioned to receive the new wave of migrants that will come from the south. Though the EU is attempting to improve its migration policies, it must work faster to formulate and implement stronger and more holistic strategies to address migration in the region.

The LCB area represents a vibrant and diverse portion of the African continent. It covers almost eight percent of Africa, with an area of about 940,000 square miles which is greater than the size of Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Poland combined. The LCB spans seven countries: Algeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Libya, Niger, and Nigeria. The main economic activities of the area are farming, herding, and fishing with over forty percent of the population living below the poverty line. The body of water, which is the lifeblood of the region, has diminished by ninety percent since the 1960s.  While there was a partial recovery of the water level due to increased precipitation in 1990s, the area still faces major threats due to changing weather patterns resulting in high variability of rainfall. Despite the diminished lake size, the regional population has tripled, with over thirty million people now living in the area. The northern portion of the LCB shows the highest level of variability, with completely dry periods during dry seasons between 2005 and 2012. The declining water resources paired with the overuse of those resources is contributing to increased conflict, including between local farmers and herdsmen from the north. These conflicts are already resulting in hundreds of deaths a year. The increasing water scarcity in the region and dire prospects for the local population are coupled with the rise in strength of the terrorist group Boko Haram, which experts believe are linked. The current economic landscape may add an additional challenge to the regional response to this evolving situation.

The EU is facing ten percent inflation, 6.6 percent unemployment, and record low consumer confidence. These issues are a confluence of negative factors not seen in decades. The current global slowdown, and the potential global recession in 2023, will likely exacerbate the economic and terrorism issues present in the LCB area. The increasingly limited economic opportunities, changing climate, and local violence may lead people to make the incredibly difficult decision to leave from their homeland and seek refuge elsewhere. With similar instability and climate change patterns to the south and east of the LCB region, and an ocean to the west, many migrants will likely travel north, toward Europe.

The EU underwent a massive institutional reckoning during the 2015 migration crisis due to the Syrian Civil War. A record 1.3 million migrants applied for asylum in 2015, double the number of asylum-seekers that fled to Europe after the Soviet Union dissolved. Two visions for what the EU stood for were presented during the Syrian refugee crisis. One personified by German Chancellor Angela Merkel painted the acceptance of migrants as a core principle of the EU. The other, characterized by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, regarded the surge of migrants as a threat to the identity of Europe. Following a diplomatic agreement between the two leaders, Germany accepted over one million Syrian refugees. While Germany’s acceptance of the Syrian refugees averted a humanitarian disaster, it kicked the can down the road for resolving the EU’s migration and refugee policies.

The EU policy at the heart of the migration issue, the Dublin Regulation, has not been significantly updated since the crisis. While current EU regulations do not allow for individuals to request asylum due to climate change or environmental disasters, the rise in violence that we have seen linked to climate change could make for an effective asylum request. The Dublin Regulation establishes the rules regarding which EU Member State is responsible for examining a migrant’s asylum application. Under the regulation, the country in which the asylum seeker first applies for asylum is responsible for examining the claim. This regulation leads to unequal burden sharing across EU Member States. Italy, Spain, and Greece, receive the largest share of irregular border crossings, and thus the largest share of asylum seekers.  In July of 2017, the European Court of Justice upheld the Dublin Regulation as legal and valid. The rise of right-leaning, anti-immigration parties across the EU means that a migration crisis, coupled with a global recession, could be disastrous for the EU, the migrants, and global stability.

Due to the interconnected nature of climate change and migration, the EU, and the countries of the LCB area need to collaborate on solutions to prepare for a future with more migrants. Regardless of the type of European aid and the climate policies that the EU and LCB area countries may be able to develop, migration from Africa to Europe will be the reality in the near-to-medium term future. Africa is projected to be the fastest growing continent over the next seventy-five years. Minimal economic opportunities, changing climate, and local violence will continue to drive African migration both within and outside of the continent. First and foremost, the EU must work to reform the Dublin Regulation. The EU will have to enact reforms to allow for more solidarity and burden sharing between member states. In September of 2020, the European Commission proposed a new Pact on Migration and Asylum. This pact seeks to strengthen partnerships with the EU’s neighbors, improve the management of the EU’s borders, and achieve a more balanced distribution of migrants and asylum seekers. The European Commission and European Parliament plan to finish negotiations on this pact by February of 2024. While a true quota system would do better, the member states and Commission must bring this pact into force on a faster timeline, with assurances of compliance regarding the solidarity mechanisms from the more migration resistant member states.

The LCB area countries, in concert with the EU, need to work towards more climate resiliency and economic dynamism for the area. There is already an institutional vehicle to work these changes, the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC). First, the EU and other Western states, who are largely responsible for historic greenhouse gas emissions, should provide funding and administrational support to the LCBC. The EU has already promised roughly $541 million in aid for 2022, but this aid is being diffused through the many governments in the Lake Chad and Sahel areas. It would be better for the money to go through the LCBC to give it added legitimacy in the regional political playing field.  The LCBC is plagued by institutional ineffectiveness, as evidenced by its inability to prevent the construction of dams by regional states or control activities that endanger the lake. Administrative support from the EU could help mend this institutional ineptitude. The countries that comprise the LCBC must give the Commission more authority to enforce its mandates and institute resiliency policies. The LCBC needs to regulate and increase the efficiency of water usage for farming, control the amount of land utilized for pasture grazing, and continue to work with those organizations that provide climate resilient and sustainable crop seeds. By effectively implementing these policies in concert there will be a more stable level of resources for the local population, and eventually an increase in the number of resources available.

In today’s interconnected world it is increasingly evident that one country’s problems do not stay confined within its borders. The climate change crisis is the epitome of this principle. The already drastically changed climate in the LCB area will not only greatly affect the local population but will have spillover effects throughout both Africa and Europe. For the stability of the EU, the protection of the migrants, and the economic viability of the LCB area, the EU and the LCB area countries should be proactively working to find solutions to this crisis.  It may be too late to completely reverse the trends of climate change in the Lake Chad Basin, but it is not too late to mitigate and build resiliency to the changing climate.

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