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How Climate Change is Behind the Surge of Migrants to Europe

Hundreds of migrants line-up to catch a train near Gevgelija, Macedonia on Sept. 7, 2015. - Stoyan Nenov—Reuters
Hundreds of migrants line-up to catch a train near Gevgelija, Macedonia on Sept. 7, 2015. Stoyan Nenov—Reuters

Even as Europe wrestles over how to absorb the migrant tide, experts warn that the flood is likely to get worse as climate change becomes a driving factor.

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Africa correspondent. She lives in Cape Town, and was previously based for TIME in Beirut, Lebanon as Middle East Bureau Chief, and in Kabul and Islamabad as the Pakistan/Afghanistan correspondent. She started with TIME in Hong Kong in 2001.

More than 10,000 migrants and refugees traveled to Western Europe via Hungary over the weekend, fleeing conflict-ravaged and impoverished homelands in the hope of finding a more secure life abroad. Even as Europe wrestles over how to absorb the new arrivals, human rights activists and migration experts warn that the movement is not likely to slow anytime soon. Intractable wars, terror and poverty in the Middle East and beyond will continue to drive the surge. One additional factor, say scientists, is likely to make it even worse: climate change.

From 2006 to 2011, large swaths of Syria suffered an extreme drought that, according to climatologists, was exacerbated by climate change. The drought lead to increased poverty and relocation to urban areas, according to a recent report by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and cited by Scientific American. “That drought, in addition to its mismanagement by the Assad regime, contributed to the displacement of two million in Syria,” says Francesco Femia, of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security. “That internal displacement may have contributed to the social unrest that precipitated the civil war. Which generated the refugee flows into Europe.” And what happened in Syria, he says, is likely to play out elsewhere going forward.

Across the Middle East and Africa climate change, according to climatologists at the U.S. Department of Defense-funded Strauss Center project on Climate Change and African Political Stability in Texas, has already affected weather. These changes have contributed to more frequent natural disasters like flooding and drought. Agricultural land is turning to desert and heat waves are killing of crops and grazing animals. Over the long term, changing weather patterns are likely to drive farmers, fishermen and herders away from affected areas, according to Femia’s Center for Climate and Security, and into urban centers — as has already happened in Syria. Both the Pentagon, which calls climate change a “threat multiplier” and U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have warned of “water wars,” in which rival governments or militias fight over declining resources, sending even greater waves of migrants in search of security and sustenance. On Aug. 31, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that climate change could create a new class of migrants, what he called “climate refugees” at a conference on climate change conference in Anchorage, Alaska. “You think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food, or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival,” he said.

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Security analysts say they are already seeing the impact, particularly in migration patterns from northern Africa and the Sahel region, which is the band of farmland just below the Sahara desert. “All the indicators seem to fairly solidly convey that climate change — desertification and lack of water, or floods, are massively contributing to human mobility,” says Michael Werz, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress policy group in Washington, D.C. Syrians and Afghans may make up the largest number of refugees flooding into Europe right now, but Africans from the Sahel are not far behind. “No one is saying ‘I’d better pack my stuff and go to Europe because I expect CO2 emissions to rise,’” he says. But the knock on effects — failed crops, ailing livestock and localized conflicts over resources—are already driving residents of the Sahel northward to flee poverty. Libya’s collapse has opened the doors wide for migrants, and the smugglers who ship them across the Mediterranean to Europe.

As Europeans debate over what to do about the influx of migrants, there has been a call for an international effort to stabilize the regions from which they come. But it’s not enough to talk about ending conflict, says Femia. “A lot more attention has to be paid to putting more resources into climate adaptation and water security and food security, so migration doesn’t become the primary option.” Tackling the problem at its source doesn’t mean ending conflict, but stopping it before it starts. And that means addressing climate change as well.

Syrian and Afghan refugees warm themselves and dry their clothes around a fire after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, early on Oct. 7, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
A migrant who recently arrived across the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey, watching a ferry in the port of Mytilene, Lesbos island, Greece, on Oct. 5, 2015. Zoltan Balogh—EPA
An Afghan wades to the shore after arriving in an overloaded rubber dinghy on the coast near Skala Sikaminias, Lesbos island, Greece, Oct. 1, 2015. Filip Singer—EPA
Syrian refugees are covered with life blankets upon arriving to the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Sept. 28, 2015. Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images
Migrants and refugees arrive on Sykamia beach, west of the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Sept. 22, 2015. Iakovos Hatzistavrou—AFP/Getty Images
Migrants and refugees board a train by climbing through the windows as they try to avoid a police barrier at the station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on Sept. 20, 2015. Manu Brabo—AP
A Syrian refugee boy cries while he and his family try to board a train at the station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on Sept. 20, 2015. Manu Brabo—AP
A migrant holds his child during a clash with Hungarian riot police at the Horgos border crossing in Serbia, on Sept. 16, 2015. Sergey Ponomarev—The New York Times/Redux
Migrants sleep on a highway in front of a barrier at the border with Hungary near the village of Horgos, Serbia, on Sept. 16, 2015. Marko Djurica—Reuters
A wagon equipped with razor wire is placed at the border between Hungary and Serbia in Roszke, some 10 miles southeast from Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 14, 2015, to close the gap of the temporary border fence at the Horgos-Szeged railway line. Balazs Mohai—EPA
A refugee reacts from exhaustion while swimming towards the shore after a dinghy carrying Syrian and Afghan refugees before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, on Sept. 13, 2015. Alkis Konstantinidis—Reuters
Syrian people sleep inside a greenhouse at a makeshift camp for asylum seekers near Roszke, southern Hungary, on Sept. 13, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Syrian refugee Raed Alabdou, 24, holds his one-month old daughter Roa'a, while he and his wife hide in a field not to be seen by Hungarian policemen, after they crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border near Roszke, southern Hungary, on Sept. 11, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Migrants and refugees beg Macedonian police to allow passage to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia during a rainstorm, near the Greek village of Idomeni, on Sept. 10, 2015. Yannis Behrakis—Reuters
Migrants run over a motorway from a collection point that had been set up to transport people to camps in Morahalom, Hungary, on Sept. 9, 2015. Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
A young Syrian man from Damascus tries to evade the Hungarian police by sneaking through a forest close to the Serbian border in Morahalom, Hungary, on Sept. 8, 2015. Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
Migrants cross into Hungary as they walk over railroad tracks at the Serbian border with Hungary in Horgas, Serbia, on Sept. 7, 2015. Dan Kitwood— Getty Images
A refugee from Syria prays after arriving on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos aboard an inflatable dinghy across the Aegean Sea from Turkey, on Sept. 7, 2015. Angelos Tzortzinis—AFP/Getty Images
A migrant scrambles to climb back aboard a rubber dinghy full of his fellow Syrians as they try to cross from Turkey to the Greek islands on their way to claim asylum in the European Union, late on Sept. 6, 2015. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
A Syrian migrant aboard a flimsy rubber motorboat hands his one-month-old baby to Greek coast guards, who have arrived to rescue the boat full of migrants from dangerous waters near the border between Greece and Turkey, early on Sept. 7, 2015. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
A young Syrian boy is wrapped with a thermal blanket as he arrives with others at the coast on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey, at the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Sept. 7, 2015. Petros Giannakouris—AP
Refugees and migrants wait to cross the border from the northern Greek village of Idomeni to southern Macedonia, on Sept. 7, 2015. Giannis Papanikos—AP
Migrants walk along rail tracks as they arrive to a collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary, on Sept. 6, 2015. Marko Djurica—Reuters
Migrant families ride a train from Gevgelija to the Serbian border in Macedonia, on Sept. 4, 2015. Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
Migrants crowd the bridge of the Norwegian Siem Pilot ship sailing along the Mediterranean sea, on Sept. 2, 2015. Gregorio Borgia—AP
A Turkish gendarme carries the body of Alan Kurdi, 3, who drowned along with his brother Galip, 5, and their mother, in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, in the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, on Sept. 2, 2015. Reuters
Dozens of refugee families, mostly from Syria, camped near the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary on Sept. 2, 2015. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
A Syrian migrant bids farewell to the Hungarian volunteers who welcomed him upon his arrival in the European Union in Szeged, Hungary on Aug. 30, 2015. Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
A father of a migrants family is arrested by the local police near the village of Roszke on the Hungarian-Serbian border on Aug. 28, 2015. Attila Kisbender—AFP/Getty Images
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, on Aug. 27, 2015. Bernadett Szabo—Reuters
Hungarian soldiers install a wire fence at the border between Hungary and Serbia near Hercegszanto, 115 miles southeast from Budapest, on Aug. 25, 2015. Tamas Soki—EPA
A little girl from Syria looks out of a bus as the ferry she arrived in is reflected in the bus window at the port of Piraeus, Greece, on Aug. 25, 2015. Petros Giannakouris—AP
Children cry as migrants waiting on the Greek side of the border break through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on Aug. 21, 2015. Georgi Licovski—EPA
Gendarmerie attempt to prevent people from entering the Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles, Calais, France on July 30, 2015. Rob Stothard—Getty Images
Life vests and a deflated dinghy are seen on a beach on the Greek island of Kos, following the arrival of Afghan immigrants, on May 30, 2015. Yannis Behrakis—Reuters
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