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Heat waves: climate change and immigration

Heat waves: climate change and immigration Shutterstock
06 Feb
Those concerned with external asylum applications to the EU might want to focus on reducing the impacts of climate change

The first 14 years of this century saw an average of 351,000 asylum applications to the EU annually, a challenge to which the bloc has struggled to produce a unified collective response. Instead, walls have risen around countries such as Hungary, democratic backlashes have been unleashed across the continent, and the border-free Schengen Agreement has wobbled, as even close neighbours such as Denmark and Sweden have witnessed the reinstatement of passport checks.

A new set of data is now showing that, to head off significant future increases in application numbers, the European community might have to start looking at ways to limit the worst global impacts of climate change, especially in countries with extreme climates such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where significant numbers of current asylum seekers emanate.

By the end of the century, the EU could be receiving anything from 98,000 additional asylum applications per year (if global temperatures rise by a conservative 1.1°C to 2.6°C, relative to a 1976-2005 baseline) to a potential 660,000 additional applications per year under a more extreme 2.6°C to 4.8°C rise – a tripling of current average numbers.

This is in response to new research which shows how, the more atmospheric temperatures move away from 20°C (broadly the optimum for growing crops such as maize) and towards the extremes of hot or cold, the more likely people are to abandon agriculture, and instead seek shelter elsewhere. Given the ongoing trend for the planet’s thermometer to be inching ever upwards, this primarily means heading towards the cooler north, such as to the EU, where climate impacts are forecast to be less severe (a few countries, such as Serbia, have also seen asylum applications rise in conjunction with especially cold weather).

Highest EU average annual asylum applications per country, 2000-2014

Serbia 32,573
Iraq 25,513
Russia 24,118
Afghanistan 23,429
Syria 17,437
Pakistan 13,636
Somalia 13,061
Iran 12,471
Nigeria 11,851
DRC 10,344

‘Europe is already conflicted about how many refugees to admit,’ reflects Wolfram Schlenker, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University. ‘Though poorer countries in hotter regions are most vulnerable to climate change, our findings highlight the extent to which countries are interlinked, and Europe will see increasing numbers of desperate people fleeing their home countries.’

This latest research follows a high profile study in 2015, also from Columbia University, that found a strong connection between climate change-induced drought across Syria from 2007 to 2010 – leading to crop failure and mass migration – and the civil unrest which followed in 2011, plunging the country into years of conflict and significantly destabilising the region.

This was published in the February 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.

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