Climate refugee crisis has landed on Europe’s shores – and we are far from ready
As adverse weather conditions intensify, the amount of climate change refugees entering Europe is increasing. However, the EU is not ready, and policymakers should address the issue before a destabilisation of the European social order takes place, writes Ibrahim Özdemir.
Last year, the highest number of migrants entered the EU since the 2015 refugee crisis. Yet, policymakers are failing to recognise what this signals: the start of an unprecedented climate refugee crisis – which could quickly destabilise Europe’s social order.
And we are far from being prepared. In the same week, my home country Turkey suffered the most severe earthquake in almost a century – displacing nearly 300,000 people in neighbouring Syria – the EU is hosting a high-level migration summit.
While Monday’s events have sent shock waves across Europe, they also present the EU with a pivotal moment to evaluate the block’s outdated refugee policy.
Globally, migrant flows have doubled in the past decade, and around 1.2 billion people are at risk of being displaced by climate disasters before 2050. These climate refugees are predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa and the MENA region, countries already crippled with climate emergencies and extreme droughts.
In 2015 the influx of refugees and migrants caused an unparalleled political crisis, escalating friction between European capitals. Europe struggled to cope; its institutions were broken.
Now the EU is faced with nearly a 64% increase in unauthorised migrant crossings – a figure that excludes the almost 8 million Ukrainian refugees now scattered across Europe.
Eight years later, the EU has not reformed its asylum system and policymakers sweep uncomfortable past lessons under the rug. Global summits like COP27 and Davos have failed to address climate change-fuelled migration.
Not only did the COP27 agenda ignore human mobility, but ‘displacement by climate change’ remained a side-line discussion. Once again, Davos became a billionaires’ playground, putting ‘corporate greed’ above the planet.
International law gives no protection to climate refugees – in fact, we don’t even agree on who counts as one.
Without legal status, climate refugees slip through the cracks of global frameworks without safety nets or legal migration options. Instead of reforming its migration policy, the EU has wasted billions of euros in border walls and fences – equivalent to nearly twelve Berlin Walls.
Not only is building ‘fortress Europe’ a poor attempt to restrict unwanted movement, but it also fails to consider the EU’s dire need for labour force.
Upcoming months are unlikely to shift the EU’s refugee policy under Sweden’s European Council presidency. Sweden’s new right-wing coalition government has already halted its annual intake of refugees to less than one-fifth of previous figures.
The Swedish Council presidency has not demonstrated a willingness to push through the EU’s deadlocked immigration deal – and with the far-right anti-immigration Sweden Democrats in government, expectations for this to change are low.
Sweden’s immigration stance is far from abnormal: many European countries have become more violent towards refugees, including Italy which has its first far-right government since World War II.
To win popular support and deepen political polarisation, politicians increasingly rely on inflammatory immigration rhetoric – a dangerous approach based on short-term gains which has caused a moral vacuum in Europe’s immigration debate.
In the current political climate, policymakers alone won’t shift the hostile public discourse around migration. This is why it is imperative the EU works with civil society leaders, who are already proving they have a crucial role to play when it comes to mobilising public support.
After all, religious leaders recently met with the European Commission calling for the EU to reaffirm its moral values and confront internal disputes – building upon the momentum sparked by the Ukraine war.
Indeed, tapping into values of shared humanity will be central to preparing societies for the inevitable influx of refugees, many of whom will be from Muslim-majority countries – which most Europeans hope to ban.
The Secretary-General of the Muslim World League (MWL), Dr Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, has long campaigned to leverage moral frameworks like faith to realise public support for refugees displaced by climate change.
He founded Faith For Our Planet (FFOP), to become the world’s first global climate NGO to tackle climate change through interfaith solutions which leverage shared moral frameworks – crucial components to ensuring social cohesion and a resilient Europe in the face of a refugee crisis.
Ahead of this week’s EU migration summit, the UNHCR urged both Sweden and Spain to use their 2023 European Council presidencies to build on lessons from Ukraine – with various MEPs calling for legal refugee pathways into Europe.
After the failure of the European Commission’s 2020 Pact on Migration and Asylum to repair the EU’s refugee policy, stakes are high with members expected to push for reform before next year’s European elections.
Ultimately, Europe’s approach to climate-related displacement needs radical reform.
Considering the unpredictable nature of the climate crisis, Europe requires a framework that can handle a rapid influx of refugees after a natural disaster.
Here the temporary protection of Ukrainian refugees could serve as a model. Moreover, we could see European governments using AI as a preventative mechanism which can help predict climate and refugee patterns.
But a shift in public attitudes is also required. During the past decade, the Mediterranean has turned into a graveyard.
While Europeans have signed human rights conventions, they have failed to comply. And despite migration being back on the EU’s agenda, hardly anything has changed.
Without urgent action by European policymakers, we will soon face a political crisis much worse than anything before.