political revue


Year LXI, 2019, Single Issue, Page 28



Migration and Climate Change






Migration is a complex and constantly growing global phenomenon. To understand it we need to analyse the many different reasons that lead individuals to leave their homelands.

Despite often differing considerably in nature, the numerous factors underlying the mass movement of people from one country to another are grouped, sometimes incorrectly, into two major categories:

1) factors linked to conflicts or policies of oppression;

2) economic factors.

The first category refers to refugees: people forced to leave their homelands to escape war, persecution and/or political repression.

The second, instead, refers to so-called economic migrants: people who choose to leave their homelands in the hope of finding better economic living conditions in another country.

This essay sets out to analyse in depth, the latter category: economic factors. From this perspective, I will try to establish whether the events and processes linked to climate change can help to explain the phenomenon of inter-continental migration from Africa to Europe and, if so, whether they constitute independent or intervening variables.

The Factors Driving Economic Migration from Africa to Europe.

To truly understand the conditions from which economic migration arises, it is first necessary to identify the underlying drivers of the phenomenon, by which I mean the series of independent variables that can help us to understand why a person or a group of people might decide, or otherwise, to undertake an arduous journey from Africa to Europe. The factors identified in the literature are generally grouped into two broad categories, economic and socio-cultural.

Economic factors. This category essentially refers to the financial resources that prospective migrants, or their families, must have before they can attempt to travel to Europe. These financial resources are the lifeblood of human trafficking across the Mediterranean Sea, which is a thriving and constantly growing market currently thought to be worth around six billion euros.[1] This figure alone shows that migrant trafficking is a highly profitable activity, or “industry”, second only to the illegal arms and drug trade.

Emigrating thus has a cost, which not all can afford. In short, only individuals and/or families with access to considerable amounts of money can even consider making, or having a family member make, the long journey from Africa to Europe.

Data published by the International Organisation for Migration[2] confirm that crossing the Sahara and the Central Mediterranean Sea is extremely expensive, and show that the precise cost varies according the country from which the migrant sets out.

The fastest and safest way for a migrant to travel is by air, and the Nigeria-Turkey-EU route is the most popular. In this case, it can cost upwards of 10,000 dollars to buy a forged visa and passport.[3]

The cost of travelling over land and sea from sub-Saharan Africa to Italy (around 4,000 dollars) is also largely prohibitive, whereas trips that begin in Somalia or Sudan generally cost less than 4,000 dollars. However, it must also be borne in mind that the cost of crossing the desert can change radically if the migrant encounters unexpected events along the way. When groups of migrants on the move are seized by militias, for example, the hostages’ families can be forced to pay huge amounts in ransom: sometimes more than 10,000 dollars per hostage[4]. Those whose families cannot pay end up spending months, if not years, in labour or detention camps at the mercy of traffickers.

As these examples show, leaving Africa in pursuit of better living conditions in Europe is an undertaking that, in addition to being extremely dangerous, carries a significant financial cost.

Clearly, then, economic migrants cannot be members of the poorest sections of society, for whom the high costs involved are an insurmountable obstacle.

In this regard, the World Bank[5] has published exhaustive data confirming that economic migrants do not come from Africa’s poorest countries. Similarly, an analysis of the nationalities of those who made it to Europe in the period 2010-2017 reveals that only very small numbers of migrants come from the Democratic Republic of Congo and from Liberia (two of the poorest states in the world).[6] Conversely, significantly higher numbers came from middle-income sub-Saharan African countries such as Nigeria and the Ivory Coast.[7], [8]

Socio-cultural factors. As we have seen, economic-financial factors have a decisive influence on a person’s decision, or otherwise, to migrate, but so, too, do socio-cultural factors.

The term socio-cultural factors can be understood to refer to all the structures and features that characterise a society and the cultural peculiarities they determine. Unlike economic factors, they are not based on quantitative data and are therefore difficult to measure. Nevertheless, they are just as important when it comes to explaining why a person decides (or not) to migrate.

What type of socio-cultural resources do individuals need to be able to make the trip?

First of all, they need certain personal resources, or character traits, which is to say they have to be equipped with the courage and resourcefulness necessary to seek their fortune in a faraway country whose language, culture and customs will often be unfamiliar.

In addition to having courage, they need to be highly motivated and determined, as well as in robust health, in order to be able to cope with all the physical and psychological challenges that the journey will bring. They also need social resources, in other words, networks of relatives and/or acquaintances already resident in Europe who can help them settle and integrate.

To summarise, migration is a selective phenomenon that involves factors of various kinds: economic, social and cultural.

Migration and Climate Change.

Having examined the two categories of factors at the root of economic migratory flows towards Europe, I shall now try to establish whether, and how, climate change affects migration.

Does there really exist a clear correlation between environmental changes and migration?

Are the various climate change phenomena independent variables that can explain inter-state migration, or are they intervening variables?

As mentioned in the previous section, migration is caused by many factors, not all easily quantifiable.

It must be appreciated that the data available for analysis are scarce and difficult to interpret; having said that, to understand whether or not there is a causal link between climate change and economic migration, we need to ask three questions:

1) What events and processes does global warming cause?

2) Do these events and processes directly influence migration?

3) If they do, what kind of migration do they generate: between states or within states?

First, though, what exactly are the effects of climate change on our planet?

1) Rainfall changes (with both short- and long-term effects). While, on the one hand, the rise in the earth’s temperature is leading to greater amounts of rainfall in certain geographical areas, on the other, global warming of 2 °C over the next fifty years could have the opposite effect in parts of the world that have a desert or semi-desert climate. Since these are regions where water resources are already scarce, it can be expected that this reduced rainfall will result in increased soil salinity and thus have adverse effects on agriculture and, consequently, local economies. The states of northern and eastern Africa will probably be the ones most affected.[9] But, as already indicated, the rise in the earth’s temperature would not only affect the desertification process; higher levels of rainfall in certain areas of northern Europe, North America and Siberia are also envisaged, and could increase flooding in these areas.[10]

2) Higher sea surface and air temperatures. Rising sea surface and air temperatures are destined to have a direct impact on the earth’s water cycle, meaning the recycling of our planet’s water through the mechanisms of evaporation, condensation, precipitation and infiltration. Climatologists believe that global warming will be directly responsible for increasing the surface temperature of the seas, and therefore the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere. It has been noted that an increased amount of water vapour in the atmosphere favours the occurrence of more unpredictable and extreme weather phenomena.[11]. For this reason, we should not find it surprising that geographical areas that once enjoyed a predictable and constant terrestrial water cycle are now tending to suffer more frequent extreme weather events, such as intense thunderstorms or extremely violent winds.

3) Rising sea levels due to melting ice caps. According to the studies of James Hansen, climatologist and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a 2 °C increase in the earth’s temperature over the next fifty years would cause sea levels to rise by 5 metres. This would have a direct impact on coastal towns and cities, on inhabited river delta regions, and, above all, on small island states.[12]

4) Increasing sea water salinity and pH. When the temperature of the sea rises, this has a direct effect on its salinity. Warmer sea has more surface evaporation, and this results in saltier, more acidic seawater with a lower oxygen content. Each of these changes influences the habitability of the oceans, increasing the so-called dead zones, i.e. areas where marine life is dying out.

All these processes and events have the capacity, in both the short and the long term, to produce effects at local level and thus to alter the socio-economic profile of populations residing in specific geographical areas.

Even though various expressions of climate change have been linked to a reduction in arable land in Sub-Saharan African states, with direct consequences on agriculture and food production, no direct correlation has been found between climate change and increases in either inter-state or inter-continental migratory flows. That said, there are still many knowledge gaps needing to be filled. As remarked in various FAO[13] and IOM[14] reports, we do not have sufficient data at our disposal. Furthermore, even though it is possible to interpret the various climate change phenomena as intervening variables aggravating the socio-economic factors that drive migration — factors such as poverty, food insecurity, unemployment, limited access to social protection mechanisms and the depletion of natural resources[15] — the abandonment of rural areas has not been found to translate into an exodus to neighbouring African countries, or even towards the Global North, but rather into increased flows towards urban areas.

Similarly, it is clear from FAO data that increases in climate change-related migration occur within rather than between states. Emerging adverse climatic phenomena linked to rising temperatures, such as reduced rainfall, drought and soil degradation, have been shown to be factors behind the abandonment of rural territories in countries with high levels of poverty. Relevant statistical data show a considerable increase in the settled population in the large African metropolises, and a reduction in the population in rural areas subject to major climatic stresses.

Globally, it is estimated that in the period 2008–2015, around 24.8 million people per year were forced to abandon their homelands because of natural disasters and atmospheric phenomena related to climate change. According to FAO forecasts, in 2050 the number, out of the total world population, will be 400 million. These figures certainly sound alarming, but they need to be interpreted in the light of several distinctions.[16]

First of all, we need to distinguish between temporary and permanent migration. In most cases, internal migration prompted by sudden physical phenomena caused by climate change, such as tropical storms, heavy rains and flooding, is of a temporary nature, being an emergency response to the need to evacuate the affected area. In such cases, once order and minimum living conditions have been restored, the people that had abandoned these areas tend to return to them. As previously remarked, migration of this kind is usually confined within the state in question.[17]

Permanent migration, on the other hand, is an effect of processes that impact on ecosystems over longer periods of time, and it is, in all likelihood, linked to the irreversibility of the resulting ecosystem changes. These gradual changes, which include rising sea levels, glacial melting, ocean acidification, increasing soil salinity, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and desertification, interact with socio-economic variables, influencing people’s decision to migrate, or not. Each of the above-mentioned processes should therefore be evaluated in the context of specific situations and geographical areas. Indeed, without taking into account other factors of analysis, such as the geographical area and the economic, social and cultural characteristics of the population in question, it would be wrong to say that rising sea levels and deforestation each have an equivalent impact on permanent migration.


It is not easy to establish the effect of climate change on migration. As many studies have stated, there is no direct causal relationship between the events and processes associated with the rise in the earth’s temperature and the increase in different forms of migration. What can be said, on the other hand, is that within certain geographical areas the effects of climate change undoubtedly interact with the various other factors that drive individuals’ choices on migration. Therefore, to evaluate the effects of natural phenomena on migration, both within and between states, we need first to understand, in detail, the ways in which the many events and processes involved in climate change are linked to and influence the socio-economic fabric of these areas and, above all, how they interact with social and cultural factors.

Geopolitical, socio-economic and cultural factors are the true independent variables to be taken into consideration. In this sense, the natural phenomena linked to global warming can be interpreted as intervening variables that can play an important role that, however, remains difficult to define.Finally, the literature agrees that climate change impacts most on the poorest populations, the very ones that lack the financial resources necessary to migrate.[18]Albeit in the absence, for now, of a demonstrated causal relationship between migration and climate change, there can be no denying the impact that the latter is having on the environment and on the economies of the poorest states.With this in mind, the European Commission, EU member states and European Investment Bank (EIB) are spearheading efforts to provide developing countries, especially in Africa, with resources aimed at limiting the impact of processes and events linked to global warming.

In 2017 alone, investments in this area totalled 20.4 billion euros, a huge amount but necessary in order to ensure the launch of lasting projects with three specific aims[19]:

1) to make tackling climate change part of the national strategies of developing countries;

2) to make the populations of regions most exposed to climate stresses more resilient;

3) to support the development and implementation of adaptation and mitigation strategies.

If the European Union wants to continue being the global leader on climate and energy, it is important that it does not stop allocating financial resources, even in the long term, to support these environmental policies.

[1] European Environment Agency, Climate change and water Warmer oceans, flooding and droughts (2019),

[2] International Organisation for Migration, Migration and climate change, IOM Migration Research Series No. 3 (2008),

[3] L. Bagnoli and L. Bordrero, Le rotte e i costi delle migrazioni, Corriere della Sera, 14 September 2017.

[4] Ibidem.

[5] World Bank, Assessing the impact of climate change on migration and conflicts (2008), (pdf).

[6] World Bank, Poverty and shared prosperity 2018 (2018),

[7] Italian Ministry of the Interior, Sbarchi e accoglienza dei migranti: tutti i dati (2019),

[8] UNHCR, Operational Portal. Refugee situations, Most common nationalities of Mediterranean sea and land arrivals from January 2019 (2019),

[9] International Organisation for Migration, Migration and climate change, op. cit.

[10] D.R. Kniveton, C.D. Smith, R. Black, Emerging migration flows in a changing climate in dryland Africa, Nature Climate Change, 2 (2012), pp. 444–447,

[11] European Environment Agency, Climate change and water …, op. cit.

[12] M.G. Midulla, A. Stocchiero, Migrazioni e cambiamento climatico (2015), Brief a cura di Cespi, Focsiv e WWF Italia,

[13] FAO, Migration agriculture and climate change (2017),

[14] International Organisation for Migration, Climate change and migration in vulnerable countries (2019),

[15] C. Vatana, Perché le persone emigrano? (2019), Mondopoli,

[16] FAO, Migration agriculture and climate change, op. cit.

[17] International Organisation for Migration, Climate change and migration in vulnerable countries, op. cit.

[18] M. Borderon , P. Sakdapolrak, R. Muttarak, E. Kebede, R. Pagogna, E. Sporer, Migration influenced by environmental change in Africa: A systematic review of empirical evidence, Demographic Research, 41 (2019), pp. 491-544,

[19] European Commission, International climate finamce (2019),




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