Climate-chaos migrants set to face increasingly closed borders

Climate change is set to trigger dangerously soaring temperatures this century, forcing many of humankind’s most vulnerable to migrate to survive. Yet the growing global obsession with border security will stifle their safe movement.

April Humble
2 March 2015
Protest at Rafah checkpoint

A protest at the Rafah border checkpoint. Flickr / Steve Rhodes. Some rights reserved.

Anthropogenic climate change is heating the earth ten times faster than natural changes over the last 65m years. Scientists concur that our current path could lead us to a 4C rise by the end of the century, which would be cataclysmic for humanity. Even avoiding such a global doomsday with a 1.5-2C rise, a widely accepted international aspiration, would still bring widespread catastrophes and a Day of Reckoning for many.

Amid environmental instability and threats, people migrate, as evident throughout human history. Due to current climatic changes, many are already silently migrating—from the Andes, the Himalayas, the Sahara. With a 2, 3, 4C rise or more, large-scale population shifts will be unavoidable, to find basic necessities to survive and to escape dangerous environmental threats. And yet still there are no effective or widespread mechanisms to safeguard the masses forced to move.

On the contrary, we are entering an equally unparalleled era of border securitisation, and thus restricted cross-border movement. When they picture heightened border security, most people think of Europe, alongside America. But the trend is global: there are five times more border walls than 25 years ago—from the UK to Ukraine to Uzbekistan to Pakistan to China to Malaysia, and much beyond. In the context of extreme and rapid climatic changes, this denial of human movement could prove disastrous.

Narratives in collision

West and north Africa are primes examples of this collision of narratives. Straddling the Sahara and pocketed with other smaller deserts, such as the Libyan and the Nubian, this region is one of the hottest in the world. Native peoples, such as the Tuareg, Amazigh and Fula, have over thousands of years learned to exist in this most hostile of environments, often through the wanderings of nomadic lifestyles.

The Sahara is already showing signs of warming and is predicted to warm considerably more quickly than the global average, as well as suffering from reduced and more erratic rain. This will push people’s ability to survive over the edge—indeed there is strong evidence to suggest it is already happening.

At the same time, due to intra-regional tensions and external political pressures, various states have been barricading their borders in recent years. The 1,559km border between Algeria and Morocco is permanently closed and a sandstone barrier divides Morocco and the Western Sahara territory. A few years ago Libya bought a contract to securitise all its borders and the EU is working bilaterally with states across the region to tighten controls.

Climate change is expected to affect the world’s most vulnerable first. That usually means those living in countries with weak governance whose finances, resources and infrastructure are meagre or poorly managed—as is true of much of north and west Africa. And from Egypt to the Gambia, climate change is already threatening people’s livelihoods, homes, water and food supplies. Adaptation may prove beyond the capabilities of many but increasingly impermeable borders also imply that safe passage into less threatening lands will become increasingly implausible.

Ancient landscapes

Similar developments are taking place in the Middle East—across the Levant, the Arabian peninsula and Mesopotamia, to the far east of Iran. This ancient and vast landscape is becoming increasingly adorned with man-made border structures, carving up swathes of arid and semi-arid lands to smother free movement.

Border walls and fences divide states across the western part of the Fertile Crescent, including at the borders of Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Syria. Highly secured barriers are being built between Oman and the United Arab Emirates and between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In 2009 Saudi Arabia also bought a contract to secure all its borders—a 9,000km security system.

Across an arc of conflict riddled with complex social and political tensions, conjured demons of drug smuggling, oil theft, terrorism and illegal migration instil mistrust and fear in many leaders, and so border-security initiatives proliferate. However, the global climate obeys no border.

In the Middle East, water scarcity is likely to befall many states, such as the severe drought in 2010 which affected Jordan, Israel, Syria, Iraq and Turkey, devastating livestock and crops and displacing millions. This drying trend, along with other environmental problems such as the diminution of the great Jordan river due to political recklessness, looks set to intensify this century. Water and food insecurity, as well as economic impacts and conflicts rooted in or exacerbated by climate, are highly likely in this volatile region.


Border-security choices made by political elites, often fuelled by nationalist self-righteousness, could lead to unfathomable and disastrous situations for those most vulnerable to climate change. And they are evident from rich to poor regions—from Fortress Europe to impoverished areas in South Asia—and from landlocked nations to isolated islands:  Central Asia to the UK.

Tuvalu from above

Tuvalu looks exotic but life on the island is threatened by rising sea levels. Flickr / Tomoaki Inaba. Some rights reserved.

Take the prevalent attitude to immigration in the largest and wealthiest island in Oceania, Australia, a potent example of how exclusion can be deadly. The island is in close proximity to poor and underdeveloped islands, many of which are highly vulnerable to climate change. Floating in settings of serene allure, for several of these low-lying states which barely peak over the ocean’s surface—Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands—cyclones, extreme flooding and rising sea-levels present the terrifying prospect of complete submergence.

Yet Australia, the obvious destination for many due to its wealth and ample land, has a severe anti-immigration stance, with robust maritime surveillance of ‘infiltration’ of its waters, agencies which intercept ‘boat people’ and a thorough deportation system. This political decision to fortify shores and deny undocumented migrants refuge paints a desperate future for many in the Pacific who will seek safety from climate change.


Securitisation has become the buzzword, the quick fix and obsession of a growing number of rulers. And so today Earth is riddled with more fortified borders than at any previous point in history. At the same time, human activities are warming the planet at an unprecedented rate, likely to ignite critically dangerous situations for mankind’s ability to survive across the globe.

In such aberrant circumstances, it is essential that we provide assurance of free movement to safer and more habitable lands. States need urgently to readdress their concepts of borders, security and ‘self-determination’, recognising human mobility, humanitarianism and altruism towards their fellow man and neighbour—to allow for a more transient world and safe passage away from the threatening and violent impacts of climate change.

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