If global warming continues unabated, the World Bank estimates that by 2050, 216 million people will migrate within their countries in search of employment, food, and water security. Already, UNHCR data shows that, over the last decade, weather-related crises created twice as much displacement as conflict. Though such displacement often initially occurs within states– from rural to urban areas–as urban areas become more stressed, people are increasingly likely to move across international borders. Globally, most states and international institutions are unprepared for the coming magnitude of climate-related migration.
NATO member countries, already at the forefront of conflict-related migration from places such as Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan, will be destinations for migrants leaving parts of the Middle East and Africa which are becoming unliveable under changing climate conditions. The wave of migration provoked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may force Alliance members to assess migration policies and make changes to prepare for the future.
Climate-related migration will cause three-fold challenges for NATO. First, it may contribute to instability by straining governance in countries where NATO may deploy training or support forces. Second, climate-related migration may heighten the possibility of destabilising, reactive responses from Europe. Third, political forces in some countries may take advantage of the opportunity to sow chaos and instrumentalise migration.
Climate change and the strain on governance outside NATO
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II (WGII) report on Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability notes that it is the combination of climate change impacts and poor governance which will provoke migration from rural to urban areas. Though migration can be a positive adaptation strategy, in places where governance is already fragile it is more likely to contribute to instability and conflict, especially when combined with other political, societal, and security challenges. These at-risk countries include places in which NATO currently operates training and support missions, including Iraq and sub-Saharan Africa.
Rapid urbanisation, a frequent by-product of increased climate hazards, can pose severe economic and social stresses on communities when not managed well. Inadequate provision of social services, like housing, education, health, water or energy systems can create insecurity, provoke societal divisions, and increase demands on already struggling governments. For example, a 2021 study from the International Organization for Migration found that climate-induced migrants in southern Iraq, driven from rural areas to the city of Basra, largely clustered, “in neighborhoods suffering from multiple social problems related to economic security, access to rights and safety, with many moving into eviction-prone shelters and taking up low-wage jobs in the informal sector.” Ultimately, poorly managed urban in-migration can lead to the creation of large slums, where migrants are more vulnerable to recruitment by criminal and extremist groups, which only perpetuates stereotypes of migration as a negative form of adaptation.
Reactive destabilising responses from NATO members
In response to years of refugee influx from places like Syria and Afghanistan, some NATO member countries have become less willing to open their borders and welcome additional migrants. If not coordinated and managed ahead of time, haphazard responses and nativist reactions from European nations to a growing migration wave will cause greater security risks to migrants and states alike. For instance, nativist policies can engender an increase in anti-immigrant violence while increasing migrant vulnerability and decreasing legal avenues for protection. In addition, reactive and ad-hoc policy responses can undermine civil society and trust in government, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the past, populist and nativist parties in Europe have embraced climate denial, but the nativist narrative on climate has shifted from denial to opportunistic use of impacts, like migration, as evidence to fortify ideological and, often, racist, policy positions. For example, some populist groups are embracing a discourse called “ecobordering,” which blames immigrants for national environmental degradation, ignoring both the larger contributions of the Global North and the evidence that immigrants tend to use less energy and produce less waste in their new communities.
Additionally, the response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis underscores the asylum double standards found across Europe. For the first time, the EU activated the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) which gives refugees access to housing, medical assistance, labor markets and education for three years after arrival without the requirement to immediately apply for asylum. Previously, the bloc has refused to activate the TPD in response to migrant waves, such as the one from Syria in 2015–even though the policy aids in integrating refugee populations, decreasing the time they spend in incredibly vulnerable situations like those found in camps or reception centers. In part, the acceptance of Ukrainian refugees can be attributed to the geopolitical situation–to accept refugees is to repudiate the aggressive actions of Russia. However, the influence of demographic differences between the Ukrainian refugees and those who flee regions most affected by conflict and climate (Middle East and North Africa) cannot be overlooked in the divergent responses to migrant waves.
Managing climate-related migration will require collaborative, cooperative, and welcoming responses. The current Ukrainian migrant crisis, and the generous response from destination nations in Europe, should provide a catalytic effect for NATO member states to examine and revise migration policies in general; failure to do so now will catch the Alliance flat-footed and unprepared to deal with the climate-related migration expected in the future.
A window to the future: instrumentalised migration in Belarus
Not the least of global worries associated with climate change and migration is the possibility that some states might take advantage of an increase in migration to sow chaos. In fact, the NATO Climate Change and Security Action Plan, released in 2021, says climate change could create “conditions that can be exploited by state and non-state actors that threaten or challenge the Alliance.” A report from the Office of the President of the United States on Climate Change and Migration in October 2021 puts it more distinctly, noting that state and non-state actors may “exacerbate the effects of climate on migration, by exploiting climate-related migration to further political, social, and economic objectives.” In autumn 2021, we saw exactly how one leader, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, can leverage migration to create chaos and strain a neighboring (NATO) country’s resources.
As one act in a series of tit-for-tat actions between the EU and Lukashenko following the Belarusian president’s fraudulent election in 2020, Belarus loosened the restrictions needed to get a visa into the country. Though Lukashenko denied any connection between his recent threat to create a migrant crisis for the EU and the policy change, recently arrived migrants were directed toward the Polish border and provided with the tools needed to break through the border fence. This created a crisis for Poland, by extension the EU, and NATO, which was called upon by the Polish prime minister to help resolve the issue.
Though this doesn’t seem to be driven by climate change on the surface, many of the migrants involved were Iraqi Kurds—an ethnic group from the Northern Iraq region of Kurdistan which is overly dependent on fossil fuel exports, negatively affected by weak national governance, and experiencing record-breaking heat waves and droughts, making agriculture increasingly impossible. These migrants came to Europe because their home country is besieged by government mismanagement, inadequacy, conflict, and the effects of a changing climate.
The Belarus/Poland example provides us with a window into a future where people seeking a better life of both prosperity and security are used as pawns in geopolitical artifice. Most climate-related refugees will have left knowing that they will never be able to return, because the sea has swallowed up their homes or the land they tended for decades is parched and cracking, unable to produce. Without adequate preparation by local, national, and international governance bodies, people are unlikely to find the safety and security they seek from climate impacts through movement.
A role for NATO
Because migration is often a last-resort adaptation measure, everything that can be humanely done to decrease the flows of migrants before they begin will better ensure the collective defense and cooperative security of NATO states and Allies. However, finding the right role for NATO to play in decreasing climate migrant flows will be complicated because of the collective nature of the Alliance and because the best interventions are those that combine Defense, Diplomacy and Development (3D) programming, not military forces alone. The kinds of conflict de-escalation and climate adaptation interventions needed to reduce climate security risk in places of origin and decrease the need for displacement to NATO member countries will require collaborative solutions.
As a transnational organisation, NATO itself is evidence of the benefits of collaborative thinking and action. As such, it can use its expertise and positioning to champion solutions for non-traditional security crises like climate-related migration. NATO is well-positioned to facilitate the mobilisation of resources and building of collective, cooperative approaches to managing migration among states, nonprofits, and humanitarian organisations, which will be paramount in order to avoid duplicative interventions and expertise. Additionally, NATO’s organisational convening power will be crucial for facilitating conversations on developing and implementing better international migration policies that establish safe, orderly, and secure legal pathways for people fleeing precarious situations, though it should not be the sole convenor of these conversations.
Strategy, planning, and pre-crisis preparations—especially in the bolstering of civil preparedness—will, most often, be the best protection NATO can offer its members in a world threatened by climate change. Short term solutions, like those created as a crisis unfolds, can often lead to worse security outcomes in the long term, as they are developed for a tightly scoped and highly contextualised problem. Developing, and deploying, holistic, preparatory migration policies will go much further in reducing chaos and protecting human and national security in the long run.
To that end, NATO should leverage its long-time leadership on civil preparedness programs to enhance member countries’ capacities to absorb increased numbers of migrants. For example, NATO regularly develops sector-specific guidance and tools to help national authorities, including how to manage the movement of tens to hundreds of thousands of people in the wake of a disaster which could be adapted to prepare for climate-related migration. NATO also has deployed civil experts based in Allied nations to provide tailored advice – these experts could play a key role in educating and preparing member states for more migrants.
Shifting from response to preparation
In past migrant crises, such as that in the Aegean Sea, NATO has provided support for local authority actions through monitoring, surveillance and reconnaissance of migrants in the midst of an illegal crossing. Though NATO should remain ready to respond to those crises, it should also shift some of its efforts towards the development and implementation of better preparatory measures, like those outlined above, given the plausible future of increased climate-related migration. NATO has the opportunity to lead on issues of climate security, and one of the most pressing will be the issue of climate-related migration. The earlier the Alliance takes steps to blunt the impact of climate change through consensus building, strategic preparation, and collaborative policy building, the more secure member countries will be.
This is the second article in a mini-series on climate change and its implications on NATO and international security. Previous article(s):