Study: Climate Change Linked to ‘Arab Spring’ Mass Migration

For the first time, scientists have linked climate change to the mass migration flows that followed the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East a few years ago.

According to scientists from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, water shortages and droughts contributed to the Arab Spring conflicts, particularly in Syria, which remains mired in a civil war.

“People started not being able to produce agricultural production, and that was the start of migration from the rural areas to urban areas, which were already quite crowded. And the resources in the urban areas were also scarce. So with that kind of tension, fighting for limited resources, and on top is the ethnic polarization in Syria. So, it’s sort of all that combination,” said Raya Muttarak, of the University of East Anglia in Britain. She co-authored a report on the subject.

The researchers used United Nations’ data on asylum applications and conflict-related deaths. They combined this with data on drought and rainfall, plus other variables like population size and measures of democracy and ethnic diversity. All the figures were combined in a mathematical model. 

“So, let’s look at how climate affects the probability of conflict. And once we estimate that we use the number that we got from that to estimate the next step. So, the countries that experience conflict from climate variation — are they likely to send out the refugee flows or not?” explained Muttarak.

She said that climate change would not cause conflict and subsequent asylum-seeking flows everywhere.

“The effect of climate on migration, through conflict, is quite specific to certain time periods and to certain countries. So, climate-induced conflict, it’s a bit more likely in a country with a medium level of democracy.”

The results of this study are specific to the western Asia region. However, researchers say they hope the study will contribute to the global debate on how migration flows will be affected by increasingly severe climate change.


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