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The Mediterranean region under climate change

Jean-Paul Moatti
Stéphane Thiébault

Part 3. Adaptation, resilience, conservation of resources and prevention of risk

Sub-chapter 3.1.2. Human migration and climate change in the Mediterranean region

Mohamed Charef et Kamel Doraï

Texte intégral

1The Mediterranean area is characterized by very high human mobility. In this region, labor migration has long been structured by colonial ties and economic development inequalities between the South and the North. Since the Second World War, and more recently following the Arab Spring movement, forced migration has become predominant. Today, the region is home to the highest refugee population in the world, displaced by protracted conflicts.

2In addition, the Mediterranean region is particularly affected by climate change. Water as a resource is a matter of concern at various levels for all countries, in a region characterized by strong economic disparities, and where risk prevention policies are not equally implemented. Although the Southern part of the region – less developed in economic terms – is less responsible for global warming, those who live there are more exposed and more vulnerable to the risks associated with climate change. Multiple factors favor displacement (conflicts, economic inequality), and climate change can be considered as a booster of inequality which encourages migration.

3Displacement related to environmental change and climate disasters is not a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, the potential for migration has greatly increased over the last decades due to the increasing concentration of population residing in areas designated as ‘at risk’, who suffer the consequences of climate change.

4The effects of climate change are particularly felt in priority rural areas where the most vulnerable population lives.

5However, the relationship between climate change and migration is not necessarily obvious. Nowadays, there is a broad consensus that climate change results in increased frequency and severity of disasters. Sudden and violent events such as floods, storms, landslides and other hydro-meteorological disasters have led to short-term or permanent population displacement. Climate change also produces slower upheavals such as the upsurge in droughts, soil degradation, desertification, salinization of freshwater resources, coastal erosion, river banks erosion and rising sea levels, leading to a gradual emigration. Ultimately, the consequences for food production, crop yields, fresh water supply, food prices, health and livelihoods are serious and affect the populations of entire regions. The issue of environmental and climate migration is therefore a key element in understanding current migration trends in the Mediterranean region.

A recent focus on the relation between climate change and migration

  • 1 United Nations Conference on climate change, Cancun-Mexico, 2010 (in French): (...)

6Since the Rio summit in 1992, the international community has started a round of negotiations to address global warming and its effects. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its report published in 1990, warned the international community about the risks posed by climate change in terms of migration, the issue remained peripheral until 2010. Until then, migrants and internally displaced people were perceived by the international community as ‘collateral damage’ of climate change, without adressing the question of the causes of these movements. In 2010, during COP16, it was decided to encourage “measures to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to displacement, migration and planned relocation induced by climate change”1.

7Since the mid-1990s, there has been a growing number of studies on migrants and the internally displaced due to climate change (Piguet & Pécoud, 2011; Gemenne, 2009; Cournil & Mayer, 2014). This new research agenda, combined with growing political demand on such a complex issue, has contributed to the renewal of the theoretical, methodological and legal framework. It is now acknowledged by most researchers that the decision to migrate or stay in situ is affected by a combination of socio-economic, historical, political and/or environmental factors. There is a continuum between different forms of migration and a combination of various determinants that shape migration movements. The two main difficulties lie in the complexity of determining and defining environmental migration accurately, and the in quantifying and assessing the specific role of climate change in the decision to migrate on a temporary or permanent basis.

Climate refugees: a new category

8Today, a multiplicity of concepts and categories are used to describe migration linked to environment and climate change. These populations are described as ‘migrants’, ‘environmental refugees’, ‘climate refugees’, ‘displaced persons in relation with a natural disaster’, ‘ecological migration’, etc. These are just some examples of the terms used to describe the same phenomenon. The frequency of the use of the term ‘refugee’ is not accidental. First, it suggests the idea of drama and emergency. Secondly, it assumes a legal protection, which, in this case still remains hypothetical. The use of this term goes back to 1985, when it was used as a report title for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). More recently, another definition was proposed for ‘climate refugees’, defined “as people who have to leave their habitats, immediately or in the near future, because of sudden or gradual alterations in their natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity “(Bierman & Boas, 2007). In both definitions, the use of the term ‘climate refugees’ seems to imply ‘political refugees’. However, the association seems inappropriate. To date, ‘climate refugee’ is not a recognized legal status similar to ‘refugee status’ as defined by the 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 Protocol. In addition, none of the existing international instruments is likely to offer direct and sufficient legal protection to this population (Cournil & Mazzega, 2007).

  • 2 Article 8 of the Paris Agreement and Decision 1/CP. 21 Paragraphs 48–52 (FCCC/CP/2015/L. 9/Rev.1.)

9In recent years, many statements have been published by scholars, experts and policy makers to advocate for a better care of this category of migrants. In line with these initiatives, an important step forward was taken at COP21, where a decision was adopted to: “develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimise and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change”.2

Difficulties in quantifying environmental migrants

10While the legal definition of environmental migrants is still unclear, it is even more difficult to quantify this migration, which is diverse. Thus, some displacements are very limited in time, while others consist of repeated back and forth movements, some are internal displacements while others cross national borders. In 1995, an estimated 25 million people were displaced for environmental reasons. More recently, the report published in 2016 by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the Norwegian Refugee Council, based on different information sources, estimates that there were around 19 million people displaced by natural disasters, mainly related to meteorological phenomena. This figure does not include displacement resulting from the progressive effects of climate change, which remains hard to determine. Today, the Mediterranean region is exposed to this kind of long term effects, more than catastrophic events of great magnitude. It is thus impossible to determine how many individuals are currently displaced by the effects of climate change in the region. The report highlights the fact that most displacements are internal and 80% occur in Asia, knowing that Asia is home to 60% of the world’s population.

A population unequally affected by climate change in the Mediterranean region

  • 3 The agricultural sector remains the largest of the Moroccan economy and a driving force of develop (...)

11The populations residing in the Southern part of the Mediterranean region are particularly affected by climate change. Access to natural resources is a key issue, and there is increasing pressure on water, soil, plant and animal resources. Climate change presents new challenges in terms of social and economic change and resilience. For example, droughts have always been a part of the history of Central Maghreb countries and water stress is a constant reality. These countries have often experienced periods of intense drought, of varying length. Drought is therefore a key element in explaining desertification and land degradation, and subsequently some migratory movements. Recurring almost cyclically, droughts often accompany famines, epidemics and movements of displacement and migration of populations. A study conducted by the Morrocan Ministry of Infrastructure, agriculture and the environment, shows that Morocco, 93% of whose territory is arid or semi-arid, has suffered eleven periods of widespread drought which intensity was moderate to high, and others less widespread but rather strongly felt. Moreover, there has been an acceleration of the frequency of drought, which has grown from one every ten years during the fifties and sixties, to two or even three per decade since. In 2008, the Moroccan government launched a program – the Green Morocco Plan Goals – designed to limit the impact of climatic hazards3.

12On the Southern and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, where social inequality is high and poverty in rural areas is widespread, we can establish a link between climate change over the long term and internal migration. Maintaining a profitable agricultural economy is challenged by the lack of sufficient water resources. This progressive deterioration of the economic situation of entire agricultural regions reinforces social tensions over access to vital resources. Researchers have recently established a link between the long drought in Syria between 2007 and 2010 and the rural population displacement towards urban centers (Kelley et al. 2015). This has contributed to strengthening the socio-economic tensions in the peripheries of the most deprived Syrian cities. In the long term, environmental degradation–particularly related to access to water–can cause social tensions or even contribute to the development of armed conflicts (Kälin, 2010).

13On the Northern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, the relationship between migration and climate change today is less easy to identify. Yet we are witnessing increasingly violent climatic phenomena with storms (in France, the flood of Vaison-la-Romaine in 1992) and landslides (in Italy, the Sarno landslide in 1998 or Cerzeto in 2005) which cause the local displacement of varying numbers of individuals. These events, however, did not give rise to any debate in these countries or result in the creation of a special status for IDPs (Guadagno, 2014).


14Today the effects of climate change in the Mediterranean region in terms of population displacement are difficult to identify. With the exception of certain powerful weather phenomena, but rather limited when compared to other regions of the world such as Asia, the effects of climate change fall in the long term. The main consequence is water resource scarcity, that has very important consequences in the agricultural sector. As a result, there is a development of internal migration towards poor urban peripheries increasing social tensions. In the longer term, this may contribute to increasing the number of international migrants, mainly towards European countries, because of the lack of local economic opportunities. The effects of climate change in the Mediterranean region tend to strengthen regional inequalities. Displacement due to the effects of climate change may be linked today to other forms of migration – be they forced or economic – leading to more substantial international migration flows.



Biermannn Frank, Boas I. (2007)
Preparing for a warmer world, towards a global governance system to protect climate refugees, Global Governance Project.

Colin P., Kelley et al. (2015)
Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought, PNAS, 112 (11): 3241-3246.

Cournil C., Mayer B. (2014)
Les migrations environnementales. Enjeux et gouvernance, Paris: Presses Sciences Po.

Cournil C., Mazzega P. (2007)
Réflexions prospectives sur une protection juridique des réfugiés écologiques. Revue européenne des migrations internationales, 23 (1): 7-34.

Guadagno E. (2014)
How environmentally induced displacement is perceived in the Global North? Empirical evidence from Italy following Sarno and Cerzeto landslides (Doctoral dissertation, Université de Poitiers).

Kälin W. (2010)
Conceptualising climate-induced displacement, Climate Change and Displacement: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Oxford: Hart Publishing.

Piguet E., Pecoud A. (2011)
Migration and climate change, Cambridge University Press.

Gemenne F. (2009)
Géopolitique du changement climatique, Paris: Armand Colin.


1 United Nations Conference on climate change, Cancun-Mexico, 2010 (in French):

2 Article 8 of the Paris Agreement and Decision 1/CP. 21 Paragraphs 48–52 (FCCC/CP/2015/L. 9/Rev.1.)

3 The agricultural sector remains the largest of the Moroccan economy and a driving force of development: it occupies 40% of the active population, contributes nearly to 20% in the GDP and accounts for 40% of the value of exports.


Ibn Zohr University, ORMES, Morocco
Geographer and urban planner, University Ibn Zohr, ORMES Morocco

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