An article on the interactions between, climate change, environemental degradation and migration flows in the Middle East and North Africa.

To better understand the interactions between climate change, environmental degradation and migration in North Africa and the Middle East, the French Development Agency (AFD) and the World Bank launched in 2010 a programme of quantitative and qualitative research covering five countries in the region: Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Syria and Yemen. The preliminary results of this study were presented in Paris on June 13-14, 2012 to representatives of governments, institutions and researchers from North and South of the Mediterranean at a seminar organized by AFD, the World Bank and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI). This executive summary presents the key findings discussed at the conference and its conclusions.


The populations of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are increasingly affected by recurrent droughts, accelerating desertification and an often acute lack of appropriate public policies to deal with these hazards. In addition, new threats have emerged in recent years, from the Mediterranean sea level rise to soil and shoreline erosion.. Thus, some areas are becoming barely liveable, but nonetheless remain home for entire communities whose livelihoods very often depend on the environment. Risks to human life are therefore significant, and the probability of migration is high. However, while at the international level the issue of environmental migration is a hot topic for the scientific community and for practitioners and policy makers, a lack of knowledge on the subject in the MENA region has so far limited the understanding of such phenomena, making it difficult to define vulnerable populations and to develop appropriate responses.

In light of this situation, AFD and the World Bank funded a research programme in five countries, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Syria and Yemen, to foster a better comprehension of the complex relationships between environmental issues, especially climate change, and migration; to improve the measurement of household perceptions in MENA regarding the impacts of climate change; and to assess the importance of migration in adaptation strategies for households and communities. Household surveys were carried out in each country, and discussion groups were organized in rural and urban areas to better understand the motivations behind an individual’s decision to migrate and how migrants integrate into urban areas.


The preliminary results of the study on climate impacts and migration in MENA are taken from the analysis developed by Wodon et al. (2012) and presented below in summary form (see below on the methodology used to collect quantitative and qualitative data).

Given the characteristics of the selected areas, the surveys carried out are not nationally representative. But analysis of the data suggests that in the areas affected by climate change, households perceive significant degradation of their environment. Over 75% of households surveyed reported that rainfall was becoming increasingly erratic and unpredictable, while almost 75% said that temperatures were rising. More than half thought that there was less rain today than five years ago, that the land was drier or less fertile, that the rainy season begins later, has a shorter duration and/ or ends earlier, and finally that droughts are becoming increasingly frequent. While the results in Algeria, Morocco, Syria and Yemen are relatively homogeneous, perceptions of climate change are less severe in Egypt, which can be explained by the more favourable conditions in the regions studied in this country.

Environmental change, especially droughts, has a major impact on households, leading to loss of household income, whether derived from crops, livestock or fisheries. In addition, while these losses vary from one country to another, in all cases the poorest households and those dependent on agricultural activities appear to be the most affected. In other words, the poorest households are the most vulnerable to climate shocks. These findings are all the more significant given that migration usually requires a certain amount of financial resources.

In the short term, households cope with weather shocks in different ways. Most rely on their savings, but many are forced to sell livestock or other assets, or to borrow money. Another strategy adopted by some is to withdraw their children from school, although this usually only occurs in the most vulnerable households. The adoption of medium term adaptation strategies is, however, much less common, despite the fact that such approaches could enable the mitigation of the impacts of climate shocks while increasing household resilience. Thus, few households reported that they had adapted their farming methods in response to climate shocks or that they had moved towards activities that were less dependent on the environment. Only one household in five claimed to have changed its production techniques, increased its use of fertilizers and pesticides or moved towards non-farming activities to generate income. Even resorting to migration in response to climate shocks remains limited, since only two out of five households reported that they knew someone who had migrated as an adaptation strategy.

Qualitative analysis of the focus group data confirmed that while migration is a potential strategy for households facing loss of income as a result of climate changes, it is often the last resort, once other strategies that do not require relocation have failed. The focus groups also revealed the difficulties faced by many migrants to urban areas in terms of integration, especially in finding employment or housing. The ability to integrate is especially dependent on whether a migrant has preexisting social networks or not.

Lastly, the surveys suggested that communities and national authorities have only a limited role in supporting local adaptation strategies, including migration or not, and increasing household resilience. Only 5% to 10% of households interviewed mentioned community-implemented measures, such as tree planting, dam building or the organization of information campaigns. The proportion of households benefiting from these measures is likely to be even lower than the number of households that mentioned them. Assistance programmes for households to rely on in case of income loss also appeared severely limited.


The second day of the conference was devoted to discussions, with the goals of better understanding the various aspects that characterize environmental migration and outlining the current normative and institutional frameworks on these issues. Four panels were organized on: i) factors and determinants of environmental migration, ii) the existing knowledge of populations and institutions and opportunities for raising their awareness on climate change impacts, iii) public policies vis-à-vis environmental migration, and iv) policy recommendations emerging from the study and debate. The main conclusions arising from the discussions are detailed below.

  • 1. It is difficult to isolate the impact of climatic conditions from other possible factors of migration. Environmental migration dynamics are complex and there are many other issues that influence a household’s decisions regarding migration. While the AFD-World Bank study suggests that climate change has an impact (direct and indirect) on the living conditions of populations and, consequently, on migration, socio-economic factors remain dominant in decisions to migrate, including to seek more favourable employment prospects in the destination regions (Joseph and Wodon, 2012a, in a study on Yemen).
  • 2. Current migration dynamics in the MENA region are an extension of a long tradition of mobility. The studied area has long been one of the world’s most important migratory hubs, due to its location between two major destinations of international migration, Europe and the Persian Gulf. The area also includes many pastoralist and nomadic populations, which are traditionally mobile, as illustrated by the work of Dawn Chatty (University of Oxford). It is therefore important to put studies conducted in this area into geographic and cultural perspective and to take into account its past migratory patterns. We must avoid thinking in terms of a single paradigm of sedentary life, as mentioned by Kamel Dorai (MigrInter).
  • 3. It is essential to acknowledge that poorly anticipated and mismanaged migrations constitute risks: a risk of destabilization, but also a risk to the fundamental rights and protection of displaced individuals. At the levels of both local policies and international treaties, suitable legislation is necessary to ensure that migrants, including environmental ones, receive sufficient protection. This is especially important given that migration and climate change may lead to conflicts, particularly at the local level, which must be prevented whenever possible. According to the preliminary results of the AFD-World Bank study, one in five households stated that migration could be a contributory factor in local conflicts, particularly involving water, land and livestock.
  • 4. Migration is mainly directed towards urban centres. The issue of urban policies is therefore of major importance to better anticipate and manage these flows, especially as urban growth itself poses many environmental challenges. It is necessary to promote better urban planning, whether regarding land use planning or the provision of basic social services to ensure that migrants, especially women, are not likely to encounter situations where they would be vulnerable and their integration capabilities would be reduced.
  • 5. A better integration of migrants in urban areas could generate significant growth in opportunities not only for the migrants themselves but also for the rural areas they depart from, due to the transfer of savings. Such financial transfers, in terms of their frequency and magnitude, represent an essential contribution of migratory flows. According to surveys, migrants often consider the sending of money or assets back home to be a moral obligation. Those in receipt of financial transfers, especially in rural areas, benefit from a reduction in their level of poverty and hunger, and are more able to pay for the education of their children (Joseph and Wodon, 2012b). These funds are also a potential tool to support adaptation to changes induced by environmental degradation.

It is therefore important to consider complementary measures to optimize the impact of money transfers for the development of the most affected areas. Such transfers may help increase household resilience to shocks, for example by building up insurance funds or making investments to facilitate adaptation to environmental changes and the diversification of income sources. However, several conference delegates noted that at present such transfers were not necessarily directed towards the regions of origin that were the most affected by climate change, particularly when investment opportunities are better elsewhere.


The insights provided by the AFD-World Bank study on environmental migration in MENA suggest, as also argued by François Gemenne (IDDRI), that the conventional wisdom on migration related to climate change may not always be correct. Contrary to popular belief, the MENA region is primarily experiencing limited internal migration, at least for the time being. Nevertheless, it is important to interpret the results carefully to guide the formulation of public policies.

As noted Stéphane Madaule (AFD), the current state of knowledge on the subject is not sufficient to enable today the prediction of future migratory flows, or to propose specific policy recommendation. Further research is necessary into the interactions between environmental factors, livelihoods and migration to develop policies that will enable households in the region to adapt to climate change impacts. The question of whether to encourage or discourage migration from areas affected by climate change should also be addressed with caution, because it depends heavily on national, regional and individual contexts. As noted by Andrea Liverani (World Bank), the challenge for public policy is to improve the management of climate change-related migration. The two objectives of protecting and supporting those who decide to leave and those who will not or cannot leave, are not necessarily contradictory. Policies can be designed to combine these two aspects but their conceptualization would be facilitated by the adoption of a transversal approach to the issue of human migration and climate change. It would allow for a better integration of these dimensions in the various sectoral strategies implemented by the countries concerned but also by bilateral and multilateral donors.