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Climate Refugees: Our Problem From Hell

In 2002 Samantha Power argued that genocide was ‘a problem from hell’ due to its complexity and tragedy.  For Generation Z, climate refugees will pose a problem of the same scale and consequences.  By 2050 a growing stream of climate refugees will destabilise nations, forcing a radical change to the accepted range of security interests.  This will be an economic, social, and humanitarian crisis of vast proportions and impact. On top of this, the UK’s traditional security partners are likely to diverge from core UK interests and undermine long held international norms.  Achieving the global reduction in carbon emissions needed to stop this climate change is unlikely.  In contrast to the genocides of the 1990s, however, we have time to mitigate the risks.  The UK therefore needs a new strategy for a new century of security problems.  Policymakers owe it to themselves, and their children, to take the issue credibly, and to start acting now.

Risk: Regional Destabilisation

The UN predicts that there will be 200 million climate refugees by 2050 with the majority stemming from sub-Saharan Africa.  As the numbers grow the ability of national governments to uphold a duty of care will be under increasing stress.

Drawing from current population dynamics, the majority of climate refugees are likely to settle in North Africa.  This will create nearly un-policeable and deeply deprived mega-slums or refugee camps on the edges of African cities.  This combination of a poor and embittered population, many under 30, and an urban environment which is deeply challenging to police, provides the ingredients for de jure state control to vanish.  Feral and ungovernable slum cities will be created with their own social and political order.

The collapse of the rule of the law provides terrorist and criminal actors access to capable transit hubs without effective oversight.  As a contemporary example, Pedro Sula, in Honduras, has an almost complete lack of state control and serves as a node for drug trafficking into the USA.  Similar situations in multiple cities across North Africa would pose a direct threat European security.

With the prospect of deprived urban centres as their only option in country, many people would seek refuge across sub-Saharan Africa, or in Europe, becoming refugees.  This highly likely to cause a cascade of deprivation as large numbers of climate refugees put pressure on regional economies.

The possibility of such an issue arising will inspire the creation of repressive garrison states run by strongmen on a platform of keeping the migrants out.  With strict border controls and concentration camps for migrants, Libya under Gaddafi is a window into this future.

In turn, such states will look to authoritarian patrons, such as Russia and China, for support.  They will need access to arms and finance to maintain order in an increasingly stressed security environment. There is already evidence that this is happening in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Therefore, climate refugees not only risk empowering repression, but also providing a pretext for the entrenchment of strategic competitors in Africa.  Some of the most developed portions of Africa are also likely to become the most illiberal and most beholden to the UK’s adversaries.  Such a situation would reduce the UK’s ability to extend its values and promote its commerce significantly.  Given these factors, by 2050 the UK will be faced with a strategic dilemma; to pursue a strategy based on international security by opposing Russian and Chinese interests, or to follow humanitarian instincts.

Risk: Europe’s Focus Shifts to Africa

The European migrant crisis in 2015 is widely credited with fuelling the rise of populist nativism across the continent. By 2050, the political dynamic of Europe will have changed due to climate refugees. Even in cases where the far-right do not take power directly, centrist parties often move to accommodate them.  One example of this trend can be seen in the Netherlands, where the governing party shifting to the right.  A more dramatic example is the rise of the hard-right in France.  French President Emmanuel Macron even talks of a crisis in Europe and the political struggle to contain the rise of right wing nationalism. On Europe’s South coast Spanish and Italian politics is looking increasingly volatile.  Whilst the centre ground of European politics is holding today, by 2050 political shifts are likely to be more dramatic.  This strongly suggests that for domestic political reasons, and irrespective of the actual security threat, European nations will invest more resources into policies which keep climate refugees off the continent.

Isolated by Geography but Bound by Politics

Isolated by geography Britain will not feel the impact of large-scale refugee flows as much as Europe.  As European nations turn their efforts to prolonged constabulary missions in Africa, their security focus will also shift.  This would leave Britain focused on peer threats like Russia and China, but with her European allies fixed elsewhere.  Such a strategic shift threatens the UK’s capability to act on the world stage and would make her far more reliant on a smaller number of partners. 

As Europe shifts its focus to Africa, attention will turn away from traditional co-operation with UK security interests.  This shift could take the form of increasing funding for Frontex, the EU border agency, or providing support for national missions such as the Italian Operation Mare Nostrum. Operation Barkhane, the French intervention in Mali, may also serve as a model how European nations might attempt to create stability in the Sahel.  This is not limited to Mediterranean nations; Estonia, insulated from southern problems and facing a substantial Russian challenge, has deployed troops to the Sahel. Given the intensifying nature of the climate refugee crisis through the 21st century, such pan-European commitments are likely to grow driven by deepening cooperation through the European Union.  The costs incurred, both material and strategic, are likely to profoundly change Europe’s strategic priorities.

This is concerning on two levels.  Firstly, it consumes European defence resources diluting their commitments to NATO’s eastern flank.  There is a case that this is happening already as the current European missions in the Sahel are long-term, resource heavy, deployments.  In a contemporary contrast, some have compared Mali to Afghanistan, suggesting that both are quagmires with limited potential for creating a stable state absent constant western interference.  The difference is that Afghan stability is not vital to British security.  Stability in the Sahel, on the other hand, will directly impact Europe.  This strongly suggests that European nations will make a strategic decision to mount long-term, large footprint operations in Africa to the detriment of other theatres. 

Secondly, and more worryingly, the perceived threat from the Sahel could reshape European foreign and strategic policy.  For example, the drive to keep refugees out of Europe may force national governments to diplomatically cooperate with countries whose interests are divergent from Britain, such as China.  A precedent for this behaviour can be found in the EU signing a deal with Turkey to restrict migration into Europe, which has been criticised on humanitarian grounds.  This decision to work closely with an authoritarian and expansionist nation points to a willingness to seek rapprochement with other countries to free up resources for the Sahel challenge.  This divergence of political interests would reduce the UK’s freedom of action on the global stage.

Britain Needs a Strategy

First, targeted and large-scale development aid should be sent to nations on the MENA side of the Mediterranean Basin.  This would need a significant increase in the foreign aid budget.  The UK should make the choice to cut programmes not aligned to this strategy and reprioritise resources.  The intent would be to grow the capacity of MENA states to handle the growing burden of refugees on their southern borders by building a strong governments.  In turn this would reduce Europe’s need to intervene.  This could be pursued in conjunction with European efforts.

Focusing Defence Engagement

Defence engagement would also be a critical tool in strengthening state ability to conduct border security and counter-terrorism missions.  This would involve the British Army focusing more resource in the region.   There is currently only one brigade, the 4th Infantry Brigade, earmarked for defence engagement in Northern Africa and no permanently aligned RN or RAF units.  It should consider re-tasking the 11th Infantry Brigade from its current assignment in Afghanistan to Northern Africa as well.  As the climate change situation in the Sahel develops, it may also be wise to execute a ‘retreat north of Chad’ by reassigning 102 Logistics Brigade, presently dedicated to Western Africa, to Northern Africa as well.  This should be coupled with building a range of logistics hubs to enable rapid movement by British and partner nation forces.  These measures would allow for larger scale and more durable defence engagement to bolster Mediterranean Basin nation capability. 

With a larger budget, extending this program into the Sahel would also be achievable.  But thinning resources would dilute the effect and the MENA countries must be the main effort.  It is also not clear that mid-Africa nations, such as Mali, have the requisite governance structures to handle the issue regardless of how much aid is sent. In a contemporary example, Afghanistan received more money adjusted for inflation than Europe during the Marshall Plan, yet failed to create stable institutions.  Nation-building is an important part of the UK foreign policy toolkit, any new strategy must recognise its limits.

Shifting Interests: Finding New Partners

Regardless of scope, such measures will not stop the refugee crisis entirely.  With 200 million climate refugees expected by the mid-century, if 95% of them were kept from reaching the Mediterranean, there would still be ten times the number of migrants as arrived in Europe in 2015.

Britain cannot stand alone in the world, and the distraction of Europe requires it to force new relationships.  This leaves two general choices: South East Asia or a renewed focus on the Arctic Circle.

South East Asia has been widely touted by successive Foreign Secretaries as being critical to a ‘Global Britain’ after BREXIT.  There is a strong case for this already as two of Britain’s Five Eyes partners reside in the region, along with long-term allies like Brunei. Moreover, a possible post-BREXIT trade agreement with Japan could provide the basis for a long-term relationship.  It is important not to assume that because Britain has allies in a region, they retain enduring value. Increased investment in SEA could act to counterbalance China.  The disparity of resources between China and the UK, especially in China’s near abroad, is severe and only likely to grow more so.  Assertively seeking regional allies therefore risks embroiling the UK in a stand-off with China on unfavourable terms.  This should not preclude Britain from seeking relationships in SEA, but Britain currently lacks the diplomatic and military capability to be a decisive regional player.  If Britain wished to pursue this strategy, it would be best to align with the United States.

The Arctic offers a more realistic opportunity, due to its combination of growing wealth, opposition to British adversaries, and proximity to the UK.  On current trajectories, the high north will be devoid of summer ice by 2050.  It is likely that this will unlock significant oil reserves and create new, highly profitable, shipping routes.  The result is that Arctic nations, especially Canada, are set to become very prosperous.  They are also likely to be opposed to Russia, which is expanding its influence in the Arctic.  This presents an opportunity for Britain and, with sufficient early investment and effort, it could align the policy of liberal Arctic states with its own.

 Three target nations of interest are Canada, with its control of shipping routes to Asia; Denmark, which will have access to large oil reserves; and Norway, with its existing ties to the UK and strong anti-Russian stance.  In strategic terms, this would align perfectly with the UK’s strong alliance with the US.

In this scenario, it is also plausible that the UK could become an interlocutor between Arctic facing nations to fuse partnerships.  The blueprint for such a position can be seen in the Joint Expeditionary Force, a grouping of like-minded northern nations within NATO headed by the UK.  This would provide new partners against near-peer threats without undermining old alliances, as well as providing economic opportunities for British citizens.


Climate refugees will be the C21’s problem from hell.  Short of unprecedented global action, there is no solution; the options presented above mitigate the risk.  They start from the premise of accepting immense human suffering, hoping only to contain that suffering to areas which are already desperately deprived.  But to do otherwise is to risk further humanitarian disaster and damage to UK strategic interests. 

Cover photo by VanveenJF on Unsplash

Matthew Ader

Matthew Ader is a first-year undergraduate student reading War Studies at King’s College London. He tweets inexpertly from @AderMatthew.

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