Foreign Relations & International Law

From Bad to Worse: Climate Migration in Middle East

Christina Bouri
Sunday, March 24, 2024, 9:00 AM
The stress that another wave of refugees—this time induced by the climate crisis—will place on already resource-poor countries like Jordan will be catastrophic.
Massive dust storm in the Middle East, May, 2022 (MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC,; Public Domain)

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Editor’s Note: Climate change is wreaking havoc around the globe, but some regions are affected more than others. The Council on Foreign Relations’s Christina Bouri describes how climate change is devastating the Middle East and calls for more decisive action by the international community.

Dan Byman

Although climate change’s horrors are global—melting polar ice caps, loss of wildlife habitats, and more frequent, more powerful natural disasters like hurricanes, to name just a few—some regions bear a higher burden than others. This is especially true for forced migration due to climate change, which, for regions like the Middle East, can be particularly destabilizing. Migration will be one of the most adverse impacts of climate change on the region. How regional and global actors act now and what they decide on in the next United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP) will determine the trajectory of climate-induced migration in years ahead. 

As one of the world’s hottest regions, the Middle East is at high risk of climate-related migration. Regional temperatures have risen twice as fast as the global average, and several studies have indicated that dry spells throughout the region are projected to last beyond 2040. There are also projections of decreased annual rainfall in some areas, and downpours in others, leading to floods. In cities like Alexandria or Basra, rising sea levels will cause coastal storms and flooding that will lead to human displacement. Also, by 2060, agricultural sectors such as Egypt’s are expected to decrease by 47 percent, which will prompt rural communities to seek fertile land for crops elsewhere.   

The region’s leaders have responded differently to this challenge. For example, Jordan turned to wealthier states, including Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to finance capital-intensive climate projects, including water desalination plants, as well as solar power plants and hydroponics projects in the Jordanian Zaatari refugee camps—the first of these projects created in a refugee camp. These efforts by poorer states aim to mitigate the coming impacts of climate change on already-vulnerable populations. Conversely, oil-rich member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have, in theory at least, sought to move away from hydrocarbons and toward renewable sources, which is one of the goals of Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030. Even if Saudi Arabia accomplishes its Vision 2030 goals, it will still face the issues brought about by climate change. 

Similarly, other non-GCC states, such as Morocco, are attempting to reduce their carbon footprint by decreasing fossil fuel imports and generating electricity from renewable energy. At the end of  2022, Morocco’s share of renewable energy for electricity stood at 38 percent, with a goal of 52 percent by 2030. Furthermore, in November 2021, COP 26 produced a series of goals to reduce greenhouse emissions, and some Middle Eastern and North African countries updated their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to meet the needs of the Paris climate agreement. Some states, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2060, and the United Arab Emirates (2050) pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. 

Without a concerted effort to mitigate the climate crisis, the region’s population will suffer from a new refugee crisis due to climate change. Furthermore, the stress that another wave of refugees—this time induced by the climate crisis—will place on already resource-poor countries like Jordan will be catastrophic. King Abdullah II of Jordan has stated that Syrian refugees’ homes are not in their host countries, and until they can return, world leaders “must all do right by them.” King Abdullah’s statement calls for the protection of refugees until they can safely return home. Yet, this unforeseeable return becomes unattainable when many of the refugees hosted by countries such as Jordan come from countries at risk of climate disasters. Currently, approximately 90 percent of the world’s refugee populations originate from climate-vulnerable populations. Thus, returning to their homes will become more difficult.  

Moreover, refugees have rights, but whether Middle Eastern states can deliver on them in the midst of catastrophic climate crises will become a challenge. For instance, the facilitation of rights outlined by conventions such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol—which were the foundation for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR)—will become more difficult as states struggle to provide uniform support to migrants who flood their borders in the coming years.  Also, adopted in December 2018, the United Nations Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) recognizes the increased displacement resulting from climate disasters. The compact’s stakeholders pledged to ensure an equitable responsibility for displaced peoples and in responding to future refugee crises. Ultimately, the provision of necessities will exacerbate the challenges faced by host countries that already struggle to assist the internally displaced and refugee populations within their borders. 

Given the interconnectedness of the climate crisis with other issues across the region, the United Nations deems it as a threat multiplier. The threats that already exist will only worsen as time progresses, triggering other related and unrelated calamities in the region. 

An example of a multiplied threat occurred in Libya in September 2023. In Libya, Storm Daniel ravaged the Mediterranean Sea and landed in Libya, causing two dams to burst near Derna, a coastal city with a population of nearly 100,000. The aftermath left the city and its people devastated with approximately 891 buildings destroyed. Other towns, such as Marj, Al-Bayda, and Shahhat, flooded from the storm’s heavy rain, and nearly 34,000 people from these cities were displaced. According to UNICEF, more than 4,300 people died, and approximately 884,000 people across the five provinces affected by the storm in northern Libya were impacted. But, much like the climate-induced refugee crises elsewhere in the region, this crisis only exacerbated and compounded an existing one. Even before the storm, about 300,000 people in Libya required humanitarian assistance. 

The tragic floods in Libya illustrate one of the greatest challenges to addressing the climate crisis: accountability. The dams located in Derna were part of wider issues linked to Libya’s weak public infrastructure, left unaddressed by the leaders of the divided country. Libyans who mourned the loss of their families demanded accountability and answers, and a response came from the military dictator and warlord in the eastern part of Libya, Khalifa Haftar. On the day Derna was struck by the catastrophe, Haftar’s eldest son, Elseddik, declared his candidacy for the Libyan presidency. By leading the response to the catastrophe, Haftar and his family used the disastrous floods to strengthen their power by gaining the support of the Libyan masses who hoped their leaders would finally step up. The climate-induced floods in Libya convey the poor infrastructure in place to address climate disasters in the region and raise wider concerns of accountability. 

In countries already experiencing internal displacement due to conflict like Yemen, the warming climate also poses the risk of increased recruitment to insurgency groups. Food insecurity may make alternative forms of income from insurgency groups more attractive to displaced communities because they can provide lucrative avenues for support in times of need. For example, the Houthis in Yemen have reportedly offered salaries and food baskets to the families of soldiers they have recruited. 

As climate-displaced people continue to relocate within their own countries or across borders, populist nationalism and factionalism may arise. Refugees can make for easy scapegoats for a country’s problems, which could lead to increased violence against these new newcomers. For instance, in Lebanon, ministers and other government officials have pushed narratives that blame the country’s economic malaise on Syrian refugees. The return of Syrian refugees to Syria by Lebanese politicians such as Nadim Gemayel, has been framed in hostile terms such as a “national necessity.” The scapegoating of refugees is not a new phenomenon—but the climate crisis will likely worsen its effects. 

As a threat multiplier, one that can both compound and exacerbate existing catastrophes, the climate crisis needs a more vigorous approach than regional leaders are taking. This November's United Nations Climate Change Conference—COP 29—in Azerbaijan this November will surely be an important setting for more discussions of climate migration. But the current and future climate refugees of the Middle East can’t rely on yearly high-level talks alone. 

Christina Bouri is a research associate in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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