Cross Border Migration and the Challenge to Europe

The mass movement of people across borders remains one of the most intractable challenges of modern international politics. Today, there are unprecedented numbers of displaced people, and environmental challenges will add to the push and pull factors driving further cross-border migrants. Tim Swabey examines recent cross-border migration trends, and explains why European states need to change their methods for dealing with the issue.

Contrary to the assertions of many media outlets, displaced people choose to leave their homes for a number of factors, some which push them out, and others which pull them away to find a new life. Conflict is the most significant, but it sits alongside a range of others including environmental change, economic opportunity, and perception of identity. Environmental change is likely to become an increasingly important driver of migration, and will present a major and long-term challenge for European countries. Both politicians and publics will have to adjust to a new reality in the future.

According to UNHCR, there were 65.3million displaced people worldwide in 2015. This was up from 59.5million in 2014, and 51.2million in 2013. In fact there have been significant year-on-year increases in the number of displaced persons since 2011. It seems sensible to assume that this trend will continue, and the number of displaced people is set to rise further. As of 2015, 21.3million of the displaced population were refugees, and 10million were condemned to statelessness. 33,972 people forced were forced from their homes each day last year.

Amongst the factors driving this rapidly increasing trend, war and violence are the most significant. The UN estimates 11million Syrians alone have fled their homes due to the continuing civil war, with nearly half crossing borders into neighbouring countries or Europe. With continuing violence in Libya, Sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond, conflict-driven migration is set to continue.

Conflict is the main push factor driving displacement around the world, yet environmental factors will soon play a larger part. Changes to the environment caused by global warming leads to a scarcity of resources such as water and arable land – alongside higher incidents of natural catastrophes such as storms or droughts. This drives many to abandon their homes, as their livelihoods become untenable in the face of unpredictable weather and reduced access to basic resources. The decision to uproot their families and lives is a sure indication of the desperation these people feel.

Chatham House/Creative Commons License

Chatham House/Creative Commons License

The numbers of environmental refugees today are often contested, and most commentary focuses on the projected numbers of future environmental refugees, as the impact of global warming becomes more widely felt. The most cited and controversial figure has been produced by Oxford University academic Norman Myers, who suggested that up to 200million would be displaced due to global warming by 2050. We should remain rightly sceptical of this figure, which has been criticised by many leading academics. For instance a report commissioned by the UK government in 2011 suggested that the majority of environmentally driven migration will initially remain within the national borders of developing countries.


Yet environmental changes will increasingly influence migration across Europe and beyond. Speaking to the Guardian newspaper, Simon Lewis, professor of global change science at UCL claimed: “Climate and vegetation zones are shifting, so the Mediterranean will likely keep getting drier this century, with knock-on negative social and economic impacts. That will be tough for Spain, Italy and Greece, where significant numbers of people may move north, and of course, displaced people from elsewhere wouldn’t stay in the Mediterranean, they’d keep travelling north.”

European Commission DG ECHO/Creative Commons License

European Commission DG ECHO/Creative Commons License

Environmental change could potentially cause unprecedented levels of cross border migration in the longer-term. The face of domestic European politics will change as a result, and political parties will define themselves along the lines of pursing open or closed societies, instead of the traditional Left-Right divide. The issue of migration is often highly controversial and politicians are keen to avoid antagonising publics further.

In doing so, they attempt to avoid dealing with the issue. European states rely on countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to take most of the refugee and migratory burden. Nearly 40% of the world’s refugees reside in the Middle East and North Africa. It seems foolish to assume that Europe can rely on regional gatekeepers in the face of further environmental-driven migration.

If the current trends in cross-border movement continue, European people and politicians will have a rude awakening in the future. Better to discuss solutions early.



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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