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Migration and climate emergency in North Africa

D 14 novembre 2022     H 16:41     A Ray Bush     C 0 messages

Looking in detail at the issues behind COP27, ROAPE’s Ray Bush examines migration in the age of the climate emergency. The consequences of imperialism, colonialism and climate crises is the persistence of labour migration. Bush argues that the underlying cause of migration is structural inequality and its reproduction between the global north and south, which is now exacerbated by climate catastrophe.

By Ray Bush

COP27 in Egypt’s resort of Sharm el Sheikh is rightly condemned for being held under the auspices of the country’s dictator President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. His repressive regime that holds more than 60,000 political prisoners, bans demonstrations and any criticism, and has western government support for two weeks of greenwashing. Western governments are happy too, it seems, with Sisi’s platitudinous comments that during the COP27 Egypt ‘will work on adopting a comprehensive vision’ for ‘globally applicable solutions and commitments on climate challenges.’ (Al Ahram 1 November 2022).

COP is driven by western imperialist states whose driving agenda is to refuse reparations and compensation for countries in the Global South and the history of colonial exploitation and continued resource extraction. Among the consequences of the history of imperialism and the persistent accumulation in the North of Southern surpluses is labour migration. The impact of the climate emergency on labour mobility seems moot at COP – unless it is viewed through the west’s prism of security and asylum.

The prevailing narrative regarding labour migration in North Africa is that it takes place when there are no alternatives for people to continue with their ‘normal’ livelihoods. In the context of climate change it emerges when ‘physical, economic, social or political security of a population decreases, and no other resources can be mobilised to adapt to the new conditions’ (Waha et al 2017,1632). A driving force for migration may be water scarcity and sea level rise. Migration is seldom about choices made by individuals, and unless it is mobility caused by forceful displacement, it is well established that it is not the most poor who migrate : migration is expensive and not an option for most households (Black et al 2011 ; Cross 2021).

Migration, climate change and remittances

Migration is typically internal within national boundaries usually from the countryside to towns or neighbouring villages and peri-urban centres. ‘Migration’ is an umbrella term that covers ‘forced and voluntary forms of movement that can occur in the context of climate and environmental change’ (IOM 2021,236). There may now be at least an increased awareness of how to deal with the different dimensions of migration. Thus global principles were declared with the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (UN 2018) and recommendations made by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with its taskforce on displacement. However, preference within EU, UK and US government pronouncements remains focussed on ‘illegal’ and ‘undocumented’ migration. This preoccupation does not capture the context of slow onset climate impacts and the numerous forms and different causes of labour mobility. As the International Organization for Migration has noted it is precisely in the area of slow onset climate change impacts that ‘policy and knowledge gaps remain’ (IOM 2020,234)

The countries with the highest numbers of migrants in Africa tend to be from the north of the continent. Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are also among the largest ‘sending’ countries with Sudan and South Sudan (McAuliffe and Triandefyllidou 2021,62). There were more than 5 million migrants in Europe in 2020 from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia while for Egypt the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were the main destination.

In 2020 more than a million Egyptian migrants lived in Saudi Arabia and remittances reached a record for Egypt of US$30 billion that year making it the fifth largest recipient globally. Remittance to Egypt and Morocco increased despite COVID-19 restrictions by 11 per cent and 6.5 per cent respectively. Remittances for Morocco and Tunisia account for more than 5 per cent of GDP and for Egypt by more than 8 per cent. Remittance income in these countries is important as migrants send earnings from Europe and Asia to support families at home, helping offset costs of social welfare provision by regional states and acting to supplement exchequers in North Africa with foreign exchange. Egypt is among the top five countries in Africa with international remittance inflows exceeding US$15 billion, accounting, with Nigeria, for 56 percent of the region’s total remittance flows.

North Africa is a major transit area for migrants from elsewhere in Africa. This was well managed and controlled in the case of migrants to Libya to work and to transit to Europe from the 1950s but the labour market was catastrophically disrupted by NATO’s 2011 intervention and the toppling of the country’s leader Muammar Gaddafi. Lawlessness in Libya has helped militias and people smugglers to abuse migrants, even as they are held in ‘official’ detention centres, with women and girls at particular risk and no international agency support.

Turmoil in Libya and COVID-19 restrictions and border closures has interrupted historical migration patterns, involuntary mobility and forced returns and discrimination (McAuliffe and Triandafyllidou 2021, 72). There are about 663,000 refugees and migrants in Libya. As many as 278,000 are Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Libya in 2020, many of whom had been displaced by conflict and violence elsewhere in Africa especially western Sudan. Sudan hosts more than 1 million refugees and more than 2.3 million IDPs.

Migrants who travel to North Africa try and access Europe by two routes. One is a Central Mediterranean route – Libya and Tunisia to Italy – and the Western Mediterranean route – Morocco and Algeria to Spain. There was an 86 per cent increase in arrivals on both these routes in 2020 – from 41,000 to almost 77,000. The immensely hazardous and life threatening nature of this mobility is well documented. More than 1,500 migrants lost their lives or were reported missing in 2020 from West and North Africa trying to reach Spain, Malta and Italy and it is likely that number is higher in 2021 (AlJazeera 2021 ; Statista 2021). While 28,000 migrants crossed the Channel from France to the UK in 2021 at least 44 people perished.

The EU response to the build-up of migrants and IDPs in Libya has been to securitise its borders. A whole range of measures have been put into place in recent years, for example, Operation Sophia, and a new Security Union Strategy, as well as the Roadmap to the EU Action Plan against smuggling 2021-2025. This was in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that worsened the plight of migrants as borders were often closed, conditions under which migrants were detained were unsanitary and raised the likelihood of contracting the virus. Border closures ensured migrants were often stranded and conditions worsened if voluntary return programmes were suspended, migrants were forced to return with little support to enable them to do so and in-country health and other social provision was negligible.

Egypt did include migrants in some health care provision, but many migrants reported a dramatic decline in employment opportunities and women in Tunisia noted an increase in risk of sexual exploitation (McAuliffe and Triandafyllidou 2021). Policies of securitization may have reduced the numbers of migrants arriving in Italy but the evolution of migrant routes has now diversified routes into and out of Libya notably from Chad and the persistent concentration of boat departures along Libya’s western coast with emergence of secondary routes in the country’s eastern regions (UNHCR 2019).

Challenging the migration narrative

The evidence is overwhelming. ‘Climate change might act as a threat multiplier’ accelerating competition over scarce resources and reinforcing potential for political conflict (Waha et al 2017, 1632). This will accelerate long standing political crises where countries with young populations of relatively highly educated citizens are unable to deliver sustainable and meaningful employment to match expectations. Poverty was a major driver of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and it is often forgotten that political crisis and conflict there was driven from inequities in the countryside (Ayeb and Bush 2019).

Western response to migration has been two fold. First, to erect stronger border control to police migration in shorthand known as Fortress Europe. Second, there are attempts to get North African countries to police migrants and migration and to be paid to do so with ‘development’ assistance to keep migrants in NA.

EU and UK strategy generalises and tries to normalise a ‘global apartheid’, As ROAPE’s Hannah Cross writes :

a legal-bureaucratic structure controls discriminatory mobilities in which geographical regions contain impoverished people who are forced to migrate for household survival and whose labour is exploited in squalid conditions (Cross 2021).

Migration is seen as a problem for the west which is managed by border controls, regimes of deportation and a range of citizenship categories to limit numbers of the unwanted in attempts to stem what is seen as a ‘flood’ or ‘invasion’ of undesirable boat people.

Northern imperialist states outlaw spontaneous or undocumented migration shifting the security focus from the insecurity of states to controlling people within them. Western policy makers paradoxically assert they are trying to help North African countries deal with local problems of poverty and displacement. Thus, development assistance is offered to promote adaptation to climate risks or short term mitigation of poverty and livelihood disruptions caused by desertification, drought, crop failure and the terrible consequences these may have for land use.

Western strategy to curtail labour migration from North Africa, and to keep migrants in the Maghreb rather than travel to Europe is part of a ‘new security terrain.’

It is also the case that the consequences of this securitisation of borders has been to empower militias and smugglers in people, fuel and weapons. This has served to sustain and enhance brutal conditions of detention in Libya that become a spur to reinvigorate migrant attempt to escape to Europe (Pradella and Cillo 2021). It may be that the difficulties imposed on people’s mobility is the defining contrast to globalisation and the declared free movement of goods and services (Bauman 1998).

The underlying reasons for labour migration are not addressed by revisions to the main EU and UK policy of Fortress Europe or notions that development assistance might address the causes of people’s mobility. And they are certainly not addressed by a policy of deporting to Rwanda those seeking asylum in the UK. Among other things the EU and UK promote a strategy of externalization of international protection that is inconsistent with the 1951 Refugee Convention (Garlick 2021). The overwhelming interpretation of migration by the EU is that it is universally the result of acts of criminality driven by gangs of smugglers. Smugglers are depicted as predatory yet research on the ground, rather than from Brussels or London indicate that migration networks are often facilitated by well-respected and trusted members of communities in North Africa and the Sahel (Sanchez et al 2021). Grounded analysis of migration has indicated that :

contrary to smuggling’s depiction as a domain of adult men organized into criminal networks, the facilitation of irregular migration often takes place as a community-based enterprise, where local groups – often comprising extended families, women, children and elderly people – play critical roles in the facilitation of migrants’ journeys, sharing and reincorporating profits to the local economy (Sanchez et al 2021, 9).

There is the need for more grounded in-country research on migration dynamics and how rural well being is impacted by elements of the climate emergency. Most important of all is the need to recognise that the underlying cause of migration is the structural divide and its reproduction between the global north and south.

The North’s strategy in dealing with unwanted migration is a securitisation agenda advancing border security and free trade agreements in the promotion of a neo-liberal governance agenda in North Africa (Capasso 2021). The EU and UK promote a ‘biopolitics’ – the idea and practice of support for self-reliance in North Africa, through help with climate adaptation and mitigation seen through the prism of bolstering local basic needs provision and support for vulnerable households.

In other words, the persistent risks of underdevelopment will be managed by development assistance under the guise of support for managing and coping with the climate emergency. The mantra that there is no development without security is morphing into ‘you cannot have either development or security without the containment of human manifestations of underdevelopment’ (Duffield 2010,63 ; see also Evans and Reid 2013).

Rural migration

Most headline discussion regarding migration is focused on international migration. Yet there is considerable rural migration in North Africa that may be an adaptation strategy by family farmers to promote income diversification or pluriactivity (Van Der Ploeg 2008). Rural migration may also be a response to local conflict and environmental stress. The discussion of migration is considerably hindered by the lack of reliable data. Few countries in North Africa record migration as part of their population censuses.

There is a central migration trend of people moving from rural areas to urban centres across North Africa although Egypt and Sudan are exceptions to this (Wenger and Abulfotuh 2019). The movement may not happen directly as ‘stepwise’ migration can involve movement overseas before returning to town rather than the countryside. This is noted for labour migrants from rural Morocco and Egypt to the Gulf and their return to towns rather than the point of origin. Urbanisation can worsen expansions of slums and crises in welfare provision as even informal employment fails to meet demand for work. Mobility may be seasonal, after harvesting and from urban to rural during periods of peak labour demand.

There is a gap in research that explores the reasons linked to labour migration caused by climate change in North Africa. Most causes of migration are listed as conflict, poor levels of agricultural investment and assumptions migrants may have about urban opportunity. All these reasons for mobility need interrogation but while there is an assumption about climate change as a contributor to the desire for people to move this is underresearched compared to other regions of the world. The expectation is that climate change will reduce levels of agricultural productivity. Warmer temperatures will lower levels of precipitation, reduce the amount of water for irrigation and increase livestock deaths. Drought promoted mass rural to urban migration in Mauritania in the 1970s and 1980s.

Different countries in North Africa will be impacted differently by the climate emergency. Those with most vulnerable populations, where poverty is greatest like Sudan, Mauritania and Western Sahara and where the impact of climate change may be most evident are likely to be more adversely impacted than Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

One recent report reflecting on the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has noted the increased importance of climate change in driving migration and in so doing creating conditions for rural and urban crises :

Two types of migration drivers are expected to become increasingly common in the MENA region. The first is migration brought about by slow-onset environmental factors, such as increasingly limited water supplies and subsequent land degradation or sea level rise and soil salinisation. These factors have adverse impacts on livelihoods, health and assets that can further trigger migration or even undermine seasonal movements, depriving people of traditional coping strategies. Climate change can magnify their impact and, in turn, exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. The second is displacement caused by rapid-onset events whose links with migration are easier to identify. In fact, droughts and other long-term changes in rainfall patterns or temperatures may lead to gradual migration movements and changes in migration patterns (i.e. from temporary to longer-term migration) which are more difficult to disentangle (Wenger and Abulfotuh 2019, 28).

The policy response to the ‘environment-migration nexus’ focuses on rhetorical improvements of small farmer resilience and adaptive capacity of women and youth. This fails to understand how and why small farmers are poor and how inequality is reproduced so all that remains are time weary recommendations of climate smart agriculture, livelihood diversification and provision of social safety nets. Each of these ‘solutions’ are woefully inadequate (Wenger and Abulfotuh 2019, 28). There is seldom mention of the need for improved access to land for small scale family farmers, for widescale land reform and improved rural investment which values family farming to promote radical structural transformation. These vital measures, urgently needed, will not be discussed at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh.

The work described in this article was made possible with support from the Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crisis (SPARC) Programme funded by the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) of the United Kingdom. The contents are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the FCDO.

Ray Bush is Professor Emeritus of African Studies at the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Leeds. He is also a leading member of the Review of African Political Economy’s Editorial Working Group.

Soon to be published in ROAPE journal :

Noam Chen-Zion, ‘Caught in Europe’s net : Ecological destruction and Senegalese migration to Spain’.

Hannah Cross, ‘Migration, Europe, and the Question of Political and Economic Sovereignty in Africa’.

Featured Photograph : People transferred to a Malta patrol vessel (17 October 2013).


Ayeb H. & Bush R. 2019. Food Insecurity and Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa. Agrarian Questions in Egypt and Tunisia. Anthem Press, London.

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Bauman, Z. 1998. Globalization : The Human Consequences. Cambridge : Polity

Capasso,M. 2021. ‘From Human Smuggling to State Capture : Furthering Neoliberal Governance in North Africa’. Journal of Labor and Society 24, 440-466.

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Duffield, M. 2010. ‘The Liberal Way of Development and the Development-Security Impasse : Exploring the Global Life-Chance Divide’. Security Dialogue vol 41, (1) 53-76.

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Sanchez, G., K.Arrouche, M. Capasso, A. Dimitriadi and A. Kakhry. 2021. ‘Beyond Networks, Militias and Tribes : Rethinking EU Counter-Smuggling Policy and Response.’ Euromesco Policy Study n.19 April. (accessed 3 January 2022).

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Waha, Katharina Linda Krummenauer, Sophie Adams, Valentin Aich, Florent Baarsch, Dim Coumou, Marianela Fader, Holger Hoff, Guy Jobbins, Rachel Marcus, Matthias Mengel, Ilona M. Otto, Mahé Perrette, Marcia Rocha, Alexander Robinson and Carl-Friedrich Schleussner. 2017. ‘Climate change impacts in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region and their implications for vulnerable population groups.’ Regional Environmental Change, 17, 1623–1638.

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