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Escaping from economic conditions and climate


Migration differs

The turn to attention and mindfulness in Europe and America isn’t surprising. The world has become increasingly noisy – the commonly-cited reasons are probably true: there’s more information we have to handle, more distraction from technology, the bombardment of perceived choice. People, desperate for a way to break through the noise and become aware of their own thoughts seek mindfulness and focus-building practises.

One of the main culprits is advertising. Far from being quiet, informing our choices and decisions, advertising is becoming more invasive and louder. While not an original point, it’s estimated that on average, in Europe, a person sees somewhere between 300-700 adverts per day[1] - streamed into your home through your television, propping up your inbox, greeting you wherever you go.

What gets marketed isn’t too interesting; how it does, is. Several commentators have reduced marketing down to three core images: images of social bonding, personal freedom and time for reflection. A new phone doesn’t give you apps and texts and a camera – it gives you greater connection to friends and family. Cars = freedom, and chocolate gives you your well-earned me-time.

This is the good life, as we’re shown it to be; buying is the key determine our own beings and our future – there simply isn’t any other way more effective and beautiful at creating our own identities and our own happiness.

The necessity to have these things therefore is impressed on us every day – without them, we don’t lack objects; we lack self-determination. To be without the opportunity of such goods therefore, is all the more difficult.

Take a step back

Eurostat gives us this image:

This shows the age structure of immigrants by citizenship within the EU 28 excluding Slovakia.

This graph shows migrants’ previous country of residence. While there is a distribution among the origins of people – some countries have more migrants from non-EU countries than others – but the age range of migration shows that overall, it’s younger people who have migrated. It might not surprise us that these people are not only the most likely to uproot and travel than other demographics, but also they’re the ones to seek work elsewhere.

58% of migrants to Germany previously lived in an EU member state. As did 64.5% of the migrants now living in Austria, 53% of those in the Netherlands and roughly 40% each for both the UK and France. Luxembourg’s is at a whopping 90%, but that surprises no one.

In short, we can infer from these combined data that people generally gravitate to centres of relative economic prosperity. While we might not be so swayed by the good life that marketing offers us, many people want the opportunity for economic prosperity – and are willing to leave their homes for it.

Greece and Spain

As early as 2012, news agencies were commenting on Greek and Spanish migration, particularly to Germany.

Reuters commented:

“Immigration to Germany jumped by 15 percent in the first half of this year from the same period the year before, due mainly to an influx of people from EU states including crisis-hit Greece and Spain, where unemployment levels are soaring. 

Although the largest number of immigrants to Europe's biggest economy came from neighbouring Poland, the statistics office said arrivals from Greece increased by 78 percent and were up 53 percent from both Spain and Portugal.”

Both the European Union and the Schengen Agreement allow for the free movement of people between member states and signatories. Yet, each economy functions differently. While each European economy is tied each other, particularly with the shared currency, variation between economies exist due to the independence each economy retains – and while economists argue over why this is – some suggesting lack of full integration, others arguing that integration remains irrelevant in economies of different stages of development – which means while some economies can fail, others can still do well.

Though a description of the crisis is inevitably biased one way or another, but here’s Vox’s interpretation of what caused the Greek crisis – the Euro:

The ongoing battle between Greek politicians and the EU to hammer out a solution to Greece’s economic crisis has seen the relationship between Greece and Germany break down in popular terms. The extreme austerity demanded of Greece and Spain by the troika of the European Commission (EC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB) led to popular discontentment of many Greek and Spanish residents who started grass-roots political movements to act against these measures, and also to influence similar movements across Europe. Both Podemos and Syriza were greatly influenced and in some cases directly shaped by these people, and the parties have attempted to redress the entire dialectic surrounding austerity politics of recession and post-recession Europe. Their claims, generally, that the money used to bail out both Greece and Spain should actually reach the nations – and not circulate directly back to large, international banks – and that debt relief could be provided, as well as much needed social service upgrades. Syriza, as we all know, has all but collapsed; Podemos currently marches on, but the knock-on effects of Syriza’s capitulation to the troika will have had an effect.

As many as 320,000 Greeks currently live in Germany, with about half of that number coming after 2009, or the apex of the initial recession. The unemployment rate of Greece and Spain among people of working age under 25 stands at a considerable 50% - whereas in Germany, it is at around 7%.

Young people are moving because they want to work – as well as for recreation – but mainly because they wish to find work. This kind of migration has had its negative effects too – too numerous to relate as they happen in real-time; we must wait and analyse the full impact of this crisis in retrospect, with perhaps a decade or two between now and then. But, the most common implications are almost certainly going to occur:

  • A brain drain: if the most educated brains leave the country, then the economy and culture of the place of origin lose capacity.
  • Stunted development: young people who aren’t able to fully integrate into the economic system quickly are left with developmental issues, including increased anxiety during the twenties due to lack of security.
  • Xenophobia: the receiving countries tend to develop more xenophobic attitudes as a result.

The latter point is probably best evidenced in the rise of right-wing parties across Europe – UKIP, Front Nationale among others have all benefitted from the recession, and the economic migration of European citizens – claiming that their native culture is being destroyed. Indeed, Jose Manuel Barroso believes UKIP, Syriza, Front Nationale and Podemos to all come from the same nationalistic place:

“Nationalistic sentiment pervades both the tone and the message of parties from both the extreme left and the extreme right, and this is counter-productive to the European project: PodemosSyrizaFront Nationale, among others are using the same tactic and we should reject this.”

This Migration is different

Economic migration differs from other kinds of migration because it is strictly speaking, supported by more commonly understood legal frameworks, as well as being socially-accepted by many people because it is driven by a desire for productivity. It is not seen as escaping a desperate situation, like being a refugee is, for example – which is seen by many people as being not unlawful, necessarily – but insufficient for migration. “Why should they come here?” is the sentiment underpinning the latter. 

What’s more, economic migrants are also mobile without a desperate need to move for a job. The EU permits migration between member states freely – and many communities of expats are built up. This in itself is a loaded term, implying a “higher” kind of migration – one that is sealed in by cultural walls, but also, more fundamentally – one that has choice in deciding to live there. Not like refugees or asylum seekers, who are forced to live wherever they can and are able, wherever the machinations of political institutions and local authorities drive them. 

Which makes Kos such a tragedy

The Greek Island of Kos is a receiving space for refugees from Syria and several African nations. Many institutions have covered this story – here’s VICE:

An overburdened economy and land with little tolerance and time for new migrants due to known hostilities caused by the current crisis, the rise in xenophobia means the challenge to accommodate these refugees is heightened to the point of overcapacity.


Economic and climate escapes are connected

It’s impossible to talk about different factors for migration without taking into account the climate. 

fairplanet spoke with Adrien Detges, PhD student at the Freie Universitaet, Berlin. 

Adrien Detges

People migrate from their homes for many reasons; through your work and experience, have you found any evidence that suggests people migrate because of climate change? If so, please explain; if not, are changes in climate felt indirectly? E.G. failed crops etc.

Adrien DetgesIt is hard to really pinpoint climate change/ climate change-related problems as a cause of migration. Climate Change is frequently mentioned in cases of displacements and altered migratory routes of pastoralists, but it’s almost always accompanied by insecurity/conflict and the loss of livelihoods due to diverse factors (climate-induced shortages of water and land, but also human-induced shortages through pollution, land degradation etc.). So it’s really hard to disentangle all these things in a given situation. 

Also, the distinction is often not entirely clear between seasonal movements as a standard coping strategy of communities facing erratic weather conditions (e.g. pastoralists in East Africa) and the way in which these movements change over longer periods, say 15-20 years, as a result of progressive Climate Change. 

More generally, the question whether or not Climate Change can be considered a source of migration hotly is debated in the scientific literature.

Yes, there is a range of indicators people rely on to assess changes in the climate (even in absence of scientifically collected data), such as the timing and intensity of rains, i.e. when, over a period of several years, rains tend to come later and/or in abrupt instances of heavy rainfall. Other indicators include changes of shorelines for lakes or increased frequency of disasters. However, the assessment of all these things requires observation over longer periods of time. So, failed crops in one year are not automatically a sign of a changing climate, but if crops tend to repeatedly fail this might be an indicator.

When people migrate from one area to another, how is that migration facilitated? Do people simply leave, or are there networks (informal/ formal) who can help? E.G. organisations etc.

I can only respond with regard to pastoralists in the Sahel and East Africa, but yes, networks (both formal and informal) are crucial. Pastoralist communities rely on a set of informal treaties and grazing/ water use agreements with other communities to prepare herd movements. In cases, where a community wants to permanently alter its patterns of seasonal migration, perhaps in response to gradual Climate Change, it is usually very much concerned about its relations with the host communities and local officials. 

Have a glimpse at Future Agricultures to get a better idea.

Herds are split and smaller herds sent as scouts to bargain terms for the arrival of the main herd. Such interactions can be repeated during several years before conditions are favourable for the arrival of the main herd and individual herders engage in a multitude of personal and business relationships over that time, which eventually facilitate a permanent relocation. 

But, pastoralists also need to have a say in local politics through pastoral associations and ties to representatives in local councils and national parliaments to navigate different and sometimes conflicting layers of jurisdiction.

 There are different regional organisations that advocate pastoralist mobility as a way to adapt to Climate Change. This is however a sensitive issue as pastoral mobility often stands in opposition to large scale development projects (commercial ranches, irrigated agriculture etc.), transgresses international borders and involves communities, which are often marginalized.


Climate Refugees – The film

There is a new phenomenon in the global arena called “Climate Refugees”. A climate refugee is a person displaced by climatically induced environmental disasters. Such disasters result from incremental and rapid ecological change, resulting in increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones, fires, mass flooding and tornadoes. All this is causing mass global migration and border conflicts. For the first time, the Pentagon now considers climate change a national security risk and the term climate wars is being talked about in war-room like environments in Washington D.C.

Climate Refugees is a documentary by Michael Nash that was 3 years in the making and covered 48 countries.  The multi-award winning Sundance film has screened around the world illuminating the human face of climatic change to global citizens, governments, churches, The US Senate and House, Pentagon, The Vatican, International governments, DAVOS, Harvard University, Oxford, MIT, Stanford and many more.

The full version can be seen or ordered here.



When you first see Kiribati on a map, it’s a little confusing. The International Date Line curves back on itself to include Kiribati’s 33 islands among the first countries to see the sun. Kiribati lies right where the International Date Line crosses the Equator, but it is also at the centre of another collision between climate change and migration.

Kiribati, with a population of just over 100,000, has been pinpointed as one of the first countries that will be submerged under water as sea levels continue to rise. Its government is already making plans for its people’s escape.

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The sea level around Kiribati has risen between 1 and 4mm per year for the last 20 years. Although other island nations are experiencing higher increases in sea levels, Kiribati’s coral atolls have a harder time adjusting to these changes, and cannot keep up with the seal level rise.

All but one of Kiribati’s islands are atolls – these are ring-shaped islands formed from coral, and the tallest peak across the islands is only 3 metres. They don’t stand a chance against an 8 metre wave.

As if sea level rise isn’t threatening enough, Kiribati’s surrounding ocean is also becoming more acidic, preventing the coral its people live on from constructing its skeletons and keeping them above sea level. The increased acidity also threatens the balance of the local ecosystem, and is making it harder to grow crops and maintain livelihoods.

Children in Bairiki Square,Tarawa,Kiribati


When the tide is out, the I-Kiribati (the people of Kiribati) live in a Pacific paradise. But at high tide, those living nearest the beaches hold their breaths and prepare for the onslaught. Families have built walls higher and higher to protect against the rising tides, but maintaining them is a daily task.

Following the 2011 earthquake in Japan, the I-Kiribati heard about the ensuing tsunami and braced for the worst. Many climbed up coconut trees, not having any higher ground to escape to. Luckily the tsunami never hit.

Experts predict that Kiribati can only remain inhabitable for about another 50 years. Kiribati’s government knows its people can’t seek refuge in coconut trees forever, which is why they’ve come up with an escape plan. All they need now is the funding to make it happen.

Village on Kiribati; Photo: Erin Magee/DFAT


The Kiribati government explains in its climate change action plan that “with very little fossil fuel use and high susceptibility to climate effects, Kiribati is much more focused on adapting to rather than mitigating climate change”.

To put it frankly, they are focused on planning how to protect their people against a climate change that they largely did not cause and cannot prevent, while other countries who have a greater responsibility and suffer less choose to do very little. In 2005, for example, Kiribati’s CO2 emissions were lower than any country except one. In the same year, their emissions per capita were only seven percent of the global average. The unfairness is stark.

The climate change action plan has three parts: mitigation, adaptation and, eventually, relocation – because moving the I-Kiribati is simply inevitable.

While the government does its bit to mitigate climate change by using low-carbon technologies, this does more for the economy’s development than for climate change mitigation. The taxpayers’ money is better spent on short-term climate change adaptation and long-term relocation.

Adaptation within Kiribati can only be short-term because, as the sea levels continue to rise, there is simply nowhere within the country to retreat to when king tides roll in. Right now Kiribati is vulnerable to accelerated coastal development, shoreline erosion, and rising environmental degradation. “Initiatives include improving water supply management; coastal management protection measures such as mangrove re-plantation and protection of public infrastructure; strengthening laws to reduce coastal erosion; and population settlement planning to reduce personal risks.”

The government’s action plan acknowledges that “relocation of our people may be inevitable. It would be irresponsible to acknowledge this reality and not do anything to prepare our community for eventual migration in circumstances that permit them to migrate with dignity”.

“That said, relocation will always be viewed as an option of last resort. We will do all that we can to preserve Kiribati as a sovereign and habitable entity. At the same time, if relocation becomes necessary and nothing has been done to ready people for the move, it will not be possible to rapidly relocate over 100,000 people in a way that preserves the dignity of those being relocated and minimises the burden on the receiving countries.”

Parliament House, Kiribati


In 2011 the search for solutions began. At first President Tong presented the idea of constructing man-made islands like oil rigs for people to live on. By the following year he was negotiating to buy land in Fiji for the I-Kiribati to slowly migrate to.

But this plan hung on finding funding from the international community – particularly those driving climate change.

"We don't want 100,000 people from Kiribati coming to Fiji in one go," he said at the time. "They need to find employment, not as refugees but as immigrant people with skills to offer, people who have a place in the community, people who will not be seen as second-class citizens.

"What we need is the international community to come up with an urgent funding package to deal with that ambition, and the needs of countries like Kiribati."

For now the government is focusing on an education program that can cultivate a workforce skilled and ready for foreign labour markets. The government has set the goal of raising tertiary education standards to the same level as those in Australia and New Zealand in hopes of turning out attractive migrant workers.

If the I-Kiribati do manage to have their new land funded, maintaining a sense of culture will be crucial in their new home. There is hope that those who are already interested can begin migration soon, so expat communities can be established, ready to absorb greater numbers in the long-term.

Meanwhile, the waves continue to roll in.


Kenya’s climate refugees feel the heat of changing weather

By Bob Koigi

Teresia Kimuhu sits pensively on her two acres of land, with her hand supporting her chin, in what has recently become her signature pose as she stares blankly at rows of maize crops that have been in the farm for the last three months but which have barely grown and remain stunted. She had hoped this season, things would be different and that she would get some yields. Hailing from the Central part of Kenya, considered among the most fertile in the country, it is ironical that her land is a shadow of its prosperous former self.

The trend has been similar for the last four seasons. Scorched soils, no rains and no yields. She has spent a lot of money in preparing the land but the rains have ended up disappointing her. The land has been her source of income for the last four decades, feeding and educating her three children after she lost her husband to a road accident two decades ago. His two sons, Daniel Njuguna and Eustace Ngotho, who found solace and income in the farm have fled to the city in search of better income opportunities following seasons of failed rains. They now do menial jobs in the city. As hope of any meaningful yields dwindle, Teresia has been contemplating joining his children in the city to eke out a living.

Kilometers away from Teresia’s farm, Titus Sifuna, a retired teacher and former farmer in Western Kenya has moved to Githogoro, one of the sprawling slums in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. He has found life and little income as a cobbler, which earns him at least one dollar on a good day. He tries occasional night watchman jobs to supplement his income. He has to do this to support his wife and two children back in the village. As a farmer growing maize, beans and soya in Western Kenya two years ago, he used to earn over $1000 per harvest which was enough to take care of his family. But agriculture was his mainstay and with the failed rains, he had no choice but to move to the city. Teresia and Titus represent a growing number of people who are fleeing their homes and traditional sources of livelihoods as rising seas, failed rains and persistent drought takes a toll on them. They have been christened climate refugees and are estimated to be over 10 million globally.

The situation is so dire that according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, climate change disasters have overtaken war and persecution as the biggest cause of population displacement.

Nowhere is this problem more pronounced than Africa where over 80 per cent of the population relies on agriculture for income and livelihoods. The East and Horn of Africa are particularly feeling the heat of the weather changes with the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report positing that the two areas are headed for even glimmer times and will be among those severely affected by prolonged drought and desertification. “Vagaries of weather have hit our country now more than ever. The sad bit is that farmers who earn a living relying on the rainfall are yet to grasp what climate change is or the magnitude of it to allow them embrace alternative means of survival, especially at a time when the effects are bound to get worse. We are doing our best to create this awareness, but it will take time,” said Dr. Francis Oduor from Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries. The country has had to stare at unprecedented phenomena like tea frost which in 2012 cost tea farmers up to 60 per cent of their income. Tea is one of the country’s prime foreign exchange earners fondly referred to as the country’s green gold.

When the frost struck, it cost the country over $15million in failed exports in that year alone. It is such harrowing tales that worry policy makers who have predicted that it could get worse for other key agricultural produce grown in the country and continentally. A study by World Bank dubbed turn down the heat; Climate extremes, regional impact and the case for resilience, says that by 2040 temperatures will have increased by 2°C, which will see a dip in maize yields of up to 22 per cent, wheat by up to 17 per cent and sorghum by 17 per cent. These are some of the staple foods in majority of African countries.


So unaware why their farms can no longer yield, desperate Kenyans like Sifuna, Njuguna Ngotho and more rural farmers who have been disappointed by the weather have taken the leap of faith and headed to the city which offers perceived succor. The rapid rural to urban migration has put a strain on infrastructure and access to basic services like health with Nairobi now being home to four million residents, more than double the population in less than a decade according to World Policy data. The population has chocked the city and with the rise of informal settlements and a disenfranchised population with no jobs, the rate of crime has gone up. “Jobs are vey hard to come by, even those in the construction and informal sectors because demand is so high. My fellow youth desperate to survive in the city are turning to crimes like robbery and mugging. I have seen most of them gunned down by the police. It is a sad state of affairs. I just wish I could go back to farming, but there is nothing left there for me,” Njuguna said. Once food producers, Njuguna and his brother have been turned into food beggars in the city only affording one meal a day.

But even as Kenya battles with its internal climate related woes, it is now struggling with a problem of equal epidemic proportions. It is housing hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps who are not only fleeing their countries as a result of war, but running away from harsh climate. Dadaad camp, the largest in the world, situated in the Kenya Somalia border, which houses refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea fleeing their war torn countries, was meant to accommodate 90,000 people but is currently home to over three times more. As much as 10 per cent of those in the camp are climate refugees according to officials working in the camp. “Most of them are pastoralists and small scale farmers who predominantly earned a living from agriculture. Persistent drought in their countries coupled with scramble for limited resources like pasture land and water sparked conflict which saw them leave and came here. It is a trend that is becoming very common,” said Abdi Feisal a volunteer worker at the camp.

Rayan Mohammed is one such refugee. With over 200 herds of cattle and 500 goats, he could comfortably take care of his wife and three children in Somalia. But prolonged drought and intermittent conflict for water saw him lose all his livestock. He lost one son to the conflict, at which time it became apparent that he had to flee. “It has been painful moving from being self sufficient to sticking out begging bowl. There is some peace in the camp, at least, but the conditions are squalor and we often miss meals,” he said.

The situation that Rayan, Sifuna, Ngotho Njuguna and other climate refugees find themselves in is complicated by the fact that international humanitarian bodies like the United Nations don’t recognize them in their refugee aid programs. The argument has been that the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees doesn’t factor in climate change as a precursor for refugee status. Funding therefore is hard to come by. This complexity became evident recently when Loane Teitiota, a man from the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati running away from environmental risks and rising seas as a result of global warming in his home country sought to be recognized as a climate refugee in New Zealand. He would have become the world’s first legally recognized climate refugee. The courts however argued that although Teitiota’s country was under severe environmental threat, his arguments did not meet the legal definition of a refugee since he had not shown that he would suffer persecution or torture if he returned home.