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Climate change and the Aegean Humanitarian Crisis

By Maggie Chrysanthou

The link between climate change and displacement is an important one – many academics now consider climate change to be one of the biggest threats to security. The number of people displaced by climate related disasters is high and rising - between 2008 and 2016, 21.5 million people were displaced for these reasons – more than those fleeing war or persecution.

Climate can increase the risk of conflict in a multitude of ways. In the case of Syria, it is now widely acknowledged that climate disruption was an “amplifier and multiplier” of the political crisis that was building up in the country. Decreased rainfall and consecutive droughts led to large areas of land becoming unproductive. This in turn, led to widespread unemployment, loss of income and livelihoods. Those who didn’t migrate to the cities in search of work, mainly impoverished farmers, became easy targets for recruiters from terrorist groups like Islamic State. Water scarcity in rural areas also increased tensions between different groups at the local level. In Somalia, where climate change is also considered to be a driver of conflict, researchers Maystadt and Ecker found that local livestock markets were the primary channel through which droughts fuelled conflict. Losses in herders’ income as a result of livestock price downturns, significantly increased one’s likelihood to engage in conflict activities.

Displaced people arriving in the Aegean are fleeing a range of different circumstances, including conflict and poverty which may have been exacerbated by climate change. However, it can also be argued that climate change is having a detrimental impact on the islands, and by extension, the refugee and asylum-seeking populations living there. For the refugees and asylum seekers who are residing in the Aegean camps, many are living in makeshift tents with little protection from the elements. Weather in the Aegean varies from being very hot in summer, with an average temperature of above 30 degrees Celsius, to around, and sometimes below, 0 degrees in winter months. Storms with strong winds are also frequent in winter.

On 17th February 2021, UNHCR Greece tweeted: “As a cold spell sweeps across Greece, thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers living in tents or makeshift shelters on the islands of Samos, Chios and Lesvos… face freezing temperatures and icy winds in precarious conditions”.

The Aegean region is facing long-term water shortages due to decreased rainfall in summer months, and “climate change is set to make the bad situation worse”. The National Geographic warns: “By 2050, Greece could be 3.6 Fahrenheit (2°C) warmer with 18 percent less rainfall. Droughts could become more frequent and intense, while groundwater recharge, on which much of Greece depends, could continue to fall”.

In the driest months, Aegean locals cannot access reliable running water in their houses – for example, on Chios, water supply is often cut off daily during summer months. However, the situation is even worse for those living in the hotspot camps. In summer 2020, in the island camps with running water - not all camps have this -, there were several weeks where the water was only turned on for between 20 minutes and 2.5 hours in different areas of the camp each day.

This made life very difficult and dangerous for residents who could not guarantee daily access to water. Although people receive a limited amount of bottled water to drink, they often need to also use this to wash themselves. In more than one camp, residents have dug wells out of desperation in order to access clean water for bathing and cooking. The lack of access to sufficient water in the camps impacts the ability to maintain personal hygiene and continues to present devastating risks in terms of the spread of Covid-19 and other transmissible diseases. Water shortages leading to inadequate sanitation practices and insufficient hand washing, and can also contribute to higher cases of diarrhoea — a major cause of death for children under the age of 5. Moreover, tents and container boxes where people are circumstantially forced to live reach unbearable temperatures in the summer heat.

Camp residents in Vial ,Chios, digging wells to access water, April 2020. Image source: Europe Must Act.

Due to a combination of hot temperatures, low humidity and low rainfall, climate change can also increase the risk of fire outbreaks. According to the World Meteorological department, the latest research suggests that “climate change increases the frequency and/or severity of fire weather”. With many migrants in the Aegean living in flimsy tents and shelters that are not fireproof, drier weather is already presenting a heightened risk. As we have seen on frequent occasions over the past few years, and infamously in the case of the Moria fires in September 2020, outbreaks of fires in the camps cause widespread devastation.

Authorities are failing to provide secure, humane and safe living spaces for refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the Aegean. The precarious and undignified conditions in which people are circumstantially forced to reside in in the Aegean camps constitute widespread violations of human rights. These include the “right to a standard of living adequate for... health and well-being" and the right not to be subjected to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Europe Must Act continues to advocate for an end to EU migration policies which are trapping people at Europe’s borders and violating asylum seekers’ fundamental human rights. Europe Must Act demands the immediate evacuation of refugees from the dangerous and undignified living conditions of the hotspot camps, and their relocation to safe communities in Europe.


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