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What's Climate Migration? A Straight Line From Libyan Floods To Lampedusa Chaos

Libya's catastrophic flood last week coincided with massive arrivals of migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa. What look at first like two distinct stories are part of the same mounting crisis that the world is simply not prepared to face: climate migration.

Aerial photo shows people standing on the broken highway between Derna City and Sousse City in east Libya

An aerial photo shows the highway destroyed by floods between Derna and Sousse in eastern Libya.

Ibrahim Hadia Al-Majbri/Xinhua via ZUMA
Valeria Berghinz

Updated September 18, 2023 at 1:45 p.m.


They are difficult numbers for the brain to comprehend: 4,000 dead, 10,000 more missing. This is the current estimate of the toll — with most victims having drowned and washed away almost immediately — after two dams burst last week during a massive storm in eastern Libya.

As the search continues for victims in and around the city of Derna, across the Mediterranean Sea, a different number tells another troubling story: in the span of just two days, 7,000 migrants have arrived on the island of Lampedusa.

Midway between Sicily and the North African coast, the tiny Italian island has long been a destination for those hailing from all points south and east to arrive on European soil. Still, the staggering number of arrivals this week of people ready to risk their lives on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean should again set off alarms that reach far beyond the island.

Yet these two numbers — one of the thousands of dead, the other of thousands of survivors — are in some way really one story.

Though the current wave of arrivals on Lampedusa are mostly setting off from Tunisia, the Libyan coast has also long been a point of departure for migrants ready to cross to Europe. But it is the motivations for leaving, as much as the geography, that bound these two tales together.

To escape a home that has become inhabitable, more and more people will bear the risks and take on dangerous, often deadly, journeys to safety. The current catastrophe in Libya is only the latest in a series of extreme meteorological events that beg us to consider the mounting consequences of climate change, and the very shape of humanity.

One billion climate refugees?

The phenomenon known as “climate migration,” which tracks those forced to leave their homes as a result of extreme climate conditions, already affects some 20 million people annually, the United Nations Refugee Agency reports. This will only get worse: by 2030, the projected number of total climate refugees will reach 260 million. The Institute of Economics & Peace reports that by 2050, this number could reach a staggering 1.2 billion.

So while we have estimates this week for the number of people who have died or gone missing as a result of the cataclysmic flooding in Libya, what we don’t yet know is how many will be forced to relocate as a result of this catastrophe. The estimates of 30,000 currently displaced in and around Derna may wind up just a fraction of those forced to move in the months and years to come.

Indeed, migration from Libya is already a major problem, with numbers that had been surging even before this latest disaster. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, by June 19, more than 25,000 refugees traveled to Italy from Libya, a number which accounts for just under half of total refugees received on Italian shores. In addition to Libyans fleeing, most of these migrants hail from all over Africa, as well as the Middle East and Asia.

The world simply does not have the infrastructure to resist the changing climate itself.

Prompted by political, economic and climatic factors, more and more people are disposed to face the risks of making the dangerous journey. One of the Mediterranean’s deadliest incidents ever occurred on June 13, when a migrant boat carrying 750 people capsized off the coast of Greece. Only 104 people survived. Originally bound for Italy, the doomed vessel had begun its voyage from the Libyan port of Tobruk, just 170 kilometers down the coast from Derna. It is no wonder that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees named the central Mediterranean the most dangerous migration route in the world.

And so between the Libyan floods and Lampedusa mirage, the rest of the world watches desperate people grapple with increasingly unlivable conditions at home, spurred by both economic and environmental crises. Facing a terrifying trip, sometimes with children in tow, they’ve decided it is nevertheless a better option than staying behind.

When they do finally arrive, are we prepared to host these climate migrants, victims of our unending consumption in the face of environmental threat? Lampedusa, an island of just 6,000 people whose population more than doubled this week, is just the most extreme sign that the answer is a hard: No.

Photograph of a dinghy boat taking refugees from to a larger ferry which will transport them to the island of Lampedusa.

September 15, 2023, Lampedusa: Some migrants are taken in dinghies to be boarded on the Galaxy ferry.

Ciro Fusco/ZUMA

Overwhelmed and unprepared

Countries like Italy and Greece that bear the brunt of the undocumented arrivals await aid from other European countries who can take in re-directed migrants, but in the meantime all resources remain flooded and dysfunctional. In the case of Lampedusa, with its ringing alarms, mobilization is underway. Ursula Von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, visited Lampedusa on Sunday with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. Germany, which had announced it would not be taking in more refugees, reversed their decision to now welcome more than 2,000 of them.

But this week's crisis is hard for political leaders to turn away from. This call to action responds to a single spike of alarm rather than the otherwise unending flow of emergencies which are largely ignored. The world simply does not have the infrastructure to resist the changing climate itself, but may have even less capacity to accommodate the growing number of asylum seekers it creates.

Climate refugees don’t only come as a result of some sudden cataclysmic disaster. Many spend years weighing their decision as land gradually becomes less arable, temperatures rise to unlivable heights, and livestock die off. It is less dramatic, but it is real, and it is only worsened by the fact that impoverished countries are the most vulnerable to the climate crisis. Lack of economic development affects all areas that could guard against the coming crisis: sound infrastructure, social care systems and political stability, to name some.

Take the flooding of Libya, which was worsened by poor infrastructure as most of the damage came after Derna’s two dams burst. As reported by La Stampa, the city’s sprawl was projected more than a century ago by Italians, who invaded and colonized the country in 1911. With little care for the durability of materials, they expanded the city, canalized the river, and constructed the two faulty dams. We have allowed for the most oppressed groups to become the most vulnerable to the climate crisis.

A death toll of one

Around the world, this summer has ushered in unprecedented climate-related disasters. The months of June, July and August were the hottest ever recorded in history; and the fires which raged in the northeastern area of Greece throughout the month of August were described as Europe’s single largest recorded fire, which came with a death toll of 21, along with 15,000 emergency evacuations. More fires: in Sicily, throughout the month of July, the worst yet; in Canada, lasting the whole summer, also the worst on record; in Australia, with the Southern Hemisphere’s summer still to come, the fires are just beginning, but the season is set to be the worst in years.

And on top of the flames have been the floods – in Northern Italy, Spain, Greece, China, the U.S, and now, of course, Libya. The number of people who are set to seek shelter from meteorological conditions will ramp up just as quickly as those very conditions surge.

Yes, it all adds up to more than it seems any of us can reckon with: 20,000 lives swept away, 7000 souls sitting in a detention center in Lampedusa, lucky to be alive, facing a deeply uncertain future.

But on Wednesday, La Stampa reported on at least one story behind all the numbers. One of the survivors on Lampedusa was a 17-year-old mother who had set off from the North African coast with her five-month-old baby. As the migrant ship they had boarded was finally met by Italian authorities, the baby was knocked from her arms in the confusion, and drowned in the sea. No death toll to count here, just another life that couldn't be saved.

Photograph of Libyan Red Crescent members submerged in flood water as they attempt to open the roads that have been engulfed.

September 12, 2023, Libya: Libyan Red Crescent members work on opening roads engulfed in floods.

Libyan Red Crescent/ZUMA

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