Poland: The role of environmental factors in shaping migration from Maghreb countries to Europe

Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have a long history of migration to Europe. The destinations have changed over time: while France, Belgium and the Netherlands were major targets at first, later North Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Italy or Greece have been favoured, and now, though still very low in numbers, more and more migrants choose Central and Eastern European countries as their destination, including Poland.

Though these migratory movements used to be explained in largely economic or social terms, driven by labour force needs in destination countries, family reunification, or the inequalities between the developed North and still developing South, there is growing recognition that other factors may also be involved. Indeed, although economic forces continue to be the most important driver of movement between North Africa and Europe, many studies suggest that environmental factors may also be playing a role in the decision of some to migrate.

This is illustrated by the situation of inhabitants of the villages in the High Atlas Mountains, whose fields, contained by steep valley slopes, are inundated and covered with sand and stones by ash floods every year. In a very different context, oasis communities on the edge of the Sahara also struggle with environmental pressures as crops are dependent on erratic rainfall, limited groundwater supplies or water delivered from a reservoir hundreds of kilometres away. In many cases, climate change impacts may exacerbate existing social or economic issues. In desert areas of Tunisia, for example, where local agriculture relies on underground water reserves, access to them is limited by insufficient investments in infrastructure and further jeopardized by degradation of these precious water supplies. Other man-made changes, such as river diversion, dam construction and uncontrolled drilling, are also factors contributing to environmental scarcity and stress, but are again exacerbated by an increasingly extreme and unpredictable climate.

These are some of the challenges of everyday life in the arid and semi- arid regions of North Africa, and they may push some inhabitants to look for alternative sources of income to traditional agriculture. In these cases, migration may be the only feasible option. Mohamed,* an inhabitant of Mhamid in southern Morocco, where lack of water, degradation of vegetation and the spread of dunes have made traditional livelihoods increasingly difficult, has two sons who have both left the region to look for work elsewhere.

As he explains: ‘‘You can’t work any more in agriculture due to climate change. One year is good and then you have five or ten years of drought. That’s why my sons won’t stay here. They decided that they won’t stay here because, if it is good here for two years, it is good, but then there is drought and you have no work.’

Although the decision to migrate is complex and is often closely tied to social, economic and cultural considerations, such as the search for employment and networks with migrant communities elsewhere, research points to the significant role that environmental factors can play. It should be noted that within the Maghreb region, much of this migration takes place within countries, as members of rural communities relocate to larger cities to work in tourism, construction or other sectors. Given the restrictive policies in place across Europe and the significant costs associated with travel to Europe, whether through official channels or by other means, for most North Africans the possibility of reaching Europe remains remote.

Nevertheless, despite the increasing hostility of many European states to immigration, there is a long history of migration between certain countries, such as Tunisia and France, and migration continues to provide some North African nationals with the opportunity to alleviate shortfalls in agriculture and other sectors in their home countries by looking for work in Europe. Those who manage to reach Europe have a chance to earn enough money to support their relatives back home – thus providing not only the migrant but also his or her extended family with a coping strategy. In the current context, however, most are forced to attempt the journey to Europe through clandestine means, and only a minority of those who try succeed in doing so. And for those family members left behind, often struggling with economic and environmental challenges, the situation can be just as desperate.

Nationals of Maghreb countries make up a large proportion of both documented and undocumented migrants in the European Union (EU). According to EUROSTAT data, for example, in 2017 the largest group of new citizens in the EU member states were citizens of Morocco – 67,900, corresponding to 8.2 per cent of all citizenships granted. Meanwhile, in terms of irregular border crossings into the EU, FRONTEX figures show that Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are among the top 10 sending countries. And although, in comparison to Western Europe, the number of migrants from Maghreb countries in Poland is still very low, there has nevertheless been a substantial rise in the number of citizens of those countries, whether arriving through official channels with a residence permit or trying to enter Poland clandestinely.

This is despite evidence of increasing hostility towards Muslims, migrants and refugees in Polish society, encouraged by divisive and in ammatory rhetoric in some mainstream media. But while migration itself has become an increasingly politicized issue – in particular, populist parties have managed to exploit xenophobic sentiments to boost their electoral share – there is still relatively little discussion of the different factors, including climate change and environmental stress, that may be driving this movement. With better information and more open discussion, it is possible that some of the stigma and misunderstandings faced by migrant communities in Europe might be reduced.

Ali, an Amazigh (or Berber) migrant from the Upper Dades Valley in Morocco, now living in Poland, emphasizes the dilemmas that many younger Moroccans feel when they decide to migrate. ‘It’s not that they don’t want to stay,’ Ali says. ‘They need to earn. They need to earn to survive. That’s why, if they stay there, they cannot make it.’ He is quick to identify environmental instability as a major factor in this.

‘You are at risk. Why? It is a mountainous area, each year the river swells over. More or less, the area is flooded. And the commodities get spoiled, wasted. So always they are at risk. Because these people, they rely on natural resources.’

The situation in the Dades Valley has deteriorated in large part due to the degradation of the local environment, as reduced vegetation cover has reduced water retention capacity in the area and so made it more vulnerable to flooding.

Today, people from those areas within the Maghreb that are most dependent on agriculture, and where young people have few or no prospects, face most pressure to migrate. The desperation of some is sufficiently strong that they are willing, despite Europe’s increasingly restrictive migration policy, to attempt the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean in makeshift boats – a journey that frequently proves deadly, as was the case in November 2018 when a small boat full of migrants travelling towards the Canary Islands capsized near the coast of Tiznit province in Morocco. Only three people, all with Moroccan nationality, managed to reach the shore and alert the authorities. The other 22 migrants went missing in the waters off Morocco’s Atlantic coast. The links between climate change, environmental stress and migration to Europe in the Maghreb remain uncertain, and the variety of social and economic forces pushing thousands of Moroccans to leave their country are sufficiently complex that it is difficult to attribute the decision to migrate to climate change alone. Nevertheless, as understanding of this difficult issue improves, it may be the case that migration to Europe is framed not only as a coping strategy for unemployment and lack of opportunities, but also as an adaptive response to a changing climate.

Karolina Sobczak-Szelc

Photo: 16-year old Zahra Ennaji carries a jug of water across the sand towards her family’s nomadic compound in the Sahara Desert near the southern village of Mhamid, Morocco. Panos / Giacomo Pirozzi