Published on People Move

A Syrian refugee at COP21

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A mix of keenness and unease hits me when reading the headlines on the upcoming Paris COP. Stated commitments by big emitters look promising, but the memory of Copenhagen still lingers on, together with the more structural challenges to achieving a global deal. I wouldn’t want to be among those attending the nerve-wrecking thing. And yet, every time I read about Syria I realize that if I were a Syrian refugee, I would definitely welcome an invitation, if only to the first day. Here’s why.
The standard narrative on the Syrian crisis runs roughly as follows. In 2011 Syria was enveloped by the easterly winds of the Arab spring as nationwide mass protests expressed deep-seated economic and political dissatisfaction. The government response in turn crystallized the opposition into organized groups of various colors leading to full-fledged civil war. With the headlines permanently focused on the dynamics of the conflict, the origins of the mass outflow which Europe is now struggling to contain have been, and remain, cast in the same narrative – that of a conflict driven refugee crisis “ unseen since World War II”.
At COP21 I would ask fellow delegates whether they reckon the above view to be partial. Far from starting with the conflict, the refugee crisis had erupted well before, in 2006, when Syria was first hit by a drought whose length (nearly four years) and severity (the worst since records began) nobody had anticipated. The widespread failure of crops systems and the annihilation of livestock turned the north east region around the Hassakeh governorate – normally the country’s bread basket - into a large swathe of wasteland peppered by forsaken villages. The knock-on effects were immediate. As over 1.5 million people (roughly 8% of the population) left rural areas to find shelter in the cities, the urban population grew by 20% in the space of only five years, also pushed by a concomitant inflow of Iragi refugees (see figure). By then the drought had severely limited cereal production, depleting stock supplies and leading to local food price spikes. School dropout rates increased as moving farmers withdrew their children to join them in the hunt for revenue opportunities, in turn putting downward pressures on the urban job market. The strained capacity of urban basic services such as housing, water and transport drove up crime rates in the outskirts of main cities.

Source: Kelley et al. “Climate Change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian Drought”, PNAS, 2015 vol 112(11), pp. 3241-46)
I would then enquire as to why the impact of the drought, and its climate-induced nature, continue to elude the mainstream narrative as to the origins of the crisis, despite the wealth of serious research on the issue and a decent amount of stuff out there divulgating it.  Amongst others, Colin Kelley at Santa Barbara and colleagues at Columbia think they demonstrated that anthropogenic forcing (read manmade warming) explains the severity of the drought. They also go as far as claiming that the drought had a catalytic effect on the conflict, with all due caveats regarding the range of entangled drivers (among which, inept policies, unaccountability, corruption) for which the Government can claim responsibility.
Before leaving Paris, I would ask whether the COP will duly consider the interplay between climate and future displacement in small island states, MENA and beyond; whether the long delayed legal recognition of climate refugees will indeed be resolved; whether and how we can promote policies aimed at thinking rationally about preemptive settlement abandonment; and whether Syria poignantly illustrates the cost of the international community’s inaction on both mitigation and adaptation: in 2009, UN agencies called for international support on the Syrian drought but their modest US$52.9 million response plan remained largely unfunded.  Today the cost of the crisis is in the tens of billions, without of course adding the lives lost. Whose historical responsibility is at play here?
I hope the Paris COP will be addressing these questions. Or at least that somebody, ideally representing the Syrians from Hassakeh, succeeds in pulling them from under the carpet and onto the negotiating table.


Andrea Liverani

Lead Specialist in the Europe and Central Asia Region's Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy Global Practice

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