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illustration of silhouetted climate refugees walking together across a barren, hot landscape

Illustration by iStock; Security Management

With Global Mass Migration and Displacement, Both Tensions and Temperatures Rise

Whether due to extreme weather, political instability, or conflict, people are on the move, and the level of mass migration worldwide is exacerbating resource competition, workforce safety issues, and extremism risk.

As of late May 2024, 114 million people have been displaced from their homes because of war, violence, and persecution. This number will continue to climb as long as nations continue to fail to tackle the causes of conflict, said United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in late May.

He urged the UN Security Council to hold warring parties to account for violating international humanitarian law, including by killing and raping civilians, destroying civilian infrastructure, and targeting humanitarian workers.

Civilians in these situations have little choice other than to flee the violence, sometimes becoming internally displaced, but often becoming refugees in neighboring countries. Some of these refugees are newly displaced, such as those who fled centers of fighting in Gaza after the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel, but many more have been refugees for years. The 13-year-long civil war in Syria has left 5.6 million Syrians refugees abroad, Grandi noted.

Beyond direct human conflict, climate disasters are also forcing people from their homes. In 2021, the World Bank estimated that sea level rise, flooding, desertification, and other effects of warming temperatures could drive more than 216 million people out of their homes by 2050, and the European Parliament warned that a future of “climate refugees” is coming.

This is already being witnessed in recent extreme weather events. Flooding in 2022 displaced 8 million people in Pakistan. In 2023, floods in Ethiopia and Kenya displaced hundreds of thousands. In May 2024, after weeks of extreme rain, more than 600,000 people have been displaced by mass flooding in southern Brazil—many of whom will likely never return to their homes.

Climate change means more extreme patterns of drought and rainfall, as well as sea level rise, which makes many communities and regions less inhabitable. Extreme heat is also threatening lives even in areas that use to be able to handle it, including many areas across the United States, according to the Associated Press. In the summer of 2023, more than 2,300 people died in the United States with effects of excessive heat noted in their death certificates. This was the highest number of heat-related deaths in 45 years, even though it’s likely an undercount—and 2024 could be even hotter and deadlier.

People who work outdoors or who can’t air-condition their homes are at high risk, and those conditions are currently being experienced in a broad swath of India and East Asia. In March, searing temperatures in Delhi hit 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), and the heat has continued. So far, more than 100 people have died from the extreme temperatures and nearly 25,000 have fallen ill. These extreme temperatures are pushing people out of their homes in search of more survivable conditions, but the issue of migration quickly becomes complicated.

“Both climate-related risks and regional conflicts are significant drivers of mass migration in India,” says Nishith Agarwal, CPP, a member of the ASIS International Extremism and Political Instability Community (EPIC) steering committee and a security practitioner based in India. “Extreme heatwaves, particularly in north India, have exacerbated existing vulnerabilities, leading to forced displacement. High temperatures are not only directly affecting human health but also impacting agriculture, water availability, and infrastructure, contributing to social and economic stresses leading to forced migration.

“Conflict, whether driven by resource scarcity, competition for land, or political tensions, is another significant factor contributing to mass migrations in India,” Agarwal continues. “These conflicts are exacerbated by climate change-induced environmental stresses, and critical resources are dwindling. This complex interplay of climate-related risks and conflicts has resulted in mass migration in India, with both factors influencing each other and exacerbating the challenges faced by affected populations.”

Conflict is the key driver for the largest internal displacement crisis in the world right now. In Sudan, more than 9 million people are internally displaced—half of which are children, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Sudan has been in a state of war and escalating violence since April 2023, which exacerbated existing crises in the region, including other conflicts, disease outbreaks, economic and political instability, and climate emergencies.

To avoid the creation of internal refugee camps and as a form of societal protection, Sudanese people are hosting displaced individuals in their homes as much as possible. But this made cities extremely overpopulated, with thousands of individuals unemployed and unhoused and host families facing a growing economic burden. Food is also in short supply, with 18 million people (37 percent of the population) acutely food insecure, according to the IRC. The sense of hopelessness for many individuals drives societal frustration with the government.

To make matters more complicated, mass migration and displacement can be both a result of extremism and political instability while triggering additional extremism risk and political instability.

“In recent years, particularly in political environments where you have the ‘us vs. them’ discourse and electoral rhetoric influencing voting patterns, the issue of migration and migrants are being used to fuel extremism at all levels of political communities,” says Joe Frederick, senior geopolitical risk advisor at NSSG and a member of the EPIC steering committee. “It has arguably become more politically and socially charged because of the hyperconnectivity of mainstream and social media.

“In the European context, it is not uncommon to read daily of hate crimes against immigrant communities,” he adds. “There has been a general rise in anti-migrant rhetoric that is influencing and inciting violence against migrants, including refugees. Germany, for example, recorded the highest number of attacks against refugees in 2023 with over 2,300 offenses, nearly doubling incidents from 2022. I’m of the opinion that more migration does not generally lead to an increased risk of terrorism, but terrorism can lead to a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, and this leads to a heightened extremism risk.”

In India, Agarwal says that mass migration often leads to social disruption, especially where an influx of perceived outsiders strains local resources, security structures, and job availability. In multiethnic and multireligious societies like India, mass migration can exacerbate existing tensions between groups, leading to heightened polarization that extremists can exploit. Migrants left without jobs, social support, or community are also at risk of being radicalized to extremist groups, which may offer financial incentives, social status, or a sense of belonging, he adds.

“Overall, while mass migration itself may not directly cause extremism, it can create conditions conducive to extremist recruitment and violence by exacerbating social tensions, economic disparities, security vulnerabilities, and cultural conflicts in specific areas of India,” Agarwal says. “Therefore, addressing the root causes of migration, promoting social inclusion, strengthening governance, and enhancing community resilience are essential for preventing and countering the risk of extremism in migrant-affected areas.”

It’s a thoroughly and frustratingly complex confluence of issues, with climate risks, armed conflict, political instability, and mass migration all feeding into each other, Frederick says. To see this connectivity in action, he recommends studying the situation in Yemen, which has been in a state of civil war since 2015.

“Even prior to the war you had a situation where wealthy landowners had been draining the country’s water basins, creating inequalities between the ‘haves and have-nots,’” he says. “Water insecurity has been a source of conflict between tribes for decades and more, but in recent decades there has been shift in agricultural patterns. Qat or khat [a shrub produced for its stimulant-like effect] production has taken over the production of agricultural products such as coffee, fruit, and vegetables. It is an extremely water-intensive plant that has been draining water basins, and as a narcotic offers no nutritional or health benefits.

“The civil war has also led to further mismanagement and competition over water resources, and compounding this are the effects from climate change,” Frederick continues. “Rainfall is rare. Instead, Yemen is seeing more intense and shorter periods of rain that are causing floods, which are damaging agricultural land and water resources. In addition, higher temperatures from climate change are creating longer periods of drought and mass migration. Political instability due to the two-decade war, as well as competition among tribes and clans, has led to higher water insecurity. Maybe by 2040 or 2050, Yemen could run out of potable water, and this would be disastrous from a regional security and stability perspective.”

In both climate-triggered and conflict scenarios, mass migration and resource competition can also widen rifts between classes, warns Steve Crimando, principal and founder of Behavioral Science Applications, LLC. Especially in heatwaves, where individuals who are poorer sicken in the heat and people who are wealthy have access to air conditioning and pools, this disparity can be used as leverage for extremist groups to advance their narrative and recruit more followers.

Mass migration during tense times can also drive anti-government and anti-immigrant sentiment. This is because there is a perception that resources are too scarce to go around, and government officials haven’t done enough to protect original residents while letting more people in.

These situations engender protectionist tendencies which, in some cases, veer into extremism, including environmental extremism and eco-fascism. These extremists may advocate for less immigration in order to save the environment or—in the latter case—save the region and its resources for certain people.

“There are groups that use this lifeboat mentality, where the boat is sinking, and if you let more migrants climb onto it, it sinks the boat for everybody or—and this is a very violent idea—you take the axe on the boat and start chopping hands and not let those people get in to ensure the survival of the people already in the boat,” Crimando says. “This protectionist aspect infiltrates that, and it becomes xenophobic.”

So, what does this mean for private organizations and security professionals? Along with heightened business continuity and resiliency challenges around climate disasters and increased extremism risks, migration and displacement will have serious effects on workforce availability, employee health and well-being, and workplace culture, Crimando says. Because of repeat climate disasters, wildfires, or the unavailability of insurance, people and businesses are likely to have to move to more temperate, less volatile climate niches, which will in turn drive demand for space in those regions.

In some cases, like the American Rust Belt (a declining manufacturing region stretching between the Northeast into the Midwest United States), those regions have plenty of room and growing opportunities, having lost large portions of their population and industry during the last 50 years. In other cases, like New England and many parts of northern Europe, cities and towns are already saturated, sprawling, and expensive, and local residents are often unwilling to sacrifice open spaces to build more housing, creating the potential for in-group/out-group tension, Crimando says.

“The tendrils of this just go in so many different directions,” he adds.

Frederick notes that having a holistic approach to risk management—as well as keeping future-proofing in mind in risk decisions—can help organizations come to grips with the potential ramifications of mass migration on operations.

“Look at risks and threats from a holistic viewpoint—understand and appreciate that there are connections across the risk spectrum,” he adds.