Climate, conflict, and migration: Europe’s next frontier of populism

The refugees migrate to Europe. Photo: Shutterstock.

The far-right populists are able to predicate on the securitisation of refugees in high welfare economies. Should welfare economies become overwhelmed by refugees displaced by the climate crisis, it is likely that the far right could become even more potent in Europe. To prevent a populist backlash against refugees fleeing the effects of climate change, a number of policy changes must be made immediately.

By Jake Moran*

It is not so long ago that we began to witness the reincarnations of far-right, anti-immigrant populist movements in Europe. UKIP and the BNP in Britain, Front Nationale in France, Brothers of Italy, and the Sweden Democrats drawn support from across the political spectrum and became electorally successful. Their alarming tone about rising levels of inward migration seemed to appeal to voters. The political successes in the Italian and Swedish elections this year are particularly poignant because they demonstrate that, seven years after the peak of the refugee crisis, refugees in Europe remains a significant issue for voters. 

This article extends the discussion of my previous piece on climate related migration and the rise of the populist far right. Here I will discuss how the climate crisis could displace vulnerable populations and force them to migrate to Europe. I argue here that the success of far-right, anti-immigrant populist parties in Europe today serves as a blueprint for what could occur in the next 50 years as climate-related migration potentially increases. After a short literature review, I will discuss how this could produce Europe’s next frontier of populism. I will end with policy recommendations aiming to prevent this dual catastrophe of humanitarian disaster and political crisis facing the continent.

Refugees and Far-Right Populism: A Brief Literature Review

The 2015 refugee crisis, which spurred a wave of far-right populist victories across Europe (Tomberg et al., 2021; Zimmermann, 2016; Vadlamannati et al., 2020), continues today. Many studies have examined how economic migration propelled populist reactions, but only a few have examined populist reaction to refugees specifically (Tomberg et al., 2020; Vadlamannati et al., 2017). This literature can guide our enquiry to establish whether rising refugee numbers can be linked to the growth in far-right populism, and therefore whether refugee populations displaced by climate change will increasingly incur far-right populism.

The literature broadly establishes a link between increased refugee intake and support for the far-right by examining data in specific countries at a macro level (see Dustmann et al., 2019; Dinas et al., 2019; Hangartner et al., 2019; Torres, 2022). For example, a study found a 1.2 percent point increase in the vote share for the far-right for every 1 percent increase in asylum seekers accepted by Germany. Crucially, they find that support for the far right grows in relation to refugee numbers despite high levels of employment nationally, signalling that their relationship is independent of economic factors (Tomberg et al., 2022). 

Scholars highlight the link between the increase in refugee numbers and far-right support in 27 industrial democracies between 1990-2014 (Vadlamannati et al., 2017). Accordingly, the concomitant rise in the numbers of refugees and far-right populism is dependent on ‘welfare chauvinism’ — the concern that refugees settling in a country of high welfare payments will receive a greater share of national resources than they are entitled to–. The concern about refugees getting paid by welfare state without proper work fuels a sense of grievance against the refugee population (Vadlamannati et al., 2017). 

Overall, there is a consensus in the literature that growing numbers of refugees accepted by a host country incur greater support for far-right populist parties. While the economic conditions of host countries do not appear to impact this trend (Tomberg et al., 2022), countries with large welfare states funded by high taxes form a key variable in inflating the popular grievance against refugees (Vadlamannati et al., 2017). 

On the other hand, the research highlighting the economic contributions of refugees to their adapted country can be read as a response aiming to lessen the social impact of potential far-right responses on the lives of refugees both in the countries of study and where the research is published (Betts et al., 2017). However, there is more to be done. Considering these discussions, we can argue that a surge in refugees displaced by climate change would incur a growth of support for far-right populist parties in Europe. 

Securitization of Refugees and the Discourse of Threat

Social conflict in response to climate refugees can emerge in many forms. The far-right could launch a populist backlash using disinformation campaigns that promote harmful and false narratives about refugees inflating concern to their electoral advantage (ISD, 2021). The more likely route for populists launching this backlash is the ‘securitization’ of refugees as a threat requiring an urgent political response.  

Securitization refers to the transformation of an issue into a threat against the collective from beyond normal or ordinary parameters of governance (Elander et al., 2022). ‘Securitizing’ an issue allows policy makers and other actors to issue emergency responses or employ extreme framing outside of policy norms to deal with such ‘threats’ (Elander et al., 2022). In the context of refugees, securitization has the potential to transform discourse around asylum seekers from that of a humanitarian issue into a discourse about a security ‘threat’ which society needs urgent protection from.

One particularly relevant example of the securitization of refugees in recent years can be found in how Sweden handled the 2015 refugee crisis. Sweden has one of the most generous welfare states in Europe. When the crisis began in 2014, the Swedish people were told to ‘open [their] hearts’ to refugees fleeing Syria and other countries afflicted by war (Elander et al., 2022). Yet in 2015, only a year later, this invitation was revoked, and refugee access was restricted following widespread concern that the enormous burden of integrating refugees was overwhelming Sweden’s welfare system (Elander et al., 2022). 

The above-mentioned dramatic U-turn in government policy clearly demonstrated how the issue of refugees can be rapidly framed as a threat thus, securitized. This change in the attitude and policy about migration illustrates how a welfare state that was known to be an inclusive society can change by seeking ways to limit the migration. Eventually, we witnessed a great success of the populist anti-migration Sweden Democrats in the elections of September 2022 to be second biggest party in Swedish politics and to have great influence over the conservative coalition government, despite it did not take part in the coalition. 

The rise of the Sweden Democrats (SD) was at the heart of the changes in policies and electoral preferences. The opposition to the then government’s ‘open hearts’ policy increased the electoral support for the SD. The Sweden Democrats launched their populist appeal by framing the large inbound refugee population as a threat. This framing resulted in cultural and ethnic differences and the Islamic faith perceived in a negative light. Moreover, the concerns around terrorism and crime were consequently attached to the refugee population (Elander et al., 2022). 

Presenting refugees as a threat to the Swedish people, the Sweden Democrats have made a meteoric rise. Unfortunately, SD is not the only party using securitization to gain political power. All far-right populist parties garnered electoral success through securitizing refugees in recent years in other parts of Europe (Tomberg et al., 2020).

The case of Sweden lends weight to the findings of the literature and precisely demonstrates the argument this article is making. Without sufficient management of refugee populations across Europe, most of the burden will be placed on a small number of countries. The literature finds that far-right populists are able to predicate on the securitization of refugees in high welfare economies. Should welfare economies become overwhelmed by refugees displaced by the climate crisis, it is likely that the far-right could become even more potent in Europe. Refugees from the MENA region are at particular risk of being securitized by far-right populist forces by the ‘othering’ of their ethnic and religious characteristics (Telford, 2018). This is due to underlying assumptions about these groups relating to terrorism and cultural differences from European societies (Telford, 2018). 

Policy Recommendations: Prevention, Management, and Improvement

To prevent a populist backlash against refugees fleeing the effects of climate change, several policy changes must be made immediately. I divide these recommendations into prevention, management, and improvement. We need to prevent displacement in the first instance. Failing this, we need mechanisms of protection for the vulnerable populations fleeing from their countries through policies to effectively manage refugee lives. Reducing economic inequality in ‘host’ countries is crucial to prevent populist forces gaining footholds to secure electoral gains. In other words, supporting the climate and refugees acts as a stress test on democracy in Europe.

Preventing displacement of these populations from their homelands should be our starting point. The obvious motive for doing so is that nobody becomes a refugee by choice. All refugees would rather keep their homes, their lives, their communities, and their futures, before dispensing with them out of fear. Protecting people from displacement is not simply a political priority for European democracies, but an essential humanitarian objective which we must all prioritize. However, such a global preventive step requires collaboration of international community. 

We see examples of global governance on climate and refugee crisis; however, they are not sufficiently effective. In line with the recommendations of the UNHCR, overseas aid and climate change relief funds should be targeted at the most vulnerable countries (UNHCR, 2021). This includes meeting the commitment to provide $100 billion annually to support mitigation measures, with at least 50 percent funneled towards adaptation strategies (UNHCR, 2021). For example, building dams in Pakistan, which was recently afflicted by enormous flooding, or building irrigation infrastructure in Syria to adapt their agricultural communities to drought, could prevent massive displacements of people in the future.

However, notwithstanding the efforts we apply to this objective, the reality is that climate change is already displacing populations, and will continue to do so (UNHCR, 2021). To avoid dangerous unregulated refugee migration, an appropriate framework of management must be developed between states and at an EU level. In this new age of the climate crisis, the EU has an important and historical role in developing preventive measures and better policies in global context. 

We need to work on the international governance of refugees at state and interstate level as well as regarding theoretical and policy aspects, to meet the challenge of managing the potential increase in the future climate refugee flows. To achieve this objective, we need a transformative and radical overhaul of international law. 

To develop effective international regulations, we must firstly address the central legal problem facing climate refugees: that the current UN Refugee Convention does not provide legal rights for people displaced by climate change (Acras, 2012). Thus far, the issue of governing climate refugees has been addressed with the creation of a Taskforce for Displacement (TFC) alongside the Paris Climate Agreement 2015 (Vanhalla & Calliari, 2022). Yet, there is debate about its powers and jurisdiction in relation to other UN agencies, and whether it is endorsed by the EU (Vanhalla & Calliari, 2022). 

Another aspect of such global governance might include working on the distribution of refugee flows more equitably to ensure that European countries (such as Greece, Italy, Germany, and Sweden) are less likely to become overwhelmed. Equitable management of refugee distribution would seek to minimize any populist backlash by reducing the risk of national resources being over exhausted. As the literature shows, this imperative is even greater in high welfare economies where the securitization of refugees is more likely.

Finally, there is significant evidence that economic inequality caused by globalization provides fertile electoral ground for the populist far-right. They exploit ‘touchstone issues’ like asylum and migration to pray on anxieties felt by the ‘left behind’ and ‘losers’ of globalization (Kriesi et al., 2012; Ford & Goodwin, 2014; Vadlamannati et al., 2017). Therefore, a strong recommendation for policy makers seeking to insure their democracies against populist gain, would be to improvethe economic conditions of voters. Pursuing redistributive tax policies and shielding industries from the negative effects of globalization would reduce the economic grievances felt by voters. Doing so would decrease the susceptibility of disaffected voters to populist forces relying on the securitization of refugees to expand their reach (Tomberg et al., 2021).

If followed, these policy recommendations have potential to minimize the suffering of refugee populations and protect European democracies from a new frontier of populism by passing its stress test on global governance of climate crisis.


The purpose of this essay has not been to throw refugees under the proverbial bus to avoid a pile up of populism further down the road. Rather, I have tried to highlight the impending risk of a dual catastrophe between humanitarian disaster and a new frontier of populism in Europe.

I accept that my predictions rely on certain assumptions about how individuals, states, and the international community respond to climate change. However, my analysis finds a strong, evidence-based link between climate change, migration, and support for the populist far-right. I further argued that this trend will outgrow the populist surge of 2015 onwards, as climate related migration to Europe will only rise with global temperatures (Moran, 2022).

Action to address the combined challenges I have raised in this article should begin immediately, with a level of response akin to what we have witness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, the international community is aware of this tide approaching, but remains nowhere near the vicissitude of reaction necessary to impede its hastening approach.

(*) Jake Moran is a graduate of International Relations from the University of Leeds, specializing in populist studies and the politics of national identity, particularly around Brexit.


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