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The migrant crisis is currently at the centre stage of British politics. On Tuesday, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, unveiled her plans for the prevention of migrants arriving to the UK’s shores on small boats. By introducing the Illegal Migration Bill, the Government is trying to eliminate the incentive to make dangerous small boat crossings and speed up the removal of those who arrive in the UK illegally.

If it succeeds, this Bill will be critical to the Conservative Party’s 2024 election hopes. However, while this is happening, the Government is neglecting ways to tackle a long-term migrant crisis that could eclipse the scale of today’s crisis.

By reducing the Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget from 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) to 0.5%, the Government has risked a future influx of climate migrants. Alongside this, as much as a third of the overseas aid budget is being spent at home according to the International Development Select Committee. The Home Office is spending around £3bn of the ODA budget to host refugees in the UK, taking money away from aid provisions that should be used for development.

It is imperative that development aid remains development aid and appropriate amounts are allocated towards long-term sustainability, particularly climate-related projects in the poorest countries. The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has to ‘take back control’ of foreign aid in order to avoid, or at least mitigate, a future climate refugee crisis. ODA should be used for development abroad and the legal requirement that 0.7% of GNI is to be spent on foreign aid must be reinstated.

The drastic cuts to aid have decreased the funding to the 47 poorest nations on Earth by 40%. These countries need funding that supports their adaptation to climate change, not just for their benefit, but to ensure that a flood of climate migrants does not create an unbearable burden on the British taxpayer.

The links between climate change and migration are strong in regions that depend on agriculture for survival. Quantitative studies show that a mere one-degree increase in temperature correlates to a 5% increase in migration from the top 25% of nations most dependent on agriculture. Should financial support not be provided to poor countries to support their adaptation to climate change, this increase will be even greater. A four-degree increase could translate to a near 100% growth in asylum applications. Consequently, the continued warming of poorer countries will multiply refugee numbers coming to the UK, far beyond the numbers of the current migrant crisis.

Unfortunately, the British public is not overwhelmingly supportive of aid expenditure. In 2020, 66% of the population supported reducing the amount spent on overseas aid, according to a YouGov poll, with an overwhelming percentage of Conservative voters agreeing (92%). In February 2023, YouGov polling similarly found that 55% of Brits felt that the Government was still spending too much on overseas aid.

Nevertheless, aid expenditure is in the interests of all of us due to its role in climate adaptation and mitigating climate migration.

Successes have been common in British climate aid. By 2021, 88 million people had been supported to cope with the effects of climate change across the Global South. Moreover, as a result of the £4.8bn of public funds that had been mobilised through international climate finance, 41 million people across Africa and Asia had improved access to clean energy.

Grants under the Darwin Initiative helped to protect the environment and supported local communities in the developing world to adapt to climate change. In one project in rural Uganda that received £123,000, a small amount relative to the size of the development budget, household incomes grew by 69% as people gained vocational skills, the percentage of households with functional sanitisation increased from 20% to 100% and agricultural production diversified.

However, projects like this are being placed in peril by the worrying lack of attention given to foreign aid. As a consequence, livelihoods in poor communities across the Global South will be threatened, food supplies rendered vulnerable and absolute poverty maintained as global temperatures rise, causing many to journey to the UK in search of support. 

It is therefore critical that UK aid reaches its intended purpose – to support the sustainable development of developing countries.

Three things must happen in the coming months. Firstly, the Chancellor should recommit to the 0.7% of GNI requirement that is spent on development assistance. Secondly, the FCDO has to ‘take back control’ over the foreign aid pot so that the Home Office and other departments do not use the money intended to solve the causes of migration at source. And lastly, it must be ensured that aid is prioritised towards promoting environmental sustainability. Unless this happens, a future climate migrant crisis is inbound. 

Thomas Nurcombe is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Julie Ricard]