Russia’s war on Ukraine may provoke a humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and north Africa

As the Russian war on Ukraine causes food scarcity, energy price rises and economic instability, the number of refugees and migrants heading to Europe from the Middle East and north Africa is likely to increase.

War in the “breadbasket of the world”

Even prior to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, issues such as conflict, climate change and drought were causing food insecurity across the Middle East and north Africa (MENA). The region accounts for over 20% of the world’s acutely food insecure people according to the World Bank, and is dependent on imports for approximately 50% of its food supply. Any threat to global supply chains therefore represents an existential threat to millions of people.


Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat and Ukraine the fifth largest. Often jointly nicknamed “the breadbasket of the world”, the UN estimates that together they account for 30% of the global wheat market.


With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine impacting food production, and export bans and shipping blockades further affecting exports and driving up global food prices, the current conflict risks causing widespread hunger across the MENA region.


In a March address to G7 representatives, Qu Dongyu, Director General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Association, stated that the war in Ukraine “represents a challenge for food security for many countries, and especially for low-income food import dependent countries and vulnerable population groups.”


Compounding the situation is several MENA countries’ dependence on grain from the two warring countries themselves. 


Egypt is the world’s top importer of wheat, with over 70% of it imported from Russia and Ukraine. The war will only add pressure in a country that saw wheat prices rise 80% between April 2020 and December 2021. 


Tunisia imports 48% of its wheat from Ukraine, and there have already been reports of panic buying as prices rise.

Lebanon, a country in which storage capacity is still reduced following the 2020 Port of Beirut explosion, imports almost three quarters of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, with the latter supplying around 80% of the total. 


More precarious still are countries which have been affected by war in recent years.


Libya, a country with a quarter of a million internally displaced persons as a result of civil war and where 700,000 people lack food security, imports approximately 40% of its wheat from Ukraine and over 20% from Russia.


In 2021, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimated that 12 million Syrians were in a state of food insecurity, a 38% increase on the previous year, with the country relying on Russian imports to meet its grain requirements and where there were forecasts of impending famine even before the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

Yemen imports approximately 40% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine and the civil war which has decimated the country in recent years makes it particularly vulnerable, with WFP Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly, describing the situation in the country as “a countdown to catastrophe”. The situation is so critical that on March 16th, the UN launched an appeal for additional funds to provide urgent humanitarian aid to a country in which 80% of people live below the poverty line, 83% are affected by food insecurity and 16.2 million people required food aid in 2021.

Economic fallout

The current food security crisis was foreshadowed by Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Grain prices soared as Russian troops overran the strategic territory on the Black Sea, almost eight years to the day before their full-scale invasion of the country began.

Today, the increased pressure on food prices arrives at a perilous time for global food security. Even before Russia stepped up its invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, the world was facing a cost of living crisis, with food prices at a ten year high. In the wake of the invasion, prices have risen further, with the IGC Grains and Oilseeds Index, a tracker of international grain and oilseed prices,  reaching a record high surpassing prices during the 2008 financial crisis. 

These price rises are not limited to food. Besides grains, Russia is a key exporter of essential commodities such as oil, gas and coal, as well as metals including aluminium, nickel and palladium, essential for the production of products ranging from vehicles to consumer electronics. 

In a region in which many governments were already grappling with low wages, high levels of youth unemployment and widespread food insecurity, the further deterioration of living standards sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has the potential to be highly destabilising.

Uncertainty over the continued supply of these essential raw materials has caused the sharpest weekly increase of commodities prices in half a century, with the knock-on effect of increased prices for ordinary consumers around the world.

Oil prices have also risen sharply and OPEC Plus, a group of oil producing nations which Russia joined in 2016, have declined to take measures to curb this rise. Major oil producing countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are set to benefit from high prices and increased business as western nations seek to reduce their dependence on Russian oil and gas. 

For ordinary citizens across the MENA region however, the increased cost of transportation and manufacturing caused by the spike in oil prices, together with price rises across a range of other goods, will simply add pressure to household finances. 


Redrawing the map

The war in Ukraine is likely to impact not only the number of refugees and migrants arriving to Europe from the Middle East and north Africa, but the routes they take into the continent.


Over recent years, the stance of Mediterranean EU states has become increasingly hostile towards arrivals from the MENA region and beyond, and people have been driven to find alternative points of entry to the EU. Among these alternative routes is the so-called ‘Eastern route’ running through Russia and Belarus to Poland.


2021 saw a sharp increase in arrivals via the Eastern route, a more than ten-fold increase in reported crossings in comparison to 2020, with many thousands more stranded along the border. Along with the increased difficulty of entering the EU via other routes, the rise was caused by the weaponisation of migrants and refugees by Belarus, whose government channelled thousands of people towards Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. 


The response from the EU states has been an increased militarisation of the border zone, the construction of fences and barricades, and reports of illegal pushbacks and inadequate humanitarian assistance. 


The growing risks of entering the EU via the Eastern route, as well as the increased difficulty of entering Belarus given its active role in supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine, increases the likelihood that migrants and refugees fleeing MENA countries will attempt other routes into the EU.


With routes across the Eastern and Central Mediterranean also increasingly difficult, the number of people attempting to enter the EU via the Western Mediterranean route to the Iberian peninsula and the Western African route to the Spanish Canary Islands is likely to continue to grow.


Mounting pressure

The Russian war in Ukraine poses direct challenges to people across the Middle East and north Africa.


The conflict has already had a significant impact on the global economy, provoking record-breaking price rises on essential commodities and impacting crucial supply chains of food and vital raw materials. MENA’s heavy reliance on grain from the very countries that are at war only exacerbates the problem. 


Given the Middle East and north Africa is home to one fifth of the world’s acutely food insecure people, with high unemployment and conflict compounding the issue in many countries, there is a real risk that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may spark widespread hunger and unrest across the region.