New York Times, Dec. 15, 2016
AGADEZ, Niger — The world dismisses them as economic migrants. The law treats them as criminals who show up at a nation’s borders uninvited. Prayers alone protect them on the journey across the merciless Sahara.
But peel back the layers of their stories and you find a complex bundle of trouble and want that prompts the men and boys of West Africa to leave home, endure beatings and bribes, board a smuggler’s pickup truck and try to make a living far, far away.
They do it because the rains have become so fickle, the days measurably hotter, the droughts more frequent and more fierce, making it impossible to grow enough food on their land. Some go to the cities first, only to find jobs are scarce. Some come from countries ruled by dictators, like Gambia, whose longtime ruler recently refused to accept the results of an election he lost. Others come from countries crawling with jihadists, like Mali.
In Agadez, a fabled gateway town of sand and hustle through which hundreds of thousands exit the Sahel on their way abroad, I met dozens of them. One was Bori Bokoum, 21, from a village in the Mopti region of Mali. Fighters for Al Qaeda clash with government forces in the area, one of many reasons making a living had become much harder than in his father’s time.
One bad harvest followed another, he said. Not enough rice and millet could be eked out of the soil. So, as a teenager, he ventured out to sell watches in the nearest market town for a while, then worked on a farm in neighboring Ivory Coast, saving up for this journey. Libya was his destination, then maybe across the Mediterranean Sea, to Italy.
“To try my luck,” was how Mr. Bokoum put it. “I know it’s difficult. But everyone goes. I also have to try.”
This journey has become a rite of passage for West Africans of his generation. The slow burn of climate change makes subsistence farming, already risky business in a hot, arid region, even more of a gamble. Pressures on land and water fuel clashes, big and small. Insurgencies simmer across the region, prompting United States counterterrorism forces to keep watch from a base on the outskirts of Agadez.
This year, more than 311,000 people have passed through Agadez on their way to either Algeria or Libya, and some onward to Europe, according to the International Organization for Migration. The largest numbers are from Niger and its West African neighbors, including Mr. Bokoum’s home, Mali.
Scholars of migration count people like Mr. Bokoum among the millions who could be displaced around the world in coming decades as rising seas, widening deserts and erratic weather threaten traditional livelihoods. For the men who pour through Agadez, these hardships are tangled up with intense economic, political and demographic pressures.
“Climate change on its own doesn’t force people to move but it amplifies pre-existing vulnerabilities,” said Jane McAdam, an Australian law professor who studies the trend. They move when they can no longer imagine a future living off their land — or as she said, “when life becomes increasingly intolerable.”
But many of these people fall through the cracks of international law. The United Nations 1951 refugee convention applies only to those fleeing war and persecution, and even that treaty’s obligation to offer protection is increasingly flouted by many countries wary of foreigners.