AGADEZ (Niger), Dec 16 — 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 Sahara.
But peel back the layers of their stories and you find a 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 long-time ruler recently refused to accept the results of an election he lost. Others come from countries crawling with jihadis, 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-Qaida 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. So, as a teenager, he ventured out to sell watches in the nearest market town for a while, then worked on a farm in neighbouring 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 Bokoum put it.
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 US 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 Organisation for Migration. The largest numbers are from Niger and its West African neighbours, including Bokoum’s home, Mali.
Scholars of migration count people like 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.
Many of these people fall through the cracks of international law. The United Nations 1951 refugee convention applies only to people fleeing war and persecution, and even that treaty’s obligation to offer protection is increasingly flouted by many countries wary of foreigners.
In such a political climate, policymakers point out, the chances of expanding the law to include people displaced by environmental degradation are slim to none. It explains why the more than 100 countries that have ratified the Paris climate agreement this year acknowledged that environmental changes would spur the movement of people, but kicked the can down the road on what to do about them.
Hotter hots and unpredictable rains
Sub-Saharan Africa is in the throes of a population boom, which means that people have to grow more food at a time when climate change is making it more difficult. Fertility rates remain higher than in other parts of the world, and Niger has the highest in the entire world: Women bear more than seven children on average.
Once every three years, according to scientists from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, or FEWS Net, Niger faces food insecurity, or a lack of adequate food to eat. Hunger is among the worst in the world: About 45 per cent of Niger’s children younger than five suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Meanwhile, in what is already one of the hottest places on Earth, it has gotten steadily hotter: By 0.7 degrees Celsius since 1975, FEWS Net has found. Other places in the world are warming faster, for sure. But this is the Sahel, where daytime highs often soar well above 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) and growing food in sandy, inhospitable soil is already difficult.
Extreme heat can have grievous consequences on food and disease, the World Food Programme found in a survey of scientific studies. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes thrive in it. Pests are more likely to attack crops. Corn and wheat yields decline.
A city of dreams
Agadez is a city of mud-brick compounds with high walls and blazing bright metal doors. For centuries, it was filled with traders and nomads. In recent decades, it was a tourist magnet, until ethnic rebellions and then jihadi violence drove people away.
Today, migration is the main industry. Drivers, smugglers, money changers, sex workers, police officers — everyone lives off the men on the move.
The smugglers’ den where I found Bokoum, the 21-year-old from Mali, was a set of two adjoining courtyards, with two concrete-floored rooms.
He had been in Agadez for three months, waiting for his mother to send him money. It can cost 350,000 CFAs (about US$600 or RM2,686) to get from Agadez to the Libyan border, on the back of a pickup truck.
Mohamed Diallo, a Senegalese manager of the compound, blamed Western countries for spewing carbon into the atmosphere, and he was skeptical of their leaders’ promises to curb emissions.
Diallo’s compound, like others in Agadez, has a weekly rhythm.
He instructs those seeking to make the journey to Libya to be inside by Sunday night.
The journey to the Libyan border, 250 miles, takes three days. No one knows how many die along the way.
Those who venture a journey across the Mediterranean take a deadly gamble, too. Among the more than 4,700 people who have died trying to cross the Central Mediterranean so far in 2016, the vast majority cannot be identified. Of those who can, Africans make up the largest share.
“The migrant road,” Diallo said, “is a road on fire.”
‘I will be a burden to them’
Those who make it to Libya do not necessarily make it inside Libya. It is a lawless country where some migrants get thrown behind bars — and some, according to human rights groups, are raped and tortured by militias demanding money. Some run out of money, or heart, to continue the journey to Europe.
On the way back, they usually knock on the gates of the International Organisation for Migration’s transit centre at the edge of Agadez.
Ibrahim Diarra said that fickle rains made it too hard to grow peanuts and corn on the family farm in the Tambacounda region of Senegal. He watched the young men of his village leave, each pulled by the stories of those who went before. Then he followed.
He lasted two months in Algeria. Then, he went back to Agadez and asked the migration organisation for a bus ticket home. So far this year, 100,000 people have made the same reverse journey.
“I’m supposed to support my family,” he explained. “Now I have no clothes, nothing. I will be a burden to them.” — The New York Times