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Climate emergency in the Sahel: desertification and more migration?

This article draws on extensive fieldwork to critically examine the 'common sense' linking climate change, insecurity and migration.

Media Article

Published on 1 February 2022

Author(s): Oriol Puig Cepero

The Sahel is the transitional strip between the Sahara desert and the African savannah, a semi-arid region among the poorest in the world, unfortunately known today for political instability, communal conflicts and jihadist violence. In recent years, it has become crucial for European interests in containing migratory flows and fighting terrorism, which has essentially made it the EU’s outpost in Africa.

The area is already suffering, and will continue suffering in the future, under the effects of the climate crisis. Global Warming of 1.5°C., given its weather-dependent economy and its vulnerability within the global order. The most usual discourse establishes a more or less direct link between climate change, insecurity and migration. The rationale is clear: the Sahara desert is expanding, which means more poverty and hunger, leading to more conflicts and, ultimately, more displacement of people, also towards Europe.

Although this reasoning seems sound and plausible, it requires some nuances. First, with regard to climate impacts in the area, which are not linked exclusively to desertification. Second, regarding the link between climate change and migration, where socio-economic and political factors also play a role, as well as the fact that internal migrations clearly outweigh those that have Europe as their final destination. Finally, on the effects of migration containment policies on adaptation to the climate crisis.

The considerations compiled in this paper emerge from research in the framework of the CASCADES European project, based on a survey of more than 200 experts in the area, interviews with local and international actors and previous fieldwork.

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