Climate change’s brutal toll on Africa

The vast majority of child migrants uprooted by violence, poverty and climate change remain in Africa, write UNICEF's Lachlan Forsyth and Patrick Rose

The vast majority of child migrants uprooted by violence, poverty and climate change remain in Africa, according to a new report by child rights organisation UNICEF.

It is a bitter irony that the countries that have done the least to cause climate change are going to suffer the most. Countries that have minuscule carbon footprints are going to be the first to suffer the consequences of flooding, drought and displacement.

In West and Central Africa, the impact of climate change will be especially severe, with the region set to experience a 3 to 4 degree rise in temperature this century – more than one and a half times higher than anywhere else on the planet.

For the millions of people living in this vast region, longer droughts and intense storms will make farming and herding more difficult, and people will be forced to seek a better life.

Already, children account for more than half of the 12 million West and Central African people on the move each year. Contrary to many opinions, 75 percent of them remain in sub-Saharan Africa, with fewer than one in five heading to Europe.

This current wave of migrants is just the start of a swelling humanitarian crisis. Migration involving children and young people is likely to increase due to rapid population growth and urbanisation, climate change, inequitable economic development, and persistent conflict.

Poverty is a powerful driver of migration in West and Central Africa. Countries with high levels of poverty are more likely to be a source of migration as people look to improve their lot in life. In interviews conducted by UNICEF, migrants describe the feeling of ‘having nothing to lose,’ aware that by migrating they are taking a risk, but it is a gamble that might pay off.

Helene is one of them. She is 14 years old, holding a sign saying “I am a child, and not a commodity.”

Helene's sign reads “I am a child, and not a commodity”. Photo: © UNICEF Gabon/Dicko/2016

Her family in Benin were eager to help her find a better future and fell prey to the lies told by traffickers.

“I never went to school in Gabon,” said Helene. “I was beaten and sick and I never got medical help or enough food to eat.”

For centuries, communities across the Sahel - the vast region separating Africa’s north and south - have endured fluctuations in rainfall and weather patterns for centuries, and moved or adapted accordingly. But as climate change begins to have greater impact, some forms of farming are becoming unpredictable.

When these means of providing begin to falter, people are unable to feed their families, unable to make a living, and unable to give their children a better life. As a result, occupations like farming or herding may cease to be viable in some areas.

Better-paying jobs  — not dependent on crops or rainfall — are enticing many to leave their homes and seek success in the cities.

“I left Niger two and a half years ago,” says Issaa, 14, from a detention centre in Libya. “My father collected money for my journey, he wished me good luck and then let me go.”

Working for less than $US30 per month, Issaa set aside money to pay for a crossing by boat to Italy before he was detained - his desperate journey towards opportunity ending behind bars.

Navigating the complex network of transport can be daunting for those who’ve never left their village. Smugglers offer to help arrange safe houses along the route, but stories of betrayal are common.

Sub-Saharan Africa will be hit hardest by climate change, with scientists predicting a 3–4 degree rise in temperature. Photo: © UNICEF/UNI82205/Holt

“You see people being shot, beaten, and tortured,” says Mustapha, a young man who managed to reach Libya, before coming back home to the Gambia.

He now runs an organisation to help other migrants who’ve returned home.

“I never heard the sound of a gun until I reached Libya, and it was every day there, morning, and night.”

With drought and temperatures intensifying in West and Central Africa, tensions in accessing scarce resources for cattle are also increasing hostilities in many rural areas, pushing greater numbers of people towards cities. But with more than 100 million people living in coastal cities less than one metre above sea level, even conservative estimates of a sea-level rise could result in the forced displacement of millions of climate refugees as people seek safety for their families and children.

For organisations like UNICEF, the challenges are enormous and complex. Aid money can only fix so much, when monumental societal changes are required also. Until the root causes of poverty are addressed, and solutions provided in the form of economic opportunities, access to health care and access to quality education, people are likely to continue to take dangerous risks migrating for better opportunities.

Unless the long-term planning of governments and civil society is equipped to anticipate these climate shocks and subsequent migration, the unmitigated impact of these forces will create detrimental outcomes for children across the region.

To read the full UNICEF report, click here

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