Climate as border

Although little evidence suggests a direct link between climate change and mass migration, Europe is using “climate migration” to militarize its borders.

Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean sea from Turkey to Lesbos, Greece, 2016. Image credit callmonikm via Flickr CC BY 2.0 Deed.

Boats full of African migrants set sail from North and West African shores destined for Europe. Whether they reach their destinations or not, climate is to blame. In life so in death: climate and environmental factors are, paradoxically at once, the drivers, the detractors, and the solutions to the “pathology” of human mobility. 

Countless pirogues leave Senegalese and Mauritanian shores—and many more flayk and dingy boats leave Moroccan shorelines headed for the Canary Islands. Others in the backway enter Dante’s nine circles of Hell in the Sahara Desert before embarking on perilous journeys in the Mediterranean Sea. Climate vagaries, amplified by a politics of putschism, are blamed for being the root causes of migration to be addressed and redressed at home.

Militarized border infrastructures along traditional desert trails and sea routes have strategically weaponized environmental actants. In moments of tragic loss of migrant bodies, it’s also the inhospitable conditions of the Atlantic Sea and the Sahara Desert to blame. From a policy perspective, the blame is quite often placed on “unscrupulous smugglers” who risk migrants’ lives in the treacherous waters of the Atlantic or abandon them in the shifting sands of the desert. 

My stance here is that an emergent discourse of climate-migration nexus has persistently formed and informed academic and policy understandings of the life and death of Europe-bound African migrants. Of course, much has been written to critique the causal link between climate change and migration, and how slow- or rapid-onset climate changes deracinate affected communities. Critical scholarship on how border regimes outsource the death and disappearance to environmental, nonhuman actants is not in short supply either. Yet migration, in its connection with climate and environmental factors, is approached generically. My task here is to show how the EU’s migration regimes mobilize climate factors and embed them in their security logics to control African migrants along the West African Route and the Sahara Desert. 

The EU’s migration regime embeds environmental factors in three crucial phases of human mobility. The first one is predeparture, where some of the root causes of mobility are ascribed to local environmental issues that massively dislodge community members and morph them into climate refugees. Their potential displacement toward the gated communities of Europe is foreseen as a security threat that should be tackled, in time and space, from afar. The second phase is reminiscent of purgatory: migrants die or go missing in the hellish Sahara Desert as a form of expiation of their sinful decision to leave home. Death and disappearance have, in effect, become the twin technologies of deterrence. On the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of other African migrants, too, die or go missing in the middle passage before finding their way into the Spanish Archipelago. The last phase is the post-arrival one, and it’s where border control comes into full circle through deportation. Deported migrants are sent home. Migration regimes couch such inhuman practices in a humane parlance of “readmission,” “migrant returnees,” and “voluntary return.” Switching gears and chasing one’s dream beyond national borders is treated as a pathology, and racialized migrants are diagnosed as a mentally deranged social category that should undergo psychological therapy and support at the hands of humanitarian actors.

There is no shard of evidence that establishes a direct link between climate change and mass migration. Yet the EU’s anti-migration knowledge systems are unwilling to relinquish this militarized approach to “address the root causes of migration.” And it’s no surprise either to see some EU member states consider African climate migrants as a hybrid threat engulfing the southern flanks of Europe. Beyond the climate change-migration nexus, a novel nexus conflating climate, migration, and military defense emerges along the EU’s external borders. In its joint communication for the “New Agenda for the Mediterranean,” the European Commission writes, “The EU will strengthen and mainstream work on the climate, security and defence nexus, including through increased action on climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction, as well as collaboration with the UN and regional organisations.”

The rise of the “foresight regime” relaying apocalyptic scenarios about the locomotive force of climate change propelling African migrants toward Europe’s southern borders is faulty at its core. When they move, African migrants are captured in an environmental, or rather disastrous, parlance of “waves,” “flows,” “floods,” and “avalanches,” a repertoire that nourishes the myth of invasion and justifies military response to human mobility. In fact, the link between climate change and migration is complex, multi-causal, contextual, and, above all, experiential. The lived experiences of individual migrants are unique and irreducible to sweeping labels such as “climate migrants.” Underlying the decision to migrate varies from one person to another, and from one community to another. Running counter to the idea that rapid- and slow-onset climate change will massively dislodge affected communities, the expansion of the “illegality industry” has made crossing beyond national borders the preserve only of those who can afford it. Looking at the life (and death) experiences of many African migrants, the decision to migrate is a life project that needs moral and financial support. I have in mind the diverse stories of families who sold a patch of land or yearly crops or cattle to support their sons. I also have in mind the stories of families who still struggle to pay back the debt of their missing sons’ crossing. 

Before it’s anything else, migration is a culture. It’s deeply enshrined in the sociocultural imaginaries of West and North African countries. In Morocco we think of Zmagria; in Niger we recall les exodants. Putting the blame on climate as the driver of mass mobility not only uncovers the redundancy of this securitized approach but also obscures the socioeconomic ills deeply entrenched in colonial legacies of climate injustice, environmental destruction, and exploitation in Africa. The continent has barely 4 percent of the global share of carbon dioxide emissions, and its riches and resources are deemed the Pharmakon of the World, to use a phrase by Achille Mbembe. Yet Africa is the hardest hit by climate change and bears the brunt of the world’s combustion. 

Once migrants embark on unseaworthy boats in the Atlantic or cram into long-bed pickups to cross the Sahara Desert, climate and environmental factors take on a different shape and task. From being the locomotive force that drives out migrants from their national habitats, climate and environmental factors become the strategic slayers of migrants crossing sea and desert routes. The West African Route has been reactivated following the closure of the Western Mediterranean Route in 2020. Quite recently, migrants are pushed away from the already deadly sea routes on the Moroccan coastlines of Tan-Tan, Tarfaya, and Laayoune to deadlier ones, sailing off from the shores of Agadir, Safi, Casablanca, and Salé. Others depart from Senegalese and Mauritanian beaches, sea-weary after weeks of meandering the Atlantic waters only to land in El Hierro.

In the Sahara Desert, the adoption of Law No. 2015-16 on the illegal trafficking of migrants, which criminalizes the cross-Saharan mobility infrastructure, forced transport drivers away from the trodden desert routes along the civilian towns of Séguédine, Madama, and Toumou. The installation of border infrastructures (police stations, checkpoints, roadblocks, and customs) has rerouted migrant transportation to more dangerous, less invisible desert trails. Wind velocity, aridity, air temperatures, solar irradiance, and dune slopes affect vehicle speed and functioning. When stranded, migrant bodies reach “dehydration threshold” and “cognition threshold,” affecting their ability to walk away from the heat funnels.

Less visible tracks in the desert lead to water loss and dehydration. More detours along sea routes lead to water leakage and hypothermia. Environmental actants, and their inhospitable climate conditions, are harnessed by border regimes, rendering migrant bodies untraceable and their death and disappearance depoliticized. 

The rise of the “count regime” of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reveals the right hand of border regimes. The calculus of migrant death is not only used for deterrence but also read against other datasets of crossings, interceptions, and incarcerations to gauge the efficiency of the border infrastructures put in place. 

When migrants escape the jaws of deadly climate borders, it still might not signal the end of climate borders. Deportation, masked as voluntary returns, takes a benevolent form, and comes with the promise of “green reintegration.” At the end of the migratory circle, climate factors and migrants are the solution for each other. Green reintegration is a correctional practice for the pathology of migration. It preaches the “metaphysics of sedentarism” and considers those who migrate as sociopaths or mentally deranged. Between November 2019 and October 2023, 751 benefited from psychosocial and health support in the oriental region, and 2,639 returnee migrants benefited from reintegration programs. 

Farming a patch of land or raising cattle at home marks the ultimate degree of success. IOM lauds reintegration stories as success stories, and those who migrate lead, by implication, failure stories. “We returned, we succeeded” is the catchphrase of this bordering through climate practice. At the same time, migration is seen as an adaptation strategy to climate change. Migration as adaptation answers the question “What really drives African migrants to Europe?” The answer is a labor shortage and the exploitation of cheap labor sugarcoated as circular migration. Spain launched a labor attraction scheme (GEOCCO), aiming to bring 16,000 seasonal laborers from Morocco to work in its agricultural sector. Climate borders are mobilized at full tilt by the EU’s anti-migration policies. We need to think about climate as border to unpack the elusive bordering practices insidiously embedded in the climate migration discourse. Climate as border primes us to rethink the entangled genealogies of modern climate injustice and the carceral geographies it produces.

About the Author

Nabil Ferdaoussi is a doctoral research fellow at HUMA-Institute for Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town. He is an associate researcher at the Center for Global Studies at International University of Rabat.

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