Young Sahelian farmers are crossing the Sahara toward Europe. They are sold as slave labor, held ransom for money from their families, beaten and spit on. Many die in the desert or drown at sea. Yet, knowing the dangers, they go. The media depicts them as “climate refugees”—running from climate stress. These emigrants and their families, however, rarely mention the weather as a cause of their plight at home or their decisions to leave. They are fleeing abusive policies, exposure to markets, debt peonage, failures of social security systems and a sense of hopelessness in a world where they never expect to have a dignified role in their families or communities. Casting them as climate refugees occludes the multiple forces that lead them to emigrate and diverts attention from potential responses. This casting mobilizes, thus validating, European xenophobia to motivate Europeans to fight climate change. While climate investments appear responsible and progressive, the climate focus denies the colonial and postcolonial histories of emigrants’ plights, thereby threatening to deepen the crisis.
Climate of Anxiety in the Sahel: Emigration in Xenophobic Times
Jesse Ribot works on rights and vulnerabilities of resource-dependent populations in Sub-Saharan Africa. He teaches environmental political economy in the School of International Service at American University and is a visiting Guggenheim Fellow at the New York University Wagner School and the City University of New York Graduate Center Anthropology Program for 2018–19.
Papa Faye is a rural sociologist and social anthropologist working on local democracy and decentralization in natural resources governance, forests, and farmland, in particular in Senegal. He is cofounder and executive secretary of the Centre d’Action pour le Développement et la Recherche in Dakar, and a nonresident fellow of the Open Society Foundations (2017–18).
Jesse Ribot, Papa Faye, Matthew D. Turner; Climate of Anxiety in the Sahel: Emigration in Xenophobic Times. Public Culture 1 January 2020; 32 (1): 45–75. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-7816293
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