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News Story
3 December 2018

It’s time for a new chapter in the book of migration

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Asking the right question

There was a strange feeling when listening to the debate on international issues during the Swedish elections in September. The debate, more than ever, centred on migration to Sweden and other European countries, yet almost nothing was mentioned about why young Africans are trying to reach Europe. It is not only about immediate crises, like the present one in Syria, where millions of people left within a short period of time. Instead, we should take a deeper dive into the reasons people chose to look for a better life in a new place.

A story 20 years in the making

Migration is not a new phenomenon. Already back in 1995, the Swedish Development Agency, Sida requested the internationally renowned researcher Norman Meyers to write the report “Environmental Exodus – An Emerging Crisis in the Global Arena“. Already then Meyers showed that there were 25 million people that could be labelled as environmental refugees. Putting this in perspective, that would be more than any other group of refugees found in those days around the world.

However, the concept of environmental refugees had not been established at that time. On top of this, few at the political level paid attention to this phenomenon, while the development community who was dealing with such issues could clearly see it is happening in parts of Africa. In fact, these challenges were already obvious at the time of the UN Environmental Conference in Rio de Janeiro back in 1992.

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International attention is growing

Things have changed in recent years. Migration increasingly comes together with another issue – hunger and malnutrition. This broader picture has emerged at the same time as environmental challenges and climate change has gotten more attention. This year’s The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018, or SOFA highlighted ”Migration, Agriculture and Rural Development”. Several UN organizations that are behind the report, FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, all warning that the positive trend towards fewer undernourished people in the world  have been broken and instead the number of chronically hungry increased to 821 million.

This development is alarming and goes against Sustainable Development Goal 2, about eradicating hunger and malnutrition within 12 years from now. The report also highlights the interesting fact that poor people can not only be undernourished, but also overweight and obese. In other words, quality and nutritional value of food are just as important as its quantity of food. If we are serious in our wish to tackle malnutrition, especially in low-income countries, it is vital to recognize agriculture’s role both as a food supplier and source of income for many of the world’s poorest. This also means that we must step up our efforts in addressing the grand issue of climate change, since so many smallholder farmers are weather dependent.

A hot topic

Climate change is something which Europe got to experience first hand during this year´s hot summer. The SOFA report especially highlights how recent years’ climatic changes are adversely affecting low-income countries, where more than 80% of the climate-related challenges are connected with droughts, storms and floods. These problems very much affect food production, both when it comes to grain and animal products. However, even though changing weather patterns have become increasingly obvious to many African farmers, very little has been done throughout these years by the governments to boost the development of food systems that can handle a new climate order.

As farmers struggle to make ends meet, many decide to leave their land and seek a better life elsewhere. Migration is a choice, but it should be an informed one and not a choice people should feel forced to make because they feel all other options are gone. From this perspective, the best solution could hardly be an uncertain and dangerous migration to Europe. This is why African politicians must be better at giving hope to their youth population, showing the possibilities for increasing job-opportunities within areas related to agriculture increasingly in other connected areas as well.

There are many other reasons why African countries south of Sahara have to focus much more seriously on their own food production. One reason is that vast volumes of food are needed to feed a fast-growing population, where an overwhelming majority is expected to live in towns and cities. The other reason is that agriculture in a broad perspective is the basis for industrial development that African countries so desperately need.

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The role of EU and Sweden

The international community has taken several steps in recognizing these growing challenges, the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate, the UN Declaration on Action on Nutrition 2016 – 2025 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development being the most important. What is needed now is to make sure that all actions for the environment, food, agriculture and health, pursue coherent objectives. We must remember that this is not an academic issue but something with actual consequences and relevancy for real people on the ground.

Just think, our own European discussions on migration could deal with the common risks and interests. However, this requires new initiatives from the European development cooperation with the African continent, including efforts from Sweden. These actions should not just focus on areas like human rights, democracy and equality, but also more intensively on sustainable economic and social development.

The recently established Task Force for Rural Africa within the EU-Africa partnership could be seen as a hopeful sign. It shows that both African and European countries seem prepared to seriously address this vital issue related to the discussions about migration. However, this time, we need more that just words. Africa’s youth is waiting for real and coherent actions with practical results. It is high time for the European countries to seriously assist such development.

This news story is based on an article originally published in Svenska Dagbladet on the 30th of September 2018. It was written by Inge Gerremo, Senior Adviser SLU Global (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences), Vet.Med.Dr. hc, Honorary Fellow Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry