A Way Back

Men from a community of displaced persons who rented land for the rainy season in Dali close to Tawila, fleeing the heavy fighting that took place in Shangil Tobaya, North Darfur in 2011.         ©UN Photo/Albert González Farrán


Agadez, Niger, 2016

Agadez, a town in northern Niger once frequented by tourists visiting the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage historic site, is today one of the main transit points for West African migrants. During my visit to Agadez last year, I met a young man who never made it to Europe. He said to me, “I would rather stay here doing nothing, than go home where I will be doing nothing.”

He was just one of about 150,000 people who pass through Agadez or similar transit points across the Sahel every year. He had found an agent and got into a pickup truck to cross the desert. He never reached his destination and was forced to return to Agadez where, without money for another trip, he was just hanging around. In the middle of the desert hundreds and thousands of young men—just like him—are waiting. Waiting for a chance to go somewhere and do something with their lives.

What Would You Do?

A majority of the young men have one simple goal: to reach Libya or cross into European countries to find a job. Most, if not all of them, come to Agadez poorly prepared. They rarely have enough cash for the trip or information about the risks they are taking. Yet hundreds of thousands still try.

Most freely admit they would not be there in the first place if they had a way to make a living back home. Young men, in particular, are subjected to peer or family pressure to leave, find work and then contribute to family incomes and survival. Returning home empty-handed is simply not an option.

It is especially challenging in a region where nearly every family depends on the land for every livelihood need—food, water, energy and employment. Up to 80 per cent of Africa’s population relies on natural resources for survival, while agriculture accounts for more than a third of Africa’s gross domestic product on average. Decreasing productivity and the rise in the number and severity of droughts across Africa, especially in West Africa over the last two decades, is making it increasingly difficult for the average person to survive.

We are creating a pool of desperate, underemployed and vulnerable people. As a result, land-dependent poor people face dire choices.

With land-based job opportunities slipping away, 10 million people move to sub-Saharan African cities each year. Two thirds, or 7 million, live in informal settlements or slums and only 2 million can expect to ever move out.1

In the meantime, extremist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram exploit a sense of hopelessness for recruitment purposes.2 In Somalia, for example, the country population suffered the effects of a prolonged drought between 2010 and 2012. Combined with political instability, conflict and widespread poverty, this led to a nation-wide state of emergency and famine, followed by wide-scale displacement of people both internally and across national borders.3 Syria’s decline into civil war in 2010 and the opportunism of ISIL to recruit vulnerable people are connected to the effects of a prolonged drought in 2006.4

In a similar situation, would any of us pass up the chance to leave the country and find a good job in Europe? Unless we secure the land and make the natural resource base more resilient, we cannot hope to offer young and vulnerable people alternative choices to forced Migration.

Root Causes Of Migration

High unemployment rates and the lack of quality job opportunities are the leading factors that shape young people’s decisions to migrate. Youth between 15 and 29 years of age from sub-Saharan Africa comprise the group that is the most inclined to move abroad in search of jobs. Globally, this age group accounted for nearly 51 million international migrants around the globe in 2015—that is, over 21 per cent of the 243 million migrants worldwide that year.5

At the same time, more than 67 million people in the Sahel live with the effects of land degradation and desertification. Across Africa, one in every three people lives in a drought-prone region. As Africa’s population grows rapidly from 1.1 billion in 2016 to an estimated 2 billion people by 2050, these trends will become even more pronounced.

In Africa, migration has always been used as a temporary measure to improve income and food security among rural populations when times were tough. It was also common practice among young people to migrate, for example, to raise additional income in preparation for marriage. However, today migration is increasingly seen as the only long-term, even permanent, escape from poverty and falling living standards. For more and more people, it becomes the only way out.

There Are Other Ways Back

We can jump-start economic and employment opportunities for young people and rural populations by creatively building on the sustainable development and inclusive growth opportunities laid out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Initiative on Sustainability, Stability and Security (3S) in Africa launched in 2016 by Morocco and Senegal is a good example.

This African-led intergovernmental initiative aims to stabilize areas “at-risk” of insecurity and distressed migration by creating new jobs to rehabilitate degrading land. The target groups are young and vulnerable populations, distressed migrants and at-risk groups, such as former combatants who could be employed to restore degrading areas.

In concrete terms, the initiative involves three key actions. Firstly, creating 2 million green jobs for vulnerable and socially “at-risk” groups to restore 10 million hectares of degraded lands by 2020. This will help meet Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8 on decent work and economic growth and, at the same time, SDG 15 that targets improving life on land. Secondly, enhancing preparedness and early warning systems to predict drought and other natural disasters, while building resilience and preventing large-scale displacement after drought. Thirdly, providing greater access to land and tenure rights, because land ownership strengthens the sense of belonging to a specific community and place.

The good news is that political commitments are in place and gaining traction. The Heads of State and Government at their First African Action Summit in November 2016 vowed to accelerate the implementation of the initiative by mobilizing their own resources and attracting multilateral and bilateral donors as well as non-State actors. On 27 May 2017, the Taormina Communiqué recognized security, stability and sustainable development in Africa as high priorities for G7 Leaders. A few weeks later in Berlin, the importance of the 3S Initiative was discussed within the framework of the G20 African Partnership that addressed the migration crisis in Europe. In June, on the eve of the Summit of the G5 of Sahel, the Presidents of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger embraced the Call for Action of Ouagadougou with a commitment to implement the 3S Initiative to promote land-based jobs for vulnerable groups.

Similar trends in land degradation and drought-related distressed migration are emerging across Asia and Latin America, albeit on a smaller scale. As a result of desertification and drought, up to 135 million people are predicted to be at risk of distressed migration globally by the middle of the century.

The livelihoods of rural populations all over the world are under threat from the loss of productive land. As a result, people are leaving their homes and communities. Bold and innovative solutions are required to address this crisis in various regions of the world. This should certainly be considered in proposed international fora, such as the United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the United Nations Global Compact on Refugees, as well as at the Global Forum on Migration and Development. The thirteenth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, which will take place from 6 to 16 September 2017 in Ordos, China, is expected to raise the issue of land rehabilitation as a means to address migration flows and support the reintegration of migrants.

Agadez, Niger, 2017

To demonstrate the potential of sustainable and inclusive approaches to create land-based jobs and build resilient communities, the 3S Initiative has already taken its first step by establishing a demonstration site in Agadez. On this site, migrants returning to their countries of origin will be trained in land restoration techniques that they can apply to future work on the land. By investing in land rehabilitation while securing access to tenure, credit and entrepreneurial training, the 3S demonstration programme will work to create new jobs for stranded migrants while raising the prestige and incomes of agricultural workers. A reintegration package will grant the returning migrants a plot of land with secured access rights and/or tenure, in accordance with the voluntary guidelines of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, as well as the necessary tools for rehabilitating the land and a “motivational remuneration”. The financial compensation will be offered for a limited time, until the land becomes productive again.

To ensure the upscaling potential of the demonstration site, African governments will provide the enabling conditions for new job opportunities and identify sites where tenure or land access rights can be secured for vulnerable and socially at-risk groups. Development partners and other stakeholders will be engaged to invest in rural infrastructure, land rehabilitation tools and skills development in the sites identified as migration-prone and socially at-risk areas.

With its rapidly expanding labour force, complemented by fast-growing domestic markets, a rich supply of natural resources and the diversity of ecosystems, Africa has an enormous potential to achieve a positive development trajectory and meet its own needs. This growth and development, however, depend on the continent’s ability to stabilize “at-risk” areas, provide an effective response to potential crises and create opportunities for a new start in life. The 3S Initiative, which brings together many African governments to seek development solutions that promote the inclusion of marginalized and vulnerable groups of society, is a big step in the right direction.

Unlike any other employment opportunities, land-based jobs can significantly contribute to stabilizing rural communities and boosting local development. In countries with high desertification rates and high population growth, land rehabilitation is essential to increasing the amount of resources available for the economic development, including water and productive land. 


1      United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011: Bridging the Urban Divide (London, Sterling, VA, 2011), p. 33, quoted in United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III), “Informal settlements”, Habitat III issue papers, No. 22 (New York, 2015), p. 4.

2      S/PV.7272.

3      Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and Norwegian Refugee Council, “Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID 2016)” (Geneva, 2016), p. 52.
Available from http://www.internal-displacement.org/assets/publications/2016/2016-global-report-internal-displacement-IDMC.pdf.

4      Katrina Nett and Lukas Rüttinger, “Insurgency, terrorism and organized crime in a warming climate: analysing the links between climate change and non-State armed groups”, Report (Berlin, Adelphi, 2016), pp. 20-24.

5      International Labour Organization, World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends for youth 2016 (Geneva, 2016), p. 12.