Somalis call the dangerous journey towards Europe “going on tahriib” a word mostly associated with illegal activities such as trafficking or smuggling. Those who attempt it travel by road through Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya, then by boat across the Mediterranean to Europe – if they’re lucky enough to make it that far.
Their families often pay thousands of pounds to unscrupulous smugglers, who may break their initial promises, upping the prices or abandoning victims too early. Yet people still try. And increasingly, climate change is one of the reasons.
Sitting under 40C sun in south-west Somalia, Abdirahman Nur Hassan, a local elder and member of the town of Dollow’s drought committee, told me illegal journeys to Europe used to be rare in this region, and were related to youth unemployment, “but now it is becoming common”. Drought is destroying people’s livelihoods and causing them to look for other options, he said. “If this drought continues, things will get worse, the remaining animals will die, and the majority of people living in this area will end up displaced.”
The situation in Somalia is catastrophic. Six million people are experiencing crisis levels of food insecurity following three failed rainy seasons, and 81,000 are believed to be in famine. The United Nations has warned that hundreds of thousands of children could die if adequate assistance fails to materialise. 1.4 million children are expected to face acute malnutrition this year.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, 745,000 people have been displaced by the latest drought, the majority of them since January. Accurate figures on deaths are hard to gather, given that the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab controls large swaths of territory, making it dangerous for government officials or aid agencies to enter them.
The climate crisis has played a significant role, making droughts more intense and rain less predictable. The Earth’s temperature has already risen by 1.1C, and Somalia – listed as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change – is a place where you can see the immediate impacts.
In 2011, a famine there killed 250,000 people. Droughts are recurring, meaning victims don’t have a chance to recover in time to face the next one. By the end of this century, the temperature across Somalia is expected to rise by 3C.
The climate crisis is largely the result of western emissions, but that has rarely resulted in increased help for developing countries grappling with its effects. The UK has a population just over four times the size of Somalia’s, but produced 520 times its emissions in 2018 – the last year that World Bank figures are available – down from 933 times Somalia’s emissions in 2006.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an average of more than 20 million people a year have been displaced by extreme weather events since 2008. Most stay within their own countries, and in Somalia I’ve seen them: tens of thousands of people in a makeshift camp, with no toilets, no water, children crying from hunger, now fearful of the rain, which will turn the area into an open sewer that spreads disease.
Speaking to me on the phone this week, Dr Sukri Hussein Abdi, who works in a Somali stabilisation ward for malnourished children, where they have treated more than 400 children over the past few months, said the effects of the drought are “indescribable”. “People are dying from starvation, we need humanitarian assistance, food, shelter, water to help these people, to save lives, especially.”
Last year, the UK cut its foreign aid budget by billions of pounds. In Somalia, a humanitarian response plan put together by the UN has been drastically underfunded.
But allowing migration can be a more efficient form of foreign aid. Allowing people in developing countries to more easily travel by safe and legal routes to richer countries gives them a stable place to go, and means they can also get a job and send money back home. In 2020, the World Bank said Somalia received more than $1.7bn in remittances, equating to nearly 25% of its GDP.
In a shop in Dollow, I met businessman Abdiweli Dirie Osman. Every five days he collects up to $300 from Somalis who have made it abroad, and uses it to buy bags of rice, sorghum, cooking oil and other essentials, which he distributes to families in need. “The diaspora collect what they can,” he said. This kind of charity is being repeated across the country.
Osman’s sister has been in Germany for the past 10 years. “Every family has someone [in Europe],” he said. “Life is very difficult here, there are the cycles of drought. They want a change from the standard of living.”
Osman had no idea how many people from this region have left for Europe. “They’ve been going for so long, it’s impossible to count them. It happens all the time,” he said. During the drought, he too hears that the numbers are increasing.
When I asked him if he knew about the dangers involved, he laughed. “People are good at taking risks. That is the route. We’re hoping one day that there will be safer routes they can take. It helps society; in times of drought they can help the society.”
With every degree that the temperature across Earth rises, experts say, roughly one billion people will either be displaced or forced to live in insufferable heat. We urgently need to ask how to improve the situation, for both those who leave and those who stay.
Sally Hayden is a journalist and the author of My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route