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A World of Migrants

The Sahara and the Mediterranean

Vijay Prashad ( is the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, chief editor of LeftWord Books and chief correspondent for Globetrotter.

Migration from North Africa is forced by the destruction of poorer nations by unfair trade policies and environmental crises. Refusal by the European and other advanced capitalist countries to acknowledge the root causes and own up to their responsibilities have blurred the line between life and death for migrants travelling through the Sahara to reach the Mediterranean.

Refugees do not show up in the Mediterranean Sea as if from nowhere. By the time they get into their flimsy boats on the Libyan coastline, they have lived many, many dangerous lives. They would have left their increasingly unproductive fields in western and eastern Africa, fled wars in the Horn of Africa, in Sudan and in places as far as Afghanistan, and travelled over great distances to get to what they see as the final leg of their journey. What they want is to make it to Europe, which—since the early days of colonialism—has broadcast itself as the land of milk and honey. Old colonial ideas and the wealth of Europe built from colonial labour beckons. It is a siren for the wretched of the earth. It has ended for many Africans in virtual concentration camps in Libya, where refugees that Europe does not want now linger—some sold into slavery.

To get to Libya, the migrants and refugees have to cross the forbidding Sahara Desert, which in Arabic is known, rightly, as the Greatest Desert (al-Sahara al-Kubra). It is vast, hot and dangerous. Old salt caravans—the azalai—mostly managed by the Tuareg peoples would run between Mali as well as Niger and Libya. They would carry gold, salt, weapons, and captured human beings as objects of trade. Those old caravans still make their journey, moving from one water source to the next, the camels as exhausted as the Tuareg. Newer caravans have supplanted these older ones. Camels are not their mode of transport. They prefer buses, pickup trucks and jeeps to ferry humans and cocaine towards Europe, while guns and money come southwards. These newer caravans drive along unmarked paths, heading between sand dunes, searching for old tire tracks that have been buried in disorienting sandstorms.

The Sahara is dangerous. The journey in a pickup truck could take three days, at best, or the refugees and cocaine mules could find themselves dying from dehydration, or at the hands of extremists, smugglers or the security forces in the region. There are many people ready to prey on the travellers and on the smugglers, whose cars are routinely stolen. No proper accounts exist of dead refugees. Migrants die of dehydration and heat stroke when their trucks break down between the Nigerian cities of Agadez and Dirkou. “Saving lives in the desert is becoming more urgent than ever,” said Giuseppe Loprete who is the Niger Chief of Mission for the International Organisation for Migration.

Roots and Routes

Why do the migrants come? Because their countries have been wiped out, destroyed by unfair trade policies and by the sequestration of wealth into the hands of a few. In 2003, the presidents of Mali and Burkina Faso—Amadou Toumani Touré and Blaise Compaoré (2003)—wrote an impassioned article titled “Your Farm Subsidies Are Strangling Us.” In this essay, they said that for their region cotton is the “ticket into the world market. Its production is crucial to economic development in West and Central Africa, as well as to the livelihood of millions of people there.” But this industrial sector was placed in grave threat by the trade policies pushed by the West through the World Trade Organization. “This vital economic sector in our countries,” wrote these heads of government, “is seriously threatened by agricultural subsidies granted by rich countries to their cotton producers.” In 2001, for instance, cotton subsidies in the West amounted to $5.8 billion. In that same period, the United States (US) government provided its 25,000 cotton farmers $3 billion in subsidy relief. That was more than the entire economic output of the 20 million people of Burkina Faso. These subsidies undermined the cotton producers in Africa. It is what has contributed to the destruction of West Africa’s economy and set in motion this current refugee crisis.

Trade wars are real wars. Subsidy regimes are like bombing runs. Two and a half million Malians live with chronic hunger, three out of 10 Malian children are chronically malnourished, four out of every five Malian children are anaemic, one in four Malian children are stunted. Mali’s Minister of Economy and Finance Boubou Cissé came to his office from the World Bank. Even he is dispirited by the crisis. “Malnutrition kills,” he said last year. “And it kills alot. The men and women who survive are affected for the rest of their lives.” The crisis—produced by trade policy—is not only “morally unacceptable,” said Cissé, but what is “at stake is our national economic survival.”

In 2016, 8% of Mali’s exports came from gold and cotton, both vulnerable sectors. Mali had been wracked by changes in the weather and in international commodity prices. In 2018, the International Monetary Fund Article IV Consultation team wrote, “Mali’s export diversification indices have remained relatively low throughout the past five decades.”1 There is no acknowledgement that this is a consequence of uneven development—multinational corporations siphoning gold values from the country, while Western subsidies have narrowed the market for Malian cotton. What funds return to the treasury are now increasingly drawn towards the “security” sector—namely the War on Terror against al-Qaeda. Neither the IMF nor the World Bank nor the various aid platforms of the West have any answers to the fundamental problems faced by countries like Mali. They throw their hands up and force a tonic (balanced budgets and more security spending) that dislocates the population.

The West is not keen to revise trade policies or to constrain the power of multinational mining firms. Mali, which is the third largest producer of gold in Africa (after South Africa and Ghana), is strangled by Canadian mining firms (such as Iamgold and Barrick Gold). The West does not see the refugee crisis as a symptom of a broken global economy. Not even to see that about half of Africa’s refugees and migrants move within the continent and not towards the West.

Along the Sahel, from Mauritania to Chad, the Europeans and the US have begun to build what amounts to a highly militarised border. Europe has moved its border from the northern edge of the Mediterranean Sea to the southern edge of the Sahara Desert—and it has, thereby, comprised the sovereignty of North Africa. France, by itself, has created the G5 Sahel Initiative that has yoked five African countries into a partnership that allows French military bases and troops to police this region. The US has built one of its largest military bases in Agadez, from where its special forces operate in the Sahel and from where it flies armed drones across the region. This is in addition to a US military base—largely unmentioned—in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) and others from Dire Dawa (Somalia) to N’Djamena (Chad).

The Europeans and the Americans say that this has to do with the War on Terror, that the enemies of freedom—al-Qaeda in the Maghreb—must be held in check or destroyed. But who are these terrorists? Amongst them are certainly hardened fighters, led by men experienced in the US-led jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, now freshly armed and given buoyancy by the destruction of Libya. These are men like Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelmalek Droukdel, eager to overthrow the government in Algeria by conducting sabotage operations against Algerian energy fields—such as in Amenas, Algeria in 2013. But the work of these groups is not militancy of a conventional sort. Al-Qaeda in this region is the pre-eminent smuggler of cigarettes as well as the main organiser of a protection racket for the smugglers (taking a tax of between 10% and 15% of the product). Most of their foot soldiers are motivated by smuggling rather than theology. It is as likely that the shootout near Tongo was between smugglers and the US troops than al-Qaeda and the American troops. The War on Terror is evoked each time a US soldier shoots a gun.

Neither an open border nor a closed border, nor a drone base nor a special operations force will end this flow of refugees into the dangerous desert. The root cause of the conflicts is the same as everywhere: environmental destruction and climate change and the vagaries of private appropriation by the few of the social wealth produced by the many, what we called capitalism. These causes produce war and desolation, drive the poor to blame other poor people on ethnic or religious lines for their grievances, push the world to war and fanaticism, which in turn allows mendacious states to use conflict as a reason to offer a military solution to every problem. A Central Intelligence Agency agent once told me in Afghanistan, if you have a hammer, why not use it. More is spent on military forces than on human security.

G5 Sahel Initiative

To prevent the migrants from reaching the Mediterranean, France asked five African countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) to join its G5 Sahel Initiative. The Sahel is the belt that runs across Africa below the Sahara Desert. The European Union has also contributed to this project. When the G5 Sahel force was created, I asked a Chadian official why the French had their base for this effort in Chad. He was circumspect. France had provided a great deal of money to this effort, which of course had been encouraged by Chad’s government. Counterterrorism funding comes with much less supplication than development funds. It is true that Boko Haram had entered Chad from Nigeria into the Lake Chad region. But the threat posed by Boko Haram to Chad was minimal compared to its threat in Nigeria. In 2017, Boko Haram conducted 120 attacks in Nigeria and only four attacks in Chad. Why were the French in Chad and not in Mali or Niger? Was terrorism the real reason for G5 Sahel force and for the new US escalation into the Sahel?

The Europeans want to move their southern border from the northern edge of the Mediterranean Sea to the southern rim of the Sahara Desert. French military bases run across the Sahel, as the US builds an enormous base in Agadez (Niger) from where it will fly drones to provide aerial support. The military has arrived in the Sahel to stop the flow of migrants.

Agadez, where the US military is spending $100 million to build its drone base, sits at the crossroads of our contemporary crises. Refugees come to it in desperation—their land made miserable by trade policies that discriminate against small farmers and by desertification caused by carbon capitalism. The problem of drought and the growing Sahara Desert had been clear as early as the United Nations Conference on Desertification, held in Nairobi in 1977, and then again in the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in 1994. The role of desertification in the conflict in Darfur (Sudan) has always been underplayed. To highlight it is to look carefully at the destruction of the planet’s climate by carbon capitalism. The role of desertification is central to the conflicts that have now come to define parts of the Sahel, as the Sahara Desert moves south.

As the Sahel yields less from agriculture, some sections of the population have moved towards forms of smuggling. Narco-trafficking is a major problem in the region, with South American cocaine mafias now in residence in parts of this region. In 2012, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime estimated that 30 tonnes of South American cocaine came across the Sahel to Europe. This earned the mafias about $1.2 billion in profit. As the US government has made it difficult for cocaine to enter the US from Central America, the cocaine mafia has moved its operations to this central belt of Africa. A leading politician in Niger—Cherif Ould Abidine—who died in 2016 was known as “Mr Cocaine.” Billions of dollars of cocaine now move through the Sahel into the Sahara and upwards to Europe. The pickup trucks that carry refugees and cocaine go past the town of Arlit, where French multinational corporations are harvesting uranium (Oxfam noted in 2013, “One of every three light bulbs in France is lit thanks to Nigerien uranium”). So here we have it: refugees, cocaine, uranium and a massive military enterprise.

* * *

Men from Gambia and from Mali wait outside a smugglers’ compound. The smuggler’s Toyota Hilux, the camel of this new trade, sits near the gate. The men are wearing sunglasses. This is their defence once they enter the desert. They are apprehensive. Their future—however grim—must be better than their present. These are gamblers. They are willing to take the chance. The engine fires up. They throw their modest belonging onto the truck. It is time for their azalai.


1 2018 Article IV Consultation and Eighth and Ninth Reviews under the Extended Credit
Facility Arrangement. Mali. IMF Country Report No 18/141, May 2018, p 27.


Touré, Amadou Toumani and Compaoré Blaise (2003): “Your Farm Subsides Are Strangling Us,” New York Times, 11 July.

Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research (2019): Ten Canadian Mining Companies: Financial Details and Violations, Briefing No 1,

Updated On : 31st May, 2019


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