02 – On climate migration: an interview with David Yambio
David Yambio, activist, human rights defender and co-founder of Refugees in Libya stood in the shadow of the bell tower wearing a freshly pressed white shirt. It was midday, July 11th, and about 38 degrees. It was the second day of our second trip to Italy, and the second bad heatwave that summer. David had agreed to meet us after a couple of attempts through Telegram. With our focus on the societal consequences of the climate crisis, we were committed to bringing the narrative of climate change-induced migration into the project. Next to Greece, Italy receives the highest number of migrants in Europe, coming through the dangerous central Mediterranean route. The number of those fleeing natural devastation and climate change is rapidly increasing. However, in very few cases, such reasons are legally considered:
“There are very few decisions from the court in which climate change is mentioned as the reason for migration. Even if the judge acknowledges it, human trafficking is always a more important factor. Sometimes, they simply don’t get enough time to spend with those cases, so they settle for the easiest way. And mostly, the easiest way is to prove violence, conflict, and human rights violations. If you ask me how many asylum seekers I have worked with that have been significantly affected by climate change, I could say more or less everyone, in different ways. But how many decisions mention that clearly? Very few.” — Anna Brambilla
During our trip in July, we spoke with Veronica Dini and Anna Brambilla, two Italian lawyers involved in the field of environmental migration, committed to establishing a legal status for climate migrants. Last week, we continued our research on the Italian island Lampedusa, often portrayed as the European border in a perpetual state of emergency. In the first part of this story, we are sharing an interview with David, in which he recounts his personal experiences of forced conscription and leaving his home in South Sudan due to conflict and climate change.
Can you describe your experience of coming to Libya? The first time you moved you were only 13, and you were asked to join the military.
I cannot say I was asked; I was forcibly conscripted at the age of 12. I was born in a war-torn country. In 1997, Sudan was still under civil war — the South was fighting for its autonomy against the northern regime. My family had to flee to Congo when I was only two months old, and later to Central Africa. After spending a few years in exile, in 2005, there was a peace agreement that the South Sudanese regime signed with the rebels. It was a kind of ceasefire, and the people who fled to the neighbouring countries decided to return. My family and I were among those people, and so we returned, and I went to school. But the experience did not last, because in 2009, I was forcibly conscripted to fight in the army. This was very traumatizing for a 12-year-old child. My childhood ended abruptly as I was forced to carry out violent actions that I had no control over.
The second experience happened after Sudan had already been divided in 2011, with South Sudan gaining its independence. After that, one would have imagined that we would dream of rebuilding what we had lost, collecting resources for our country and our community, pursuing our dreams, educating ourselves, and improving our situation. However, it was only two years before another bloody civil war began. At that point, my government had become well-known for using child soldiers because once the war started, it lacked the capacity of a well-trained army to combat the rebels. It's important to note that we weren't fighting external enemies; we were fighting people within our community — our neighbours. Common people like me found themselves caught in the middle of this conflict. In 2013, I was just turning 16. I was once again subjected to forced conscription. I could describe it as a form of modern slavery because I was compelled to do things against my will. Even though my government claimed authority, it lacked the moral or natural right to enslave me and force me to fight against my will. I had to engage in inhumane actions, especially for a child under 18 and physically unfit for combat.
I lived with this experience until I left the country in 2015. I travelled to Uganda and other neighbouring countries. One aspect that nobody talks about is the impact of climate change in places like Uganda. Many people depend on farming for income and to provide for their families. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any opportunities there, and people were complaining that their crops were failing, making life even more challenging. This situation forced me to continue my journey through East and South African countries until I realized that I didn't fit into the societies of these countries. I returned home with the hope that things might be different this time. However, upon my return in late 2015, I found myself caught in the crossfire between rebels. I was beginning to understand there was no place for me in the country. If I were to build a family and have children, they would be born into a traumatising experience. I chose to be a refugee because I understood I was going to lose everything. The moment you choose to become a refugee, you do so at the cost of your dignity, at the cost of your dreams, at the cost of your existence in a society. The moment you leave home, you categorise as an outlaw, or you don’t exist at all. Few people make it through being silenced like that. When I first left for northern Sudan, I couldn’t find shelter because I’m not a Muslim. It wasn’t only because I was a Christian, but because I didn’t want to be identified by my religion. I wanted to be identified as a human being. I crossed to Chad, and eventually received international protection. But looking at the circumstances in Chad today, we see that Chad has been hosting millions of refugees while being one of the poorest countries in central Africa. It has been hosting refugees since 2001, since the genocide in Darfur. There was a war between the Seleka and the Anti-Balaka. It started in 2013, forcing thousands of people to come to Chad. When you look to the west, you see Boko Haram, the Nigerian society constantly living under the siege of war. All of them came to Chad. In Cameron, too, a war was starting between the Francophone and the Anglophone-speaking population at about the time I arrived in Chad. These wars have gone on for several years and those seeking shelter came to Chad and Niger, countries deserted by poverty. Climate change has not been a topic widely spoken of, but in reality, Niger is facing a huge, huge climate change. You’d see people coming to Chad despite the miserable living conditions. They came in the hope of being able to provide for themselves and their families. As a young man of 18, I wanted a quality education. I wanted to sleep in a good house. I didn’t want to be pushed away from the society as a rebel and a refugee. You know that at the time you are given this title, you are supposed to stay away from society. You are supposed to be limited, not have equal services given to the citizens. This is something I experienced time after time. All I wanted was to be an independent young man, to be able to move without restriction.
Throughout the years, I moved through West African and Central African countries, looking for chances where I could educate myself and accumulate some sort of income to be independent. But I never succeeded, because when I travelled to Nigeria, I saw climate change. I saw that people had been deserted. When I looked at the oil production in the Delta state, I saw that crops were not able to yield. I wanted to cultivate the land, I wanted to do something with the people and live a life. This was not possible. I went all the way to Ghana, to Senegal. I never found a space. I was in Morocco, trying to reach Spain. It was also not possible. I still remember the way from Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Mali. I can tell you what it means to be in the no man's land, as they call it. There is no life. The desert is something deadly. Crops don’t grow. There is no shade to hide from the scorching sun. And it's these experiences that make it difficult to imagine that to this day, the climate crisis is a topic not spoken of.
Eventually, I arrived in Libya. I didn’t come willingly. This step started another dream, another sort of nightmare. But I'm glad that I lived through it and I'm able to tell what I experienced.
You once said that when people arrive in Italy, the first question in the interview should be, "What are your dreams?" But you also mentioned that when we talk about refugees, we talk about numbers and not human beings. How, from your perspective, could we break with this? What kind of transition is needed to make this switch? Last week (June 14, 2023), a ship carrying about 600 people sank in Greece, and everybody knew about it. The number is certainly shocking for the majority, but it doesn’t seem to have a real political impact.
When people talk about refugees, they are missing the fact that we are persons with dreams. I am a person in my twenties with a dream of becoming an entrepreneur, with a dream of becoming a teacher, with a dream of becoming a doctor. And this is something that people need to understand because we are individuals. We have a face, we have a story, we have a life that matters. We have our view of the world, and we want to contribute to a beautiful world. Because the moment you leave your country, you are a person not willing to fight, not willing to kill another man to live a life. And when you leave your place, you are already contributing to a peaceful society because you want to become a living testimony to the horrible experiences you had lived through. I know of a few refugees who made it to high-level positions in different societies. Of course, a larger number of refugees have also been silenced, and reduced to numbers. Nobody trusts they can do something concrete in a society. Of course, it's also important to understand that not everybody should have a dream. Some dreams are just so simple — of living a life in a society where you are not being questioned about your origin, your education, or your wealth. Some people have these simple dreams of just being humans in their society. The moment we look at this perspective, we will understand that it is not good and it is not humane to refer to refugees as numbers. We need to refer to them as individuals, as people who could be a father, a mother, a daughter or a sister to you. They could be the people sitting and dining with you, playing football with you, going to school, going swimming together, having an education, discussing life, philosophy, whatever it is. The moment people can understand this, they will understand that I am more than just a refugee.
We have been working with a lawyer who is trying to establish some pilot legal cases of people who fled to Italy because of climate change. She’s working toward a clearer distinction of climate migrants. Why do you think this is important to also legally recognise the different reasons behind people’s decision to risk their lives in the Mediterranean?
I think we cannot refer to refugees as an overall group. We have to be specific. For example, I was in Chad, and what pushed me to Libya was climate change. I was in Yemen, and then out of nowhere, for two years, we were not able to grow anything. The extreme climate was something that pushed me to the far north between the border of Libya, Chad and Niger, looking for a place to grow something. When you look at Libya, it mostly depends on outside projects because the country is practically a desert, and badly affected by climate change, which is something nobody talks about. What has changed is that there is no more water. It just doesn't come out anymore, which forces people to migrate even within Libya. I think we should be very specific on the things that don't catch the spotlight because the common narrative is that the refugees are coming only because of war, refugees are coming because of conflict. But I can tell you of a group of people that I once represented. These are the people coming from the Nuba mountains in Sudan, fleeing from climate change. They had been planting crops for several years, but they don’t grow anymore. Climate change is a reality for them, and nobody sees it. They say that refugees from Sudan are just refugees. Nobody talks about climate change.
When you say that many people are coming to Europe with dreams and hopes, simply wanting to be part of a society — how do you experience the news such as that the European Union, also Giorgia Meloni, are giving a lot of money to the Libyan government to keep people from coming?
I can't remember how often I have been asked this question. And even if I am not asked, I ask myself every day. What does it mean to be told these things? What does it mean for people in desperate conditions to receive this message? We, the people on the move, are the ones who pay the price — we are being used as an instrument. They are politicising us. For example, the import of oil and gas from Libya. Meloni and Prime Minister Antonio Tajani travelled to the North African countries, namely Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. In Libya, they ended up striking deals worth millions of euros. But no one mentioned the issue of migration. They were not able to even pay a visit to the prison camps where people are continuously tortured — the very camps they have been financing. It means we are just the scapegoat and they are using us to engage in their political exchange. We want all these European countries making the decisions to advocate for peace in our countries. But what you see instead is all kinds of business actors importing arms into our countries. How come you find Kalashnikovs and all sorts of bullets in Sudan, if we don’t even have the capacity to produce them? If a country like mine is not even able to sustain its agricultural production to feed the population, how would it produce such an amount of arms that we are using to kill ourselves? This is something we have been asking ourselves as individuals, as refugees. Of course, I would mention again that when we are called refugees, it doesn't limit us from questioning the things happening in our society. It does not limit us from engaging in politics to understand how we can make it better for the people in our society. We don't look away from these things. We question it and we identify clearly who are the actors that are denying our existence and trying to constantly put us on our knees and to use these policies that are not transparent to kill us.
The history of migration to Europe is not being taught in classrooms — at least not yet. Historically, migrations happened all the time and will continue to happen. How do you bring your narrative to the young people, the generation soon to become politically active?
We look at migration as something that has always happened, but also try to understand under which circumstances somebody is being called a migrant. We call it forced migration when we are forced out of our spaces. And at the same time, when we talk about climate change, we have these pull factors — the reasons that are pulling us to migrate. If in Europe, you can have access to 1 out of 3 things that you are lacking in your society, then Europe is already pulling you. But we also try to see where are the limitations and why they apply to only a small group of people. Why does a group of people not receive the same human rights and equality? We also try to question the issues of racism. Is it because of my African background or somebody’s Middle Eastern background, or is it because of religious differences? So we are trying to bring all these narratives together and also listen to the people whom we want to share this information with. We want a debate and an active engagement with our audience. And of course, in a debate, you must be ready to lose. Once we realise we are talking about forced migration, we should find an adequate and fair way to deal with it without calling it a migration crisis or something that has to be dealt with through third parties. We are trying to focus on these narratives and make sure that people understand them. And it's only when they understand that they will have the freedom to choose what way to go.
When people cross the Mediterranean to come to Europe, they experience violence on all levels. Not only physical but also ideological violence. How can we deal with and talk about this violence to get to the part where people are coming with a certain dream?
I think that no matter how much we try to avoid the topic of violence, we will always find it at the centre because there are people who are living it on their bodies and they don't want to hide it. They want to speak about it. As you say, there is physical violence, but there is also psychological violence. For example, when you go through all the trauma of leaving your country due to conflicts or climate change, only to come to Europe and be told you are not welcome. For example, this English prime minister (Rishi Sunak) — a few days ago, he posted a video in which he says: ‘If you come here, you will be detained. If you come here, you will be imprisoned, and you will not be accepted.” I think this is already an example of violence coming from a state official. This is a violent message to send to a population that is traumatised and is looking for a space of recognition. Of course, we understand that it's something that will not stop them because from where they stand, a word cannot determine their life. This is a type of violence that we cannot escape. So when talking about the possible narratives, we need to bring such examples into reality, into the mindset of these young people. Even if it is something they do not immediately experience, they have to use their senses and power of imagination to understand what it means to be restricted, hindered, and silenced in all forms. How far will they go? We have to start questioning who is behind these exploitative systems. How can they continue to exist? The moment we have understood this, we will be able to break through it together.
01 — Knees in the water
The day began with a car crash, for which I was to blame. The incident occurred while discussing the usual morning grievances. It marked my first-ever car crash, and it was rather uneventful. It happened during the morning rush hour in a roundabout — a good test of one's intuitive driving instincts. I noticed the car in front of me too late and bumped into its back. Embarrassed, I stepped out of the car and offered my apologies to the two Italians, acknowledging that the fault was undeniably mine. Surprisingly, our golf didn't show any signs of damage, while the vehicle in front had suffered a small crack. The father and son quickly estimated the damage at 50€ and proposed a PayPal transfer. The simple agreement couldn’t have been more different from the bureaucratic ordeal such an incident would have caused in car-loving Germany, where the old golf was still registered.
We parked along the main road, which was still dry. Little waves were forming on its side, looking toward the town. Another car drove by, lowering the window after noticing we had camera equipment: ‘Giornalisti? Go to the casa rosa!’ the woman shouted, pointing her arm toward a line of houses nearby. “Casa rosa!’ she repeated and drove away before we could ask for precise directions. We rolled up our trousers and set out for the town. My hiking shoes, a lightweight summer model with openings that allowed water to seep in, were already soaked in mud, and I didn’t mind the ankle-deep water splashing around too much. Soon, though, the water got deeper, now reaching all the way to our knees. The town seemed to have been deserted. It was already ten days after the first heavy rainfall, and only a few brown lines had formed on the walls of the houses. Other than that, the water wasn’t going anywhere. Its smooth surface threw reflections all over the street, creating a light with almost no shadows. After a while, we saw an old man sitting on his porch with a large labrador stretched at his feet. His pants were rolled up, too, feet resting on blue Speedo flip-flops. Through a big gate, we could see the garden — a fruit orchard, peach and plum tree tops sticking out of the water. Among them glimmered a white marble Venus. The man raised his hand in a greeting but remained seated. We waded toward the gate. ‘Hi,’ I said in Google-translated Italian, ‘could we take a photo of your garden?’ Slowly, he stood up and opened the gate. There were lots of gates and fences like his in Conselice, I thought. While I grew up with the conviction that one’s garden should be private, ideally surrounded by an ornamentally cut hedge, this was something I was no longer used to. Dutch gardens are not typically designed to be very private and enclosed. With the first rays of sunshine every spring, my neighbours usually placed entire sofas out on the street — the public side of the house, and sat there for hours with a glass of wine.
“Maya, Maya, come here, now!’ The man shouted. The labrador was almost entirely submerged in the brown water but determined to follow us around the orchard as we took the photos. Another man showed up, entering through a smaller gate at the back of the garden: “Maya, what the hell are you doing? Go back to the house.’ He was holding a set of keys in his left hand and a tall wooden stick — not exactly the usual size of a walking stick — in his right. He waved to his friend on the porch, muttered a quiet buongiorno to us and gestured towards his house, which we thought must have been the casa rosa the car woman was referring to earlier. Having met almost no other people in the village, we were happy to be invited in.
Crossing the street in the waist-deep water wasn’t an easy exercise while carrying the camera equipment, cables wrapped all over us. I couldn't help but think of a story a Dutch friend once told me. He recounted how in the 1990s, his kids would come home and climb the steep stairs to their apartment, leaving an imprint of wet dog shit from the streets on each step with a distinct "flatsch." Walking in the contaminated water, each step sinking deep into a layer of soft mud felt somewhat similar.
The man’s hands were shaking as he unlocked the door. A mouldy smell filled the air as soon as he opened it. Everything in Emilia Romagna smelled like mud by then, but it was even worse in closed spaces. We entered a spacious living room in the middle of which stood a tower of white leather sofas. The water was noticeably colder than out in the streets. Walking around the stacked furniture, we continued through the kitchen. It was rather unsettling seeing a stove almost half underwater. Above it hung a line of three children’s drawings. Curled from the moisture, they were decorated with large inscriptions: ti voglio bene Nonna, ti voglio bene Nonno, and per i Nonni. Through the kitchen door, one could see into the bedroom, where the bed had been slightly lifted from the ground as if floating on the flood water. Its legs were supported by a bunch of plastic crates and barely touched the water. Mattress removed, its wooden skeleton was covered with pots and cooking utensils. Among them laid a few sets of Christmas lights and a statue of the Virgin Mary in a seashell. ‘I mean, you could have taken this in a studio. It’s so conceptual.’ a curator once said during a portfolio review. The thought of it still makes me furious. This wasn’t the last time someone asked us whether we had staged the flooded scenes, though. There is indeed something theatrical about entering a house, all its belongings balanced in towers of unrelated items reaching all the way to the ceiling. Tables became lifesaving platforms for couches and bookshelves; on top came the chairs, and here and there stood a lonely object like a moka pot, a vase, a bottle of wine and a framed photograph.
Having finished with the photos, we asked the man whether he could use some help carrying boxes. While we worked, he had moved a dozen shoeboxes from the garage to the staircase. Judging from his expression, he most certainly didn’t want help. Disappearing into the garage again, he returned with a dusty bottle of wine. “For you’ he insisted, even after we refused to accept it. I Google translated another short message: “Thank you for letting us into your house. We wish you strength while dealing with the repairs. We hope your children will be there for you.’ He put on his glasses and looked at the message. He broke down in tears and then looked away as we parted.
In July, the waters had drained amid two bad heatwaves, and the town was accessible again. We drove past the house slowly. A young man stood in the yard with his wife and children. He looked at us suspiciously as we smiled and raised our hands in a greeting.