YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – An African leader with Catholic Relief Services, the overseas development arm of the US bishops, has sounded an alarm about anti-immigrant rhetoric from the north African nation of Tunisia.

Tapfuma Murove, CRS country representative for Zimbabwe, was reacting to statements from Tunisian President Kais Saied, who’s claimed that flows of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are part of a plot to undermine his country’s Islamic identity.

“The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations,” Saied said during a late February address to his national security council.

Saied, who’s positioned himself as a social conservative, charged international complicity in a “criminal arrangement made since the beginning of this century to alter the demographic structure of Tunisia”.

He talked up the idea of “Tunisianness,” saying that there were original Tunisians whose purity must be preserved.

Murove, the CRS official from Zinmbabwe, said such claims are opposed to Pope Francis’s insistence that, “Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of personal development.”

In an interview with Crux, Murove said climate change, not anti-Islamic conspiracies, is a major driver of migration in Africa, and he called on the international community to “come together and make slowing climate change and mitigating its impacts a top priority. Only then will our sisters and brothers around the world be able to live safely and peacefully in their home communities.”

Following are excerpts of Crux’s interview with Murove.

Crux: When you heard the Tunisian President call for urgent measures to stop “hordes of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa,” whom, he said, bring “violence, crime and unacceptable practices,” what came to your mind?

Murove: The first thing that came to mind are the words of Pope Francis, ‘Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of personal development.’ The families that are migrating all throughout Africa – not just in Northern Africa, but all over the continent – are more often than not migrating against their wishes. They are leaving their homes, their communities, their friends and often extended family because they must, whether that is because of a political situation, drought, or a lack of economic opportunities.

Every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, even when those in power are encouraging the opposite.

Would you draw parallels between this kind of rhetoric and the Biden administration’s proposed restrictions on asylum-seeking migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, which would mandate that migrants first seek and be denied asylum in pass-through countries before seeking asylum in the United States?

As most people know, there has been a lot of harmful rhetoric around migrants in the U.S., especially in the last few years, so it is not surprising that many will draw a parallel between the two situations.

Catholic Relief Services is deeply concerned by the proposed asylum restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border because it puts migrants seeking asylum at a greater risk of violence. Just like in many parts of Africa, migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border are fleeing life-threatening situations and are often doing so as a last resort. People don’t want to leave behind everything they know, they want to stay in their home communities, but the circumstances are not allowing them to safely do that.

What is the reality of migration in Africa today?

Africa is a massive continent with nearly 1.5 billion people, so naturally there is going to be migration across different countries and regions. There are many reasons for why people make the decision to migrate, whether that is to escape conflict, to seek higher education, or to find a job. However, the main driver of migration in Africa right now is climate change.

In East Africa, we are seeing prolonged droughts. In Southern Africa, stronger and more frequent storms are causing intense flooding. In West Africa, sea level rise is causing coastal erosion in major cities. All of these things are pushing people to leave their homes and forcing them to move to safer places where the weather is more predictable.

Just as COVID-19 showed us, we are all interconnected. The effects of that disease rippled across the globe, and climate change is causing the exact same thing. The international community needs to come together and make slowing climate change and mitigating its impacts a top priority. Only then will our sisters and brothers around the world be able to live safely and peacefully in their home communities.

How do you think states can best deal with the problem of migration?

Governments everywhere can handle the topic of migration by addressing the root causes. There should be a focus on making sure that people feel like they have a future in their home community and country.

The most important things are ensuring that people have a good education and access to job training and jobs; that people are engaged with their community, and these towns and cities have development opportunities; and that farmers have access to quality and sustainable land.

Natural disasters are a huge push factor of migration, and climate change is making dry seasons longer, typhoons and cyclones stronger and more frequent, and causing rainy seasons to be unpredictable. Governments, international bodies, and humanitarian groups such as CRS need to make climate change a top priority in order to help people feel like they have options other than being forced to migrate.

CRS works in more than 110 countries and in many of them, we work closely with farmers and help them adapt to climate change using a number of techniques including seed rotation, proper usage of cover crops, and water-smart agriculture.