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Migration in the West African Sahel - more than a response to climate change



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ISOE Policy Brief No. 2/2015
Mobility in the West African Sahel is multi-faceted.
Population movements are hard to steer but can be
indirectly regulated. Coherent political strategies
should consider different levels of institutional regu-
lation (from local to international) and the interplay
between different policy domains (e.g., migration,
agriculture, environmental protection). Forward-
looking policies are vital in paving the way for better
legislation and institutions and for avoiding any in-
crease in dynamics that entail adverse social risks.
Seeking to hamper migration is neither an appro -
priate nor a conducive political goal. In the West
African Sahel, migration is deeply rooted in history
and culture. It is part of people’s everyday life and
livelihood strategies, and the majority of people
move voluntarily.
Integrated policies should strengthen the benefits
of migration for sustainable development. Social
networks and translocal relationships between
migrants and their home community can favour the
transfer of remittances, knowledge and skills, and
migrants’ investments in the regions of origin. With
regard to international migration, the EU can play a
pioneering role in the handling of migration by devis-
ing a coherent policy that includes new legal and
safe ways to enter Europe.
In the West African Sahel, migration is predomi-
nantly regional, and most people move from rural to
urban areas within the same country. Development
strategies must therefore consider linkages between
rural and urban development. For example, policy re-
sponses should combine infrastructure development
with the promotion of sustainable land and water
resources management which includes preventing
land degradation and biodiversity loss. In rural areas,
policies must recognise the specific needs of small-
scale farmers, both in arable farming and livestock
breeding, e.g., by providing insurances for the com-
pensation of crop loss and access to fertile land.
Investments in sustainable agriculture are needed,
but also stimuli for employment and job creation in
other economic sectors.
Education is a critical factor for migration and poli-
cies must recognize the right of the young generation
for better opportunities and chances. Considerable
effort is needed to promote and improve formal and
higher education. Investments in education are of
paramount importance for reducing vulnerability
not only to climatic but also to social and economic
Findings and recommendations
Debates about climate-induced migratory movements and their possible links to instability
and conflict – along with the discussion on migration flows across the Mediterranean Sea fre-
quently highlight the West African Sahel as a region of concern. However, findings from re-
cent empirical research on Sahelian regions in Mali and Senegal suggest no evidence for in-
creasing population movements towards Europe as a direct result of environmental stress and
climate change. It is the patterns of migration that are changing and not so much the volume.
A closer look at the social-ecological conditions of migration in the Sahel allows for an alter-
native characterization of the problem dynamics. It reveals a rich and comprehensive picture
of mobility and the importance of climate and environment in this respect, and identifies
starting points for policy options.
Migration in the West African Sahel –
more than a response to climate change
ISOE Policy Brief No. 2/2015: Migration in the West African Sahel – more than a response to climate change 2
Evidence shows that changing and unsteady envi-
ronmental conditions lead to changing migration
patterns in the Sahel region. However, environ-
mental stress is not usually the major factor that
causes people to move. Moreover, climate change
on its own does not directly trigger population
movements; it does, however, produce environ-
mental effects and can exacerbate existing vul-
nerabilities. The West African Sahel is one of the
regions most affected by climate change. Semi-
arid areas such as Linguère in Senegal and Bandi-
agara in Mali (see Fig. 1) have always suffered
from periods of drought and, in part, from land
degradation. Climatic changes and human activi-
ties have contributed to massive changes in the
flora, fauna and soils. Effects of climate change
such as higher temperatures and extremely vari-
able rainfall have contributed to a decreasing di-
versity of woody species and have favoured an
increase in more robust and more drought-resis-
tant species. Some areas register a spread of land
degradation resulting from overgrazing, expan-
sion of agricultural areas and deforestation. Mi-
gration can be one possible societal response to
natural hazards. However, whether it constitutes
an adaptation strategy to mitigate the risks of cli-
mate variability and uncertain agricultural pro-
duction, a livelihood diversification strategy, or
just the search for a better life depends on the
specific social-ecological conditions in each case;
these conditions influence the different actions
and strategies followed by individuals, groups and
societies to deal with changes of their natural en-
Migration in response to natural hazards
Figure 1: Location of study areas Linguère in Senegal and Bandiagra in Mali (red rectangles). Cartography: Lukas Drees
Figure 2: Most important income
sources of survey participants.
Source: micle survey 2012
(n = 847, excluding students and
inactive respondents)
0 10 20 30 40 50 60
Livestock breeding
Unskilled labour
Domestic work
ISOE Policy Brief No. 2/2015: Migration in the West African Sahel – more than a response to climate change 3
Agriculture is the most important economic activ-
ity and source of income in the rural areas. The
majority of villagers and their families are en-
gaged in subsistence and small-scale farming or
livestock breeding. The education level in Bandia-
gara and Linguère is fairly low, with a high per-
centage of individuals having no formal educa-
tion at all. The lower the education level in rural
areas, the more likely it is that agriculture will be
the main source of income. Households that are
highly dependent on agriculture are particularly
vulnerable to rainfall variability and ecosystem
degradation. Insufficient precipitation can directly
compromise the income basis of rural households,
because it affects agricultural production, crop
yields and returns. Under these conditions, migra-
tion can be an adaptation strategy for reducing
the risks of uncertain agricultural returns.
Migration decisions are particularly influenced
by climatic changes and land degradation under
the following conditions:
When people are highly dependent on agricul-
ture and thus on local agro-ecological condi-
tions and rainfall patterns
When opportunities for income diversification
and non-farm activities are rare
If access to social capital and financial capital
(e.g., education or credits) is low
And yet migration is only one of several ways to
minimise risks and compensate for climate vari-
ability. In Bandiagara and Linguère, people adopt
different strategies to cope with the negative ef-
fects of environmental changes such as crop fail-
ures: they might sell cattle, carbon or wild fruits,
take up credits, or practice mutual aid among
Migration as a means of risk reduction
Motives behind the decision to migrate are mani-
fold. They overlap and can change during an in-
dividual’s biography. The objectives behind mi-
gration, such as education, family visits and cu-
riosity, reflect specific socio-cultural characteris-
tics of migration in West Africa. Economic factors
represent the main reasons for moving. Employ-
ment, food security and sustenance are amongst
the most important incentives for migration and
stand in close relation to environ-mental condi-
tions in rural agricultural societies. Shifting rain-
fall patterns and insufficient yields often lead
people to migrate during the dry season. However,
the phenomenon cannot be understood merely as
an immediate response to climatic conditions,
since people also move in times of favourable
rainfall patterns and successful harvests. This in-
dicates that there is no single reason behind the
decision to migrate. Moreover, motives for migra-
tion depend on gender, age, ethnic affiliation and
education level. Data derived from in-depth inter-
views, participant observation and a standardised
survey with more than 900 individuals in Mali
and Senegal confirm the important cultural role
of migration: the great majority have personal ex-
perience of migration and regard it as something
positive. Migration within the countries is preva-
lent, particularly in larger urban areas, while in-
ternational migration to Europe is rare. Temporary
movements, and circular and seasonal migration
are the most dominant temporal migration pat-
terns. Social relations and migrant networks are
important factors for decision-making and the
choice of destination.
Motives for migration are versatile
ISOE Policy Brief No. 2/2015: Migration in the West African Sahel – more than a response to climate change 4
Figure 3: Motives for migration
(multiple answers possible).
Source: micle survey 2012
(Senegal n=388; Mali n=398)
0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80
Search for money/ job
Food security
Family reasons
Education/ vocational training
Buying clothes/dowry
Curiosity/ adventure
People’s mobility in Mali and Senegal in the con-
text of social-ecological transformations depends
on different international, regional and national
policies in the areas of migration, development
and environment. Starting points for political
strategies and regulation require a multi-level
At the international level, West African coun-
tries such as Senegal and Mali seek to embed
migration in development strategies, and have
intensified their efforts to cooperate interna-
tionally, mainly with the European Union and
several European countries. For example, ‘mo-
bility partnerships’ involve the granting of in-
creased access to the EU labour market in ex-
change for cooperation on irregular migration.
However, European migration policy is contra-
dictory and fragmented: restrictive and control-
oriented policies aimed at curtailing immigra-
tion to Europe still prevail. Preventive measures
in bi-lateral programmes between Mali and
Senegal and France, Spain and Italy seek to
combat the root causes of migration such as
poverty via policies of ‘co-development’. By
concentrating on employment, investments and
infrastructure, they can use the positive poten-
tial of migration.
At the regional level, different (sub-)regional
initiatives, treaties and regulations are signifi-
cant for the regulation of migration in the West
African Region. The ECOWAS (Economic Com-
munity of West African States) Common Ap-
proach on Migration (similar to Europe) is
among the most advanced examples of free
movement of people. ECOWAS citizens are enti-
tled to enter freely, reside and settle in member
states. Notwithstanding obstacles to implemen-
tation, Malian migrants from Bandiagara, for
example, are formally entitled to move to Ivory
Coast for labour purposes.
At the national level, Poverty Reduction Strategy
Papers (PRSPs) are one key instrument for draw-
ing up national development policy. These mid-
term political strategies refer to different policy
fields relevant for the environment/migration
nexus, such as education policy, the health sec-
tor, rural development policies, and environ-
ment. The Malian and Senegalese PRSPs in par-
ticular mention positive elements of migration
in terms of development and poverty reduction.
Furthermore, they propose rural development
initiatives to address internal migration by bet-
ter integrating young people into social life and
developing the skills required for job-seeking.
Relevant policies – multilevel governance is required
The research project micle
The transdisciplinary research project “Migration, cli-
mate change and environment” (micle) investigated the
relationship between climate change, land degradation
and migration in selected areas of the West African
Sahel. It was funded by the German Federal Ministry of
Education and Research (BMBF) and conducted by the
Institute for Social-Ecological Research in cooperation
with the Institute for Geography at Bayreuth University.
ISOE is one of the leading non-university institutes for sus-
tainability research. For 25 years, the institute has been de-
veloping the scientific foundation for decision making, as
well as future-orientated concepts for policy makers, civil
society and economy on a regional, national, and interna-
tional level. Among the research foci are water, energy, cli-
mate protection, mobility and urban spaces, as well as bio-
diversity and people.
ISOE Policy Briefs are published by ISOE several times a
year to highlight new and practical approaches to sustain-
able development professionals.
The Policy Briefs are available online free of charge at
Editing: Nicola Schuldt-Baumgart
Design & Layout: Harry Kleespies
Photo credits: © V. van der Land
Comments and questions are welcome. Please contact us at:
ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research
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ISSN: 2365-1148
ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research
ISOE Policy Brief No. 2/2015: Migration in the West African Sahel – more than a response to climate change 5
Hummel, Diana (2015): Climate change, land degradation and
migration in Mali and Senegal – some policy implications.
Migration and Development.
van der Land, Victoria/Diana Hummel (2013): Vulnerability and
the role of education in environmentally induced migration in
Mali and Senegal. Ecology and Society 18(4): 14.
Hummel, Diana/Martin Doevenspeck/Cyrus Samimi (eds.)
(2012): Climate Change, Environment and Migration in the
Sahel. Selected Issues with a Focus on Senegal and Mali.
Micle Working Paper No.1. Frankfurt/Main
Hummel, Diana/Stefan Liehr (2015): Migration in the West
African Sahel – more than a response to climate change. ISOE
Policy Brief No. 2/2015. ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Re-
search (ed.). Frankfurt/Main, Germany
Mobility, Mali, Senegal, land degradation, social-ecological con-
ditions, policy, multi-level governance
... Its negative impacts are particularly visible and crucial in developing countries such as the West African countries, where unplanned land use change obstructs sustainable management efforts Buhaug & Urdal, 2013). Some of the current migration from Africa to Europe and across the world could be better managed by a comprehensive development of urban areas, particularly in the poor countries in West Africa ESPON, 2015;Hummel & Liehr, 2015). ...
... The search for income and employment was mentioned most frequently as motive, but these results are highly gendered. The background of these motives, according to the project, is the agricultural crisis that Mali and Senegal suffered from in the 1970s and 1980s, and which is compounded by government disengagement from rural areas (MI-CLE 2014, Hummel and Liehr 2015, Hummel 2016, Liehr et al. 2016; for Senegal, see also Bleibaum 2010). In a modelling approach developed within the MICLE project by Drees and Liehr (2015) -applying Bayesian belief networks within a multi-level socio-ecological systems framework -socio-economic conditions showed to be more important for migration decisions than environmental conditions. ...
Full-text available
This working paper gives an overview over literature on emigration from the West Sahel, with a selective focus on resource-dependent livelihoods and how they are connected to outmigration from the Sahel, especially regarding Senegal and Niger. To complete the picture, we also cover some studies on urban population groups and regions beyond the Sahel, although mostly restricted to Africa.
... Moreover, there are the inconsistencies within the migration policy of the European Union and bilateral migration policies between European countries and ECOWAS members such as Mali and Senegal" (Hummel 2016: 229). Hummel (2015) stresses that many people, especially the young and better educated, do not wish to continue farming. Policies enhancing livelihoods in agriculture will thus not reduce migration, suggesting once more that development might in general increase migration, not reduce it. ...
Full-text available
This working paper untangles scholarly, media, and policy-related perspectives on migration with special regard to the West African Sahel and a specific focus on the nexus between local government and emigration, and on resource-dependent rural populations. A brief overview of media narratives constructing West African migration complements the discussion of the local government-emigration nexus and its entanglements with questions of (rural) development. We conclude that this nexus appears to be severely under-researched to date, but of potential relevance to better understand emigration of rural population groups. We propose framing the analysis of local government within governing coalitions characterized as multi-level and translocal.
... Its negative impacts are particularly visible and crucial in developing countries such as the West African countries, where unplanned land use change obstructs sustainable management efforts (Anderson, Okereke, Rudd, & Parnell, 2013;Buhaug & Urdal, 2013). Some of the current migration from Africa to Europe and across the world could be better managed by a comprehensive development of urban areas, particularly in the poor countries in West Africa (Bakewell, 2008;ESPON, 2015;Hummel & Liehr, 2015). ...
Full-text available
Population growth, economic development, and rural migration to urban areas have caused rapid expansion of urban centres in Ghana. One reason is that spatial planning and in particular urban planning face different social, economic and political challenges which hinder a structured and planned urban development, therefore causing urban sprawl. We hypothesise that different peri-urban patterns are driven by geographical, historical, cultural and economic discrepancies between southern and northern Ghana, and reflect the effectiveness of land use planning instruments. We tested our hypothesis by comparing patterns of urban development in two case study regions: Takoradi in southern Ghana and Bolgatanga in northern Ghana, representing an economically vibrant and a non-vibrant region, respectively. This paper provides new insights for the study sites based on a mixed-method approach. We applied an interdisciplinary approach combining expert interviews, a literature review, and a bi-temporal change analysis based on remote sensing/geo-information systems. We assigned confidence levels of the findings from the respective methods based on their plausibility and sensitivity. Expert opinion indicated that land use planning fails due to the lack of implementation of legal regulations, to the customary land tenure and lack of participation of local citizens in the planning process. The remote sensing analysis revealed that urban development was stronger in Takoradi (7.1% increase between 2007 and 2013) than in Bolgatanga (1.1% increase between 2007 and 2013). Urban development patterns differ with a dominance of small-scale scattered settlement units (SUs) in Bolgatanga and a mixture of small- and large-scale SUs in Takoradi. Besides population growth, markets and industry are identified as major drivers of urban development in the Takoradi area (large SUs) and customary land tenure in the Bolgatanga area (small SUs).
Social Ecology is an emerging scientific field within sustainability science investigating the relationships between society and nature. It is based on the core concept of societal relations to nature. Essential characteristics are: (1) Problem-orientation: The starting point of research is concrete, societal problems with regard to ecological crisis phenomena such as climate change, waste management or protection of biodiversity. (2) Inter- and transdisciplinarity: Research combines academic disciplines with knowledge, values and interests of societal actors. The central aim is achieving learning processes between science and society. (3) Interrelation of theory and empirical research: The concept of societal relations to nature is the theoretical framework, which guides empirical studies. The empirical results in turn contribute to the further development of theories and concepts. (4) System approach: Given the complex interactions between natural and societal processes and structures at different temporal, spatial and social scales, the approach of social-ecological systems is applied. (5) Critical science: Contributing to social-ecological transformations, Social Ecology deals with ignorance, uncertainty and disputed knowledge. Social Ecology critically reflects on the role of researchers and on the limits of scientific knowledge production. Applying Social Ecology this chapter examines three challenges of urban areas in the Global South: rural–urban migration, urban agriculture and green infrastructure.
In the West African Sahel, the majority of the population depends on subsistence farming and livestock breeding and is thus particularly vulnerable to climatic changes. One possible response to natural hazards is migration. Recent research suggests that environmentally induced mobility is closely linked to the social vulnerability and adaptive capacity of individuals and groups. However, only little attention has been paid thus far to the role of formal education in this context. Our objective was to fill this gap by examining the role of formal education in environmentally induced migration as one characteristic of social vulnerability to environmental change. Our analysis focuses on two regions in the West African Sahel, Bandiagara in Mali and Linguere in Senegal, that are presumed to be particularly affected by climate change and environmental degradation. Our results reveal that formal education plays an important role in reducing vulnerability to environmental stress because people with a higher level of education are usually less dependent on environmentally sensitive economic activities such as farming. Moreover, an agricultural economic activity can be an obstacle to a high level of formal education. We found no significant effect of people's education on the migration experience as such. However, motives for migration differ considerably depending on the amount of education received, suggesting that migration constitutes a livelihood strategy, particularly for the lower educated.
Interactions between climate change, environmental degradation and population movements in the West African Sahel have received a great deal of scholarly attention in recent years. Since the majority of the population living in Sahelian countries depend on subsistence and small-scale farming, climate changes such as increasing temperatures and declining rainfall pose considerable risks to their livelihoods. Migration is one possible response to changing ecosystems. This paper examines the interactions between climate change, land degradation and migratory processes in rural areas of the West African Sahel. The analysis is based on empirical research conducted in Bandiagara, Mali, and Linguère, Senegal, using an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approach. From a theoretical perspective, the nexus of climate, environment and migration is conceptualised as a social-ecological system. Against this background, the paper addresses empirical findings on the motives for migration, the mobility patterns and the issue of migration as a strategy to adapt to climate change. The paper further discusses relevant institutions and policy frameworks that impact the livelihoods and mobility of people in the study regions.
Migration in the West African Sahel – more than a response to climate change References Hummel, Diana (2015): Climate change, land degradation and migration in Mali and Senegal – some policy implications. Migration and Development
ISOE Policy Brief No. 2 /2015: Migration in the West African Sahel – more than a response to climate change References Hummel, Diana (2015): Climate change, land degradation and migration in Mali and Senegal – some policy implications. Migration and Development.