Nigeria + 6 more

Pushed To The Brink? The impact of COVID-19 on environmental migration in the Sahel (January 2021)

Originally published
View original


The Sahel region has been decribed as a hotspot for human-made climate change,1 facing both slow-onset temperature warming and a rise in sudden, extreme weather shocks, such as floodings and droughts.2 Migration has long been a hallmark of Sahelian populations, with people migrating to mitigate the impacts of environmental degradation caused, among others, by the impact of climate change, and diversify access to livelihoods sources which remain predominanlty based on agricultural activities and natural resources.3 The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 emerged in the region in March 2020.4 Governments were prompt to take action, imposing movement restrictions, closing international borders and implementing localised lockdowns, all in view of limiting the spread of the virus. However, with the spread of the virus, long-held seasonal migration patterns were limited, putting on hold an important source of supplementary revenue for millions of Sahelians across the region. This report aims to gauge the impact of these restrictions on environmental migrants' 5 lives in the immediate, mid- and longer term.

The present study, conducted by REACH, in partnership with the Start Network as part of its Migration Emergency Response Fund (MERF), aims to increase understanding of the interlinkages between migration, climate change and COVID-19 in the Sahel, with the aim to improve Start Network member agencies' and the donor community's abilty to respond to this crisis. The study's findings draw on an extensive secondary data review, the knowledge of migration experts, humanitarian and development practitioners in the region. Most importantly, the findings draw on 135 individual in-person interviews with migrants engaged in seasonal migration patterns in the region, conducted in Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Niger, with Burkinabé, Nigerian and Nigerien migrants and non-migrants.

The research questions the reports aims to answer are as follows:

  1. How are migration, climate change and COVID-19 in the Sahel linked?

  2. How does the emergence of COVID-19 in the region impact in the short-term (March - September 2020) (a) the livelihoods and overall situation of environmental migrants in the destination and families back home? And (b) mobility patterns?

  3. What is the expected impact of COVID-19 in the mid-term (October 2020 -- October 2021) and longer term (after October 2021) on (a) the livelihoods and overall situation of environmental migrants in the destination and families back home and (b) mobility patterns?

  4. What are the findings' implications for humanitarian programming and policy making?

To compare impacts on different types of migration patterns, three different population groups were included in the study: 1) internal rural-to-urban migrants in Niger, 2) the cross-border rural-to-urban migration of Nigerians to Niger, and cross-border rural-to-rural migration from Burkina Faso to Côte d'Ivoire. The study was conducted between September and December 2020, with primary data collection taking place in November 2020.

Key Findings

Overall, the study finds that already prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 seasonal environmental migrants' livelihoods were based on a fine balance between ever increasing unpredictable harvest yields and seasonal migration patterns to complement otherwise insufficient agricultural outputs. Already before the virus outbreak, seasonal migration patterns were more akin to distress migration -- migration done out of necessity to meet the most basic needs -- as opposed to supplementing livelihoods at origin. COVID-19, and associated movement restrictions, has tipped this fine balance over. The disruption of migration patterns has had an immediate impact on environmental migrants' lives, which will continue to permeate their lives in the mid- and, possibly, longer term.

In the short-term:

Impact on mobility patterns

  1. Both internal and cross-border seasonal migration patterns were impacted in the short-term, with travel taking longer, while being more expensive, or delayed, compared to respondents’ plans.

  2. With the official closure of borders between Sahelian countries, cross-border migration has not stopped. It has, however, become more expensive, with less transport available and a rise in the use of irregular routes. Impact on livelihoods

  3. COVID-19 has had an immediate impact on seasonal migrants’ livelihoods in areas of origin and destination. At origin, the impact was felt in terms of less demand for produce and less household members able to support the harvest, due to movement restrictions, limiting the season’s yields.

  4. In destination areas, both rural and urban, demand-driven, informal jobs – those traditionally done by migrant workers – appear particularly affected by COVID-19.

  5. The disruption of habitual migration patterns and more limited access to livelihoods sources lead to both a rise in expenditures and reduced income. To cope, seasonal migrants borrow money, spend savings and search for supplementary work.

  6. Those who decided not to migrate due to the restrictions implemented, appeared to be worse impacted than seasonal migrants who chose to migrate anyway. This illustrates the particular vulnerability of those too poor to migrate and their particular exposure to climate change, as ‘trapped populations’.

In the mid-term:

Impact on livelihoods

  1. While the short-term impacts of the virus were felt by environmental migrants engaged in all seasonal migration patterns studied, in the mid-term respondents anticipate that seasonal migrants engaged in cross-border migration – should movement restrictions remain in place - will be particularly affected.

  2. The most commonly reported worries about the impact of COVID-19 in the mid-term relate to the coping strategies seasonal migrants had to employ to deal with the short-term impacts of COVID-19, such as taking on debt, spending savings, and forcibly delaying the season’s harvest. Impact on mobility patterns

  3. Despite the challenges faced and anticipated, the majority of interviewed environmental migrants reported planning to engage in their habitual seasonal migration in the year to come.

  4. The self-reported impact of COVID-19 on environmental migrants’ migration plans for the year to come was mixed. While one third of respondents planned to migrate for longer than usual – to make up for the gains lost during the year – others reported that COVID-19 had not impacted their plans, as the reasons for their migration were deemed more pressing than COVID-19, and hence remained the key factor in their decision-making.

In relation to the longer term impacts of COVID-19 on environmental migrants in the Sahel, the study determined that, at the time of writing, there were too many variables – unknown how they will develop – to make meaningful projections. The key determinants that were identified for future monitoring were: (1) the evolution of climate change and its impacts on livelihood sources at origin; (2) the implementation of mobility restrictions (be they COVID-19 motivated or not); (3) the economic impact of the virus in origin and destinations; (4) environmental migrants’ ability to cope and respond to shock – already weakened by the coping strategies employed to deal with the short-term impacts of the virus - and (5) the development of other threat multipliers in the region, notably violent conflict, which has seen a rapid deterioration over the course of 2020, and wider political instability.

Finally, while recent events have emphasized the emergence of COVID-19 and its impact on the fragility of environmental migrants’ livelihoods in the Sahel, the more complex, underlying drivers of this fragility will continue to impact the situation in the background. The virus in and of itself is a trend accelerator, rather than a unique occurrence. This means that COVID-19 may have been accelerating and bringing up and front challenges, but has not created new ones which will disappear, should the virus be overcome. As such, the impact of COVID-19 on environmental migrants, and the impacts anticipated to come in the mid- and longer-term, call for a close monitoring of the situation - and prompt support to the populations affected.