Pushed To The Brink?

The impact of COVID-19 on environmental migration in the Sahel

The first confirmed cases of COVID-19 emerged in the Sahel region in March 2020. Authorities in regional states – as around the world – have imposed movement restrictions, closed international borders and implemented localised closures, to limit the spread of the virus.

Unlike other regions of the world, however, movement restrictions in the Sahel have had a serious impact on seasonal migration patterns, blocking (without compensation) an important source of additional income for millions of people across the region.

A study, conducted by REACH, in collaboration with the Start Network as part of its Migration Emergency Response Fund (MERF), worked to measure the impact of these restrictions on the lives of environmental migrants in the short, medium and long term, to understand the interconnections between migration, climate change and COVID-19 in the Sahel and provide donors with a tool to guide effective intervention to support these people.

The findings of the study are based on an extensive review of secondary data, knowledge of migration experts and humanitarian and development workers in the region, 135 individual interviews with migrants engaged in seasonal migration patterns in the region, conducted in Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Niger, with Burkinabe, Nigerian and Nigerins migrants and non-migrants.

The Sahel region is a hotspot for human-caused climate change, facing both a slow but inexorable rise in average temperature and an increase in sudden and extreme weather shocks, such as floods and droughts.

Migration has long been a feature of Sahelian populations, with people migrating to mitigate the impacts of environmental degradation caused by, among others, the impact of climate change, and to diversify access to livelihoods that remain predominantly based on agricultural activities and natural resources.

The study aimed to answer these questions:

  • How are migration, climate change and COVID-19 linked in the Sahel?
  • How does the emergence of COVID-19 in the region have a short-term (March – September 2020) impact on the livelihoods and overall situation of environmental migrants in the destination and families at home? What about mobility patterns?
  •  What is the expected impact of COVID-19 in the medium term (October 2020 – October 2021) and in the long term (after October 2021) on the livelihoods and general situation of environmental migrants at destination, on households at home and on mobility patterns?
  • What are the implications of the findings for humanitarian programming and regional policymaking?

To compare the impacts on different types of migration patterns, three different population groups were included in the study:

  1. rural-to-urban internal migrants in Niger;
  2. rural-to-urban cross-border migration of Nigerians in Niger;
  3. rural-to-urban cross-border migration from Burkina Faso to Ivory Coast.

The study, conducted between September and December 2020, reveals how even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the livelihoods of seasonal environmental migrants relied on a fine balance between ever-increasing unpredictable harvests and seasonal migration patterns to supplement otherwise insufficient agricultural production.

Even before the pandemic outbreak, seasonal migration patterns were more akin to emergency migration – migration made out of necessity to meet the most basic needs – rather than to supplement livelihoods at origin.

COVID-19, and the associated restrictions on movement, overturned this fine balance. The disruption of migration patterns has had an immediate impact on the lives of environmental migrants, which will continue to permeate their lives in the short and medium term, and perhaps even in the long term.

The report identifies some short-term consequences: both internal and cross-border seasonal migration patterns experienced a short-term impact, with journeys being longer, more expensive or delayed compared to respondents’ plans. With the official closure of borders between Sahelian countries, cross-border migration has not stopped. However, it has become more expensive, with less transport available and an increase in the use of irregular routes. 

COVID-19 had an immediate impact on the livelihoods of seasonal migrants in areas of origin and destination. At the origin, the impact was felt in terms of lower demand for products and fewer household members able to support the harvest, due to movement restrictions, limiting the season’s crops.
In destination areas, both rural and urban, informal demand-driven jobs – those traditionally held by migrant workers – seem particularly affected by COVID-19.

The disruption of usual migration patterns and more limited access to livelihoods lead to both increased expenses and reduced income. To cope, seasonal migrants borrow money, spend their savings and look for additional work.

Those who have decided not to migrate due to the restrictions in place appear to be more affected than seasonal migrants who have chosen to migrate anyway. This demonstrates the particular vulnerability of those who are too poor to migrate and their particular exposure to climate change, as ‘trapped populations’.

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

The most commonly reported concerns about the impact of COVID-19 in the medium term relate to the strategies that seasonal migrants have had to employ in order to cope with the short-term impacts of COVID-19, such as debt, the expenditure of savings and the forced delay of the season’s harvest.

Despite the challenges faced and anticipated, most of the environmental migrants interviewed reported plans to undertake their usual seasonal migration in the coming year.
The self-reported impact of COVID-19 on environmental migrants’ migration plans for the coming year was mixed. While a third of respondents planned to migrate longer than usual – to make up for gains lost during the year – others reported that COVID-19 did not affect their plans, as the reasons for their migration were considered more urgent than COVID-19, and therefore remained the key factor in their decision-making process.

Regarding the long-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 – it is not known how they will develop – to make meaningful projections, but it does indicate factors to control for:

  1. the evolution of climate change and its impact on livelihoods at origin;
  2. the implementation of mobility restrictions (whether motivated by COVID-19 or not);
  3. the economic impact of the virus at origin and destinations;
  4. the capacity of environmental migrants to cope with and respond to shocks;
  5. the development of other threat factors in the region, such as armed conflicts, which have seen a rapid deterioration during the 2020s, and wider political instability.

What emerges from the study is that the virus itself is a trend accelerator, rather than a determining event. As such, the impact of COVID-19 on environmental migrants, and the expected medium- and long-term impacts, require close monitoring of the situation and prompt support to affected populations.


by Christian Elia