In a 2015 study, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the International Centre for Migration Policy Development found that the destination countries of 84% of West African migrants were other countries within the region. This form of intra-regional migration flows were discovered to be seven times bigger than those from West African countries to other regions of the world.
Migration flows on the rise
The search for better economic prospects is the main reason why people migrate in West Africa. According to a recent survey led by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), over 80% of respondents interviewed in Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Senegal answered that, if given the means and opportunity, they would migrate to find a better job and a better pay, both for reasons of self-sustenance and to be able to send money back home.
The African Development Bank forecasts further economic growth in Western African countries for 2019. However, such growth will likely be insufficient to cater to the needs of the millions of young people joining the labour market every year. Furthermore, economic growth could also lead to an increase in migration as evidenced by data from the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System which highlights the relationship between an increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Sub-Saharan countries and the rise of migration both within the continent and towards the European Union.
Environmental factors, in particular climate change, is also one of the reasons why people in the Sahel migrate. Increased drought and desertification compel nomadic herders to head south to find water and fertile land, thus leading potentially to more conflicts. In Nigeria alone, Amnesty International reported that 3 600 people died since 2016 due to transhumance-related clashes.
Besides transhumance related clashes, armed conflicts affecting the region have also forced millions of people to flee their homes; some of them become Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) while others are forced to flee abroad. For example, the IOM estimates that as of August 2018, the Boko Haram inspired conflict had caused the displacement of close to 2 million people in Nigeria. Mali, Burkina Faso and other countries in the Sahel region also face major security challenges and some of these countries will have to handle even more refugees and internally displaced persons in the coming years.
The links between migrant smuggling, human trafficking and other transnational crimes such as terrorism present serious threats to the region and ensuring safe and legal migration routes are crucial to the region’s stability and security.
Lack of safe migration routes fuels insecurity
Irregular migration movements could threaten security in West Africa. Opportunistic individuals and organized crime groups take advantage of people willing to leave their country. Despite efforts to increase security checks and law enforcement presence at borders, the business of smuggling migrants remains lucrative. In fact, in light of the fact that smugglers now face more difficulties with tightened border security, migrants are now required to pay higher tariffs for their journey. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that between 2013 and 2017, the cost to go from Agadez in Niger to the Libyan city of Sabha increased from 100/300 dollars to 550/850 dollars.
To avoid being caught, smugglers do not hesitate to use notoriously dangerous routes, hence, putting migrants’ lives at risk. According to UNODC at least 500 people die each year in the Nigerian and Algerian parts of the Sahara Desert, and the actual figure is probably far higher. Many also face significant risk of being trafficked into sex slavery and forced labor.
The links between smuggling of migrants, human trafficking and terrorism are still unclear. Nevertheless, some Jihadist groups in Northern Mali are suspected to traffic migrants in order to fund their actions, although the lack of available data makes it difficult to evaluate how significant the funds are. Moreover, among the migrants, women and children are particularly vulnerable to forced recruitment and sexual exploitation. The links between migrant smuggling, human trafficking and other transnational crimes such as terrorism present serious threats to the region and ensuring safe and legal migration routes are crucial to the region’s stability and security.
The impact of legal migration on economic growth
On the bright side, safer migration will not only contribute to preventing transnational crimes but it will also boost the development of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In a 2018 report, the OECD and the International Labor Organization state that for now, migration has neither positive nor negative impacts on the economies of developing countries. However, the organizations decry “missed opportunities” because immigration is “for many countries an essential component of the future of work”. The organizations also encourage countries to fully take immigration into account when elaborating their development strategies. As potential workers, students, entrepreneurs, consumers or taxpayers, migrants undoubtedly impact the economy of their destination country.
In order to ensure that migrants can play a key role in development, economic growth and regional integration, ECOWAS member states and their international partners need to work on promoting and ensuring safe and legal migration in the region.
On the other hand, migrants contribute to the economic development of their country of origin, mostly through the money they send back there, known as remittances. The World Bank estimates that in 2018, remittances to Africa reached 45 billion dollars, over half of it destined to Nigeria alone. In fact, 5 out of the top 10 remittance recipient countries in Africa are ECOWAS member states. This source of revenue is particularly significant for some countries: remittances account for over 20% of Gambia’s GDP, around 13% for Cabo Verde, Liberia and Senegal and between 6 and 8% for Nigeria, Ghana and Togo.
Therefore, the ECOWAS could strongly benefit from facilitating movement of its citizens. In 1979, member states adopted Protocol A/P.1/5/79 relating to free movement of persons, residence and establishment. However, West Africans still face numerous obstacles when moving to another West African country, but also in working there. Although no visa is required when travelling within ECOWAS, travel documents can be difficult to obtain and bribery is still present at some posts along the border. Regarding the right to residence and establishment, there is no regional level harmonization with countries yet to fully implement the Protocol’s provisions.
According to the United Nations’ projection, the population in West Africa will reach 810 million people by 2050. As migration flows within the region will most probably keep increasing, the region is at a turning point. In order to ensure that migrants can play a key role in development, economic growth and regional integration, ECOWAS member states and their international partners need to work on promoting and ensuring safe and legal migration in the region. In failing to do so, any effort to contain irregular migration will remain vain, thus undermining human security and the rule of law in the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the author’s employer, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, neither do they imply any endorsement.
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Mr Chervine Oftadeh works as an Associate Expert with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Nigeria. Before joining UNODC, Mr Oftadeh worked at the Embassy of France to Benin and with several civil society organizations in Paris and The Hague on issues related to human rights, the rule of law and international justice. He holds a Masters’ Degree in Law from Panthéon-Sorbonne University.