Described as a Ground Zero for climate change by the United Nations, the Sahel region hosts some of the most vulnerable populations in the world. Yet, climate change is just one of the many challenges Sahelians are forced to contend with, with all Sahelian countries figuring among the top 50 least developed countries worldwide. Most countries in the region face the dire consequences of ongoing conflict, food insecurity, poverty and political instability. As the Sahelian population already faces immense threats coming from this combination of different, often interlinked and mutually reinforcing risks, COVID-19 has become another threat to cope with.

Human mobility in response to different social and environmental processes has long been a hallmark of Sahelian populations. In particular, environmental variability and changes in the region have historically led to a variety of migration patterns, as populations cope with rainfall’s seasonality and the effects of periodic droughts through movement. People predominantly move over short distances, in circular internal or regional movements, and frequently from rural to urban areas. Usually framed in public discourse as a problem to solve, migration in the Sahel is a strategy that enables entire communities to overcome precarious livelihood sources and difficult living conditions at home.

The emergence of COVID-19 in the region starting March 2020, and with it the implementation of movement restrictions to limit its spread, have severely impacted the livelihood sources of people who traditionally rely on mobility to supplement their livelihoods in the region and their capacity to cope with nefarious environmental impacts and respond to shocks.

In a study conducted by REACH in collaboration with the START Network in the Sahel between September and December 2020, we aimed to unearth the impact that movement restrictions have had on affected populations in the region, how people have coped, and what humanitarian actors and the international community can do to support them in the future.

Based on interviews with migrants, returnees and those who habitually migrate but decided to stay put in areas of origin and destination across Niger, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, we found that:

  • Prior to COVID-19, the livelihoods of seasonal migrants in the Sahel were based on a fine balance between unpredictable harvest yields and seasonal migration patterns to complement insufficient agricultural outputs at home. Already before the virus outbreak, seasonal migration patterns were more akin to distress migration – migration as the only viable livelihood option out of food insecurity, rural poverty, limited income opportunities, inequality and environmental degradation – as opposed to voluntary migration.
  • COVID-19 appears to have pushed these populations to the brink. In the short-term all environmental migration patterns studied were impacted by the restrictions on movement, be they internal, cross-border, rural to rural or rural to urban. However, interviewed migrants were generally still able to cope and make ends meet somehow. In contrast, in the mid-term the extent of a possible continuation of movement restrictions and economic downturn anticipated will be key to determine whether people in the region who rely on mobility to make ends meet will still be able to cope or not.  If border restrictions are to continue, it is anticipated that, in the mid-and longer-term, those who traditionally engage in cross-border migration will be hit the hardest. At the same time, all respondents had to engage in coping strategies to deal with the initial shock, be that spending savings, taking on debt or buying food on credit. They all will face additional challenges in the coming year, including by having to back debts, refurnish savings, and making do with reduced harvests.
  • While communities in the region faced an increased need to migrate to secure livelihoods, they had less ability to do so. Looking at the longer term, it is likely that the number of people living in extremely vulnerable conditions in areas exposed to climate-related hazards and unable to move, will increase. Those who will have depleted their resources to migrate, or households for whom migration will have become too risky to attempt, will likely stay in their areas of origin and become reliant on agricultural outputs, which already at present are largely insufficient. This will put large populations at the risk of chronic food insecurity and unable to respond to shock–both unable to meet most basic needs at home, and subsequently, to move away in search of opportunities elsewhere.

COVID-19 is already acting as a trend multiplier of many global developments. In the Sahel, the virus is likely to lead to a further exacerbation of the risks people face. For instance, as circular seasonal migration becomes more difficult – with additional debts needing to be re-paid in the mid and longer terms – it is likely that migration becomes longer-term and increasingly directed towards cities. This is likely to contribute to the ongoing urbanisation witnessed across the region, adding to the number of urban poor living in cities, and increasing pressure on urban services and infrastructures. On the other end of the spectrum, an increase in those unable to move to respond to climate shocks – involuntary immobile and thereby among the most vulnerable- will likely be one of the defining mobility challenges in the region in the years to come.

There is much to be done to support communities affected by this severe multi-faceted crisis in the Sahel. First, the resilience of local populations affected by this crisis needs to be put at the centre of all humanitarian and development efforts. In order to achieve this, mobility needs to be re-framed as a critical livelihood strategy for many, countering the narrative of migration as a problem, a perspective which has found its way into many national policy circles recently.

Instead of looking at movement as a sign of vulnerability per se, actors should focus on the capacity and the ability that these populations have to cope with adverse circumstances presented to them, including through migration. A clear finding that emerged from our study is that it is generally those who are too poor to move who require particular support. Because populations in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria are heavily reliant on migration to overcome insufficient agricultural yields, and lack of food at home, the inability to move can have devastating effects. With no movement possible, population have had no other choice but to adopt coping mechanisms which will further erode their resilience in the long-term. The challenges that climate change, compounded by COVID-19 and ongoing conflict and food insecurity in the region present for affected populations – and the opportunities that mobility poses in this context - means that closely monitoring these trends will be critical to designing an appropriate response.

About the author

Diana Ihring is Migration Research Specialist at IMPACT Initiatives, a leading Geneva-based think-and-do tank, which aims to improve the impact of humanitarian, stabilisation and development action through data, partnerships and capacity building programmes, where she oversees IMPACT’s human mobility programme. Diana is specialised in qualitative and mixed methods research approaches and has conducted primary field work on migration in Italy, Greece, Spain, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Tunisia, Libya and Iraq. Prior to joining IMPACT, Diana worked as a researcher conducting ethnographic fieldwork on mobility patterns during Europe’s ‘migration crisis’ in 2015, traveling for six months with migrants along the Western Balkans route documenting their journey and reporting from the field. Diana holds degrees from the University of Oxford (MSc Migration Studies), Sciences Po Bordeaux (BA Political Science) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (BA Law & African Studies).


This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.

SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 13 - Climate Action