Seasonal urban migration is a feature of many societies. In Niger, which ranks lowest in the world on the human development index, the number of vulnerable farmers leaving their lands between the harvest and the following rains is so high that the phenomenon is referred to as exodus. Most move to urban centres in search of daily labour; others find work on rare irrigated farms.
The additional income obtained through seasonal migration helps families survive until the following harvest, especially when previous crop yields have been poor following periods of drought. “When you see that what you have harvested isn’t enough to feed your family, those who are able to work are forced to leave”, explained the mayor of a small town in Niger. “You can’t just cross your arms and wait to die.”
Niger is just one example. In India, between 30 and 100 million people migrate seasonally to cities. In Ethiopia, many young farmers are pushed to seek temporary employment in cities in order to repay fertilizer debt, among other factors. In China, casual labour in cities helps balance the seasonality of farmers’ income.
Seasonal migration can be a positive strategy for migrants to diversify their incomes and livelihoods. When it is a necessary response to looming food insecurity, in contrast, it represents a clear form of distress migration. COVID-19 and related movement restrictions might prevent such seasonal movements and expose vulnerable households to short-term food insecurity and longer-term hardship, including nutrition and health outcomes and reduced remittances, ultimately heightening the risk of displacement.
Worldwide, seasonal migrants stranded in urban areas may find themselves unable to return to their villages in time for the planting season, which in Niger is expected to begin in May or June with the onset of the rains. During the Ebola crisis, farmers in West Africa saw their crop production decrease due to labour shortages caused by movement restrictions. India has discussed easing restrictions in rural areas to allow for critical agricultural activity.
Meanwhile, seasonal migrants in cities are finding themselves unable to work. Low-wage workers and those whose livelihoods are dependent on the informal sector are particularly badly affected. This will have an impact on those who stayed behind due to the loss of remittances, which have until now provided rural families with a valuable economic safety net. Increased food insecurity is to be expected. Combined, the impacts of COVID-19 are threatening to contribute to “widespread famines of biblical proportions”, warned the head of the World Food Programme.
Niger’s national early warning system generally supports vulnerable households through free cereal distributions, subsidised sale of cereals, and cash transfers. However, developing countries’ ability to respond to rising food insecurity will be undermined by the financial losses incurred due to the crisis. Niger already has the world’s fourth lowest GDP per capita.
Alongside short-term food insecurity, the economic impacts of COVID-19 will increase pre-existing vulnerabilities and erode household resilience to future shocks such as droughts, increasing the risk of future displacement. In the absence of effective assistance, rural communities may be forced to abandon their lands and livelihoods and seek alternative sources of income in cities. As many are likely to seek refuge in marginalised informal settlements exposed to both natural hazards, evictions and heightened risk of COVID-19 infection, this is likely to contribute to a vicious cycle of vulnerability and displacement.
In 2019, IDMC recorded 33.4 million new displacements as a result of conflict, violence and disasters. If measures are not taken to prevent food insecurity resulting from COVID-19, this figure may rise to new heights. These measures should include allowing the continued delivery of humanitarian assistance, currently hampered by movement restrictions. Community-based organizations, on the front lines of response, also need to be better supported: although many remain active, they often lack the capacity and resources to fill deepening gaps in assistance and basic services. This increases the pertinence of the localization agenda, which has so far generated more enthusiasm than funding. To prevent further displacement associated with COVID-19, local and national capacities need to be strengthened.
Chloe Sydney is a Researcher at IDMC. She is the research lead for the thematic series 'The invisible majority: internal to cross-border displacement', which examines the relationship between internal displacement and cross-border movements. She also supports research on internal displacement associated with slow-onset environmental change. She has worked previously as Analyst and Research Officer for Forcier Consulting in Egypt, Sudan, and South Sudan, and as a Reports Officer for UNICEF South Sudan. Chloe holds a MSc in International Migration and Public Policy from the London School of Economics. She is a PhD candidate at Aberystwyth University, focusing on refugee return.
This article is part of the IOM Series on The COVID-19 Pandemic, Migration and the Environment.