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

Feb 4, 2021, 11:02 AM

The Sahel region has been described as a hotspot for human-made climate change, facing both slow-onset temperature warming and a rise in sudden, extreme weather shocks, such as floodings and droughts.

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 predominantly based on agricultural activities and natural resources.

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 inter-linkages between migration, climate change and COVID-19 in the Sahel, with the aim to improve Start Network member agencies' and the donor community's ability 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.

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.

A Guest Editorial