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Pambazuka: Questioning the conventional narrative on African irregular migrants - Yordanos Seifu Estifanos

Many people from African countries, especially the youth, leave their homes in hope for a better life. The Global North contributes to these migration movements in various direct and indirect ways, from destroying the livelihoods of farmers and fisher (wo)men to the changing climate. Under these conditions migration is often the only way for young people to survive.

A great number of African countries are in the early-to-middle stages of the demographic transition with huge potential of an increasing number of youth. Of the major constraints that preclude African countries from realizing a potential demographic dividend, climate change and resource exploitation stand on top. Although these factors have intensified in recent decades, they have always been present, embedded in historical and structural relations which can be traced back to the era of the industrial revolution and colonization. Being confronted with increasing climate change hazards (some of which are climate change induced) and growing competition for African resources, mainly by countries in the Global North, the youth from different African countries are responding in different ways. Migration, both internal and international, is one of these responses to climate change and resource exploitation as well as skewed historical and prevailing twisted economic, political and power relations. Migration being inherently age selective, youth migration is particularly prominent. Consequently, many African youths question the actions and inactions of international actors as well as the unfairness of global economic inequalities through migration. 

The conventional narrative regarding African migrants who are heading to countries in the Global North, however, is that they are irregular (another way of saying illegal) migrants. They are defined as such by politicians and, at times, by the general public of destination countries. Hence, depending on the internal socioeconomic and political conditions in destination countries, an African migrant could be welcomed as a legal migrant or rejected as an illegal one.

By taking examples and cases from different African countries, this article argues otherwise. It shows that it is rather the direct responsibility of countries in the Global North to welcome African migrants as long as the former directly or indirectly contribute to migration, i.e. through climate change and resource exploitations. Hence, developed countries should relax their migration policies towards so-called 'irregular' migrants, some of which use migration as one of the adaptation strategies to climate change induced hazards and resource exploitation.


Direct Impacts

Climate change and weather variability directly affect the livelihoods of Ethiopians, as around 80 per cent of the population lives off subsistence agriculture, which in turn depends on rainfall. Their livelihood fails when the rainfalls fail. Case studies from different agro-ecological zones in Ethiopia indicate that in the case of a drought, a family may not move but will send someone from the household to seek labour elsewhere and send remittances. Hence, migration is used as an adaptation strategy to climate change. 

In the areas of western Gojam and Wollaita, migration and off-farm labour were used as an important adaptation response to perceived vulnerabilities and shocks of climate variation: shocks reinforce plans to emigrate. Particularly, in the case of Wollaita, there is a declining yield of agricultural production due to land degradation, climate change and a smaller availability of off-farm opportunities for the youth. One rural household head lamented, 'Our yields are getting less and less and the rains are also becoming scarcer and unstable'.

The rain-endowed Southwest Ethiopian highland, Arjo, was previously known for its surplus production of crops. However, the environment-based livelihood of rural population in the area is currently affected by the combined problems of demographic pressure, unreliable rainfall, and land degradation. The usual rainfall pattern and intensity is changing, as the timing and distribution of rainfall have become highly uneven and unpredictable. The variability has increased in recent years: sometimes the rainfall is too little, and at other times too much. This has resulted in crop failure and soil erosion leading to youth emigration.

Indirect Impacts

Climate change also indirectly induces migration. The climate change problem is not only manifested in changing weather variability, but also in the form of competition for land and water resources. With increasing energy need at global level and in a move to abate the undesirable consequences of fossil fuels on climate change, non-renewable energy sources, such as bio-fuels, were sought as solutions for the energy and climate problems. However, findings from Ethiopia indicate that bio-fuels policies of rich countries as well as the prevailing practice in Ethiopia are neither a solution to the climate crisis nor to the energy question. Instead, they have contributed to a third problem: the disruption of farmers’ livelihoods and the deterioration of the already precarious food crisis situation in the country. These cases from Ethiopia show that migration is one of the responses to climate change.

From the cases, it is also observed that emigrants benefit from their migration to better off places such as urban areas. Certain migration patterns that strengthen human development capacity can mitigate the long-term effects of climate variation on the youth bulge. The contribution of migration to reaping the potential demographic dividend could be realized if education, land, and other livelihood and life opportunities are provided. Hence, in the face of changing climate and increasing climate variability, one of the potential loopholes and a positive opportunity thrown open up by climate change is migration to better off countries.


Similar to the case of Ethiopia, around 70 per cent of African populations depend on agriculture. Severe and prolonged droughts, flooding, and loss of arable land due to desertification and soil erosion reduce agricultural yields and cause crop failure and loss of livestock, which endanger rural and pastoralist populations. The decreasing availability of land is amplified by the need for alternative renewable energy sources and the resulting diversion of food crops such as maize into bio-fuel as well as an attempt to produce bio-fuels from non-food crops, driven by a global effort towards reducing the impact of climate change.

Moreover, because of an ever-increasing consumptive world - a major factor underlying climate change - the need for food has increased at the global level. This is causing competition for land and water resources across Africa. Accordingly, arable land in Africa has been seized in the recent past and will continue to be seized to provide food and fuel to wealthier nations. Pundits compare this rush for land and water resources to the colonial plunder and the reintroduction of colonial time plantation economies. This worsens the already fragile food security situation in different African countries rather than bringing the promised energy security and climate change mitigation.

In this regard, Naomi Klein adds, 'when heat stress and vicious storms wipe out small farms and fishing villages, the land will be handed over to large developers for mega-ports, luxury resorts, and industrial farms. Once self-sufficient rural residents will lose their lands and be urged to move into increasingly crowded urban slums' (Klein 2015, 48).

Migration and Resource Exploitation Nexus

Economic globalization operating through the actions and inactions of deregulated multinational corporates and profit-driven investors penetrates into impoverished countries’ economies in search of resources and markets. Coupled with governance and capacity problems countries of the periphery are caught with, this disrupts local economies. Moreover, neoliberal reforms intensify increasing inequalities, leaving millions of citizens impoverished in the countries (Chomsky 1999). Besides deteriorating living conditions and growing inequalities, globalization processes operating through mainstream media and the entertainment industry create ideological and material linkages that allure and attract citizens in periphery countries.

Juxtaposed against these are the governments in countries of the global north which are building more and more high-tech fortresses and adopting draconian anti-immigration laws as well as intervening in the politics of periphery countries under the pretext of national security and, at times, under the guise of establishing democracy. Consequently, 'migrants who understand the economic interests behind cultural facades react by circumventing restrictions, by crossing borders without documents. Individually they attempt to equalize life-course opportunities. “Illegal” migrants question the legitimacy of inequality and the morality of global apartheid' (Hoerder 2002, 578).

As part of its historic relation with the so-called Francophone countries, France has been looting energy and other resources from Africa for a long time now. Gabon’s forest was exploited by France in the past, as is Mozambique’s by China today. Also, France has been intervening, in the name of national security, in Francophone countries’ conflicts over oil and other resources, or started those conflicts herself.

The Ivory Coast is the world’s biggest producer of cacao. Coffee and mineral oil make the country economically even more interesting. In 2005, however, French companies exported 75 per cent of all the production profit from Ivory Coast. In this regard, Tiken Jah Fakoly, an Ivorian singer, argues that although Africa is done with colonization, colonization is not done with Africa: 'After slavery they created colonization; and after colonization cooperation, and cooperation is another form of colonization, because now our economy is colonized.'

Aminata Traoré, writer and former minister of culture of Mali, is more articulate in pointing to the nexus between exploitation and migration. She asks, 'Now that you have devastated the ecosystems, dulled the people’s mind and humiliated them with the result that they have turned into complete conformists, how can you dare to tell these people they should stay at home, while at the same time you take everything from them what they needed to live a dignified life in their countries: How? If you don’t want someone to come to your country, give him the opportunity to manage his wealth himself. Don’t take from him that what he needs to live dignifiedly at his home, while simultaneously locking your doors twice. He will necessarily search for what you have taken from him. Yet, are the free countries of Europe capable to understand this?'  


The complex interaction among climate change, resource exploitation, power relations and migration exceeds the traditional agriculture economy and manifests itself in the realm of the so-called Blue Economy[1]. In today’s neoliberal and globalised economy, the competition for fishery resources by highly subsidized global fishing companies is affecting the livelihoods of Africans on a large scale. Paul Collier highlights that big fishing fleets are subsidised to catch fish both in international waters as well as in poorly protected water zones in underdeveloped countries of the Global South. The nexus between migration and resource exploitation in the blue economy becomes especially apparent when shifting attention to the fact that numerous governments of African coastal states including Somalia and Sierra Leone lack the means to protect their territorial waters effectively. As a consequence of the unauthorized overfishing in a great number of African water zones, fisher(wo)men are being deprived of their livelihood while subsidised foreign boats from the Global North exploit their fishery resources. 'Foreign fleets, mostly subsidised as well by national governments as by the European Union, have ransacked these undefended coastal waters. As local Somali fishermen watched their livelihood snatched from them they heeded some age-old advice and became fishers of men.' (Collier 2010, 164).

Looking into the Senegalese case the connection between the exploitation of fishery resources and migration becomes apparent. Fishing had long been the main profession of Senegalese youth scattered in seaside hamlets across Dakar’s Cap Vert peninsula. However, the recent fishing crisis has seriously racked the neighbourhoods. Especially the enormous sale of fishing rights to states like Spain within the last couple of years can be identified as the main cause for the massive emptying of the coastal waters.  Many youth from the area tried to leave Senegal since 2006, embarking on the very boats they had previously used for fishing. It is at this point that the connection between the blue economy and migration becomes apparent. The tons of fishes that are being brought to Europe are followed by the same Senegalese youths that have been deprived of their income and livelihood. An increasing consumptive lifestyle in Europe and Asia is not only an underlying cause for climate change but also for the intensified competition for the exploitation of African resources.

Elsewhere in West Africa, the dwindling fisheries and the sudden opening of clandestine routes had now pushed fisher(wo)men from western Africa coastal areas to try their luck on the boats, where their familiarity with the sea made them useful as captains or helpers. The resulting journeys in sea-battered pirogues were but the most extreme outcome of a deepening global economic divide. The case among Ghanaian fisher(wo)men-turned-migrants is not different.


There is a direct connection between climate change, the large scale exploitation of fishery resources and migration from the Global South to the Global North. In addition to directly worsening the food insecurity situation through weather variability, floods, untimely rain and other climate irregularities, climate change induced transnational actions and inactions that create disruption and dislocation in numerous African countries. Under these circumstances the mobility of populations becomes a condition for basic survival.

Often, the discourse on the connection between resource exploitation and migration is limited to a perspective on the traditional agriculture economy. However, the massive exploitation of the European fishery industry in African coastal waters has an enormous impact on the movement of young people escaping the destruction of their livelihoods. 

Furthermore, as indicated above, people from rural areas of Ethiopia used migration as one of the responses and adaptation strategies for climate variability and resource competition. Youths from western African countries, like Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, also use migration as one response to the resource exploitation which is further intensified by climate change induced problems. 

Migration policies in the Global North, however, often preclude these migrants from entering their countries. While the exploited resources are free to move from Africa to Europe, physical and legal barriers are erected against migrants from impoverished countries preventing them from maximizing their potential as well as benefiting from globalization. This is despite the fact that these migrants are prime victims of climate change, resource exploitation and related problems. It is farcical that borders are serving as revolving doors for citizens of the global north while they are impassable walls erected against irregular migrants from Africa and beyond.


Sustainable development entails that if migrants are better off by migrating to urban areas within their own country, as is the case with Ethiopian out-migrants from rural areas, it implies that they are poised well to benefit from international migrations and benefit from the global largesse. However, they are not welcomed to core countries. So, developed countries must relax their utilitarian migration policies as well as the soft and hard barriers that are erected against irregular migrants. As Naomi Klein succinctly put it, 'rather than recognising that we owe debt to migrants forced to flee their lands as a result of our actions (and inactions), our governments will build ever more high-tech fortresses and adopt even more draconian anti-immigration laws' (Klein 2015, 49).

Hence, to open borders to African migrants whose displacement is linked to climate impacts and resource exploitation as well as respect indigenous land rights can be a catalysing force for positive change and a sustainable development strategy while reducing grotesque levels of global inequality. As Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s former ambassador to the United Nation puts it: 'If I burned your house the least I can do is welcome you into my house. And if I am burning it right now I should try to stop the fire now.'

Welcoming African migrants into Europe and other countries is not a moral question only, as argued by some scholars such as Paul Collier and amplified by Western politicians. It rather is a responsibility for the harm and disruption caused by undesirable consequences of climate change and resource exploitations that are embedded in skewed economic, political and power relations.

* Yordanos Seifu Estifanos holds an MA in European Masters in Migration and Intercultural Relations (EMMIR) at the University of Oldenburg, Germany; an MSc. in Population, Environment and Development at the Institute of Population Studies (IPS), Addis Ababa University; and BA in Economics from Jimma University. Mr. Estifanos has previously worked for national and international organizations and has published monographs and research articles. His research interest focuses on Demographic Transition in Africa, The Political Economy of Migration, Youth and the nexus among Population, Environment and Development. Translation by Marion Davenas and Ciaran Wrons-Passmann.

This article was first published in German by AfricAvenir and Südlink. It was written as part of the project “Why we are here!? African perspectives on flight and migration” conducted by AfricAvenir in 2015/16. With the friendly support of the Landesstelle für Entwicklungszusammenarbeit and Engagement Global.

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