What’s behind West African migration? Findings from nationwide surveys

By Matthew Kirwin, United States Department of State and National Intelligence University 2017-18 Research Fellow and Jessica Anderson, Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University

Gambian migrants deported from Libya stand in line as they wait for registration at the airport in Banjul
© Luc Gnago/Reuters

The movement of sub-Saharan Africans through North Africa and on to Europe persists in the media spotlight. Over 700 000 African migrants have arrived in Italy through the perilous Central Mediterranean Route since 20141, and nearly 190 000 arrived in 2017 alone according to the International Organization of Migration (IOM). While 2018 numbers for this route are slightly lower2, Africans are now testing their luck with both the Central Mediterranean Route and a new path, seeking to reach Europe via Morocco and Spain. In the first half of 2018, the number of migrants entering through Spain has risen dramatically.3

Irregular African migration to Europe demands closer attention for several key reasons. First, the movement of young and educated workers creates a brain drain in an already vulnerable region. Second, these notoriously dangerous journeys — with people being smuggled across deadly routes, trapped in Libyan detention centres, banished to remote parts of Morocco4 or dying at sea — amount to a humanitarian crisis in and of themselves. And, finally, the characteristics and motivations behind these migration patterns are highly relevant for European governments, who have invested heavily5 in security measures and development assistance to prevent further migration in recent years.

Rationales for West African migration are commonly put forward, but they are not based on quantitative survey data. Relying on public opinion and focus group data collected in West Africa in late 2016, our research published in a recent paper from the OECD Sahel and West Africa Club examined the characteristics and motivations behind West African migration.6 Here are five key findings:

First, migrants prepare their journey carefully. In focus groups held with West Africans transiting through Niger on their way to Libya, participants described years of planning: selling personal possessions, saving money and relying on social networks to access resources for making the voyage. Facebook and WhatsApp were essential for gaining information both in their country of origin and during the journey. Through this information, migrants were well aware of their trip’s perils. Many experienced traumatic events, and nearly all heard horror stories about the voyage, but remain undaunted in their desire to migrate abroad.

Second, according to the survey data, the most common reason to stay in one’s country of origin was either family or patriotism. A striking number of Nigerians (50%) were interested in leaving their country of origin if given the opportunity. Ivoiriens (27%), Senegalese (27%) and, to a lesser extent, Burkinabe, Malians and Nigeriens were also interested in leaving their country if given the opportunity.


Third, based on a case study of Nigeria — the most sizeable country of origin for both the Central and Western Mediterranean routes — the demographic profile of those who wish to migrate abroad is non-Muslim, educated, urban residents who use the Internet frequently. The fact that educated urban residents who use the Internet frequently have a strong interest in migrating reveals that it is not necessarily the worst-off who dream of migrating abroad.

Fourth, economic standing does not have a significant effect on Nigerians’ desire to leave their home. While the economic motivations of aspiring migrants are commonly discussed by academics and the media alike, a range of economic push factors did not have a significant relationship with Nigerians’ desire to migrate outside their country.

Instead and fifth, we found that factors related to good governance had the strongest relationship with the desire to migrate abroad. Nigerians who are unhappy with the state of democracy are more likely to wish to leave their country. Following satisfaction with democracy, Nigerians’ desire to migrate abroad had the strongest relationship with mistrust of the police. Multiple reports have accused the police in Nigeria of human rights abuse, coercion and bribery, and, according to polling7, the police have typically been one of the least trusted institutions in Nigeria.

A key takeaway for donors and scholars alike is that the desire to migrate has the strongest relationship with Nigerians’ concerns about good governance, such as trust in local-level policing and how democracy is working. Understanding these push factors for migration is essential for addressing future migration — especially the dangerous, irregular migration taking place on West Africans’ journey to Europe. While recent donor efforts have focused on addressing migration through economic opportunity, this finding points to the importance of investing in democracy and governance too.

Further reading

Kirwin, M. and J. Anderson (2018), “Identifying the Factors Driving West African Migration”, West African Papers, No. 17, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/eb3b2806-en.


2. Ibid.

3. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/african-migrants-are-braving-a-new-route-to-europe-but-old-perils-remain/2018/06/06/51251e60-3dac-11e8-955b-7d2e19b79966_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.4cacb75ef0c4

4. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/22/world/africa/morocco-crackdown-sub-saharan-migrants-spain.html


6.  Nationwide surveys in Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Niger. Focus groups conducted with aspiring migrants in Niger.

7. http://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Working%20papers/afropaperno157.pdf