Identifying the Factors Driving West African Migration

Matthew Kirwin and Jessica Anderson

West African Papers, July 2018 No. 17, OECD Publishing


Since 2014 over 600,000 African migrants have arrived in Italy via the Central Mediterranean route. The authors note that while migration from West Africa to Europe is increasing, there is ten times as much migration within West Africa than migration to Europe. This paper examines the individual motivations for migration from West Africa, through nationwide surveys conducted in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal in 2016-17, and focus group discussions in Niamey and Agadez, Niger, two major transit points. Key findings include:

  • The number of people who would migrate if given the means and opportunity varied considerably: Niger (11 percent), Mali (19 percent), Burkino Faso (23 percent), Cote d’Ivoire and Sengal (27 percent), and Nigeria (50 percent). Not all wish to migrate to Europe; most West African migration is intra-continental. Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali are among the poorest countries in the world and yet few people wish to leave their country, even when given the means and opportunity to do so. Men tend to be more likely to want to leave than women, but this varies by religion. Urban residents are more likely to want to leave.
  • The decision to migrate is not a spontaneous one, and the journey is a multi-stage process. Migrants prepare their journey carefully, selling personal possessions, saving money, and relying on social networks to access resources and information (in their country and during their journey).
  • Migrants are aware of the dangers of the journey but remain undaunted. Many of them experienced traumatic events but remained undaunted in their desire to migrate abroad.
  • Economic factors as the main reason for migrating. The most common reason to stay in one’s country of origin was either family or patriotism.

The authors then focus on Nigeria, which accounts for a quarter of all Africans traveling to Europe via the Central Mediterranean route. Using quantitative methods, they find:

  • Half of the surveyed Nigerians were interested in migration if given the opportunity, well above the number in neighboring countries.
  • Insecurity is not a driver of wanting to migrate. In northeast Nigeria, the region most affected by Boko Haram violence, the desire to migrate is comparatively low and on par with levels in northwest Nigeria, a region that does not face high levels of insecurity. This suggests that insecurity is not necessarily a key driver in desire to migrate, or perhaps the population in the northeast are so marginalized that migration does not seem to be a viable option for them.
  • Individual perceptions of the strength of Nigeria’s democracy are most strongly associated with Nigerians’ desire to migrate abroad, followed by low levels of trust in local police. Nigerians’ access to water as part of service delivery also had a significant effect on the desire to migrate.
  • An individual’s economic status does not have a significant effect on desire to migrate. This suggests that desire to migrate from Nigeria cuts across different economic levels, and that economic development does not discourage migration until it reaches a high per capita income level. Other factors that did not have a significant impact on desire to migrate included: discrimination against ethnic groups, the government’s ability to fight terrorism, and provision of public education.
  • The profile of those who wish to leave is non-Muslim, educated, urban residents who use the Internet frequently. Muslim Nigerians are less likely to want to migrate abroad (68 percent of Muslims want to stay, 39 percent of Christians want to stay). Gender does not have a significant effect on desire to migrate.