Leaving, Staying or Coming Back? Migration Decisions During the Northern Mali Conflict

Johannes G. Hoogeveen, Mariacristina Rossi and Dario Sansone

The Journal of Development Studies, 2018




This paper makes use of high frequency panel data from mobile phone interviews to analyze: (a) the characteristics of refugees, IDPs, and returnees during the recent crisis in Northern Mali; (b) willingness of IDPs and refugees to return to their place of origin, actual migration decisions, and how migration decisions change over time; and (c) how employment and safety affect migration decisions. The authors find:

  • At the beginning of the study (in August 2014, more than two years after the start of the conflict) 93 per cent of surveyed refugees and 81 percent of surveyed IDPs wished to return, however during the 12 months of the study only 0.3 percent of surveyed refugees and 2.4 percent of surveyed IDPs actually returned.
  • Among those who did not wish to return, the main reason offered was insecurity in the north, followed by ‘life is easier here’, lack of means, or business reasons.
  • Among those who had already returned, most decided to go back because Northern Mali was their home (23 percent), the area had been liberated (10 percent) or to search for a job (9 percent); family was often mentioned as a secondary reason for having returned. The main challenges identified by returnees included poverty, scarce food, lack of infrastructure and jobs, absence of drinkable water, and insecurity.
  • Individuals who were employed while displaced were less willing to return. This suggests that economic factors play a major role in return decisions even in the context of forced displacement.
  • Individuals who experienced difficulties with the security forces (police, gendarme, army) during displacement were more likely to have already returned, and those who owned a gun were more likely to plan to go back. Whether an individual felt safe during the day (or at night) was not correlated with the likelihood of planning to go back.

The analysis suggests that returnees are a self-selected group more likely to have been inactive during displacement, and therefore international organizations should be aware of this weakness and provide these returnees with additional support.