Many Europeans fear that the adverse effects of climate change might create the next huge wave of African refugees trying to reach the European shores. And yet, according to numerous studies, human mobility in the context of climate change in Africa is mainly happening within countries or between neighbouring countries. But what else do we actually know about “climate migration” in Africa? And which policy recommendations could be formulated?
There is increasing rainfall variability in wide parts of Sub Sahara Africa - in particular in arid and semi-arid areas. For rain-fed farming systems, this means an increasingly unpredictable start of the rainy season, an early cessation of rainfall and prolonged intra-seasonal dry spells as well as more heavy rainfall events. Moreover, in some areas mean rainfall is expected to decrease, while an increase in more erratic rainfall is projected at the same time. These growing agro-climatic dynamics pose a persistent threat to food and livelihood security with crop failure and declining yields, affecting staple foods such as maize, millet and sorghum. As the reliance on rain-fed agriculture is generally high in all regions, it is primarily smallholder farmers who are forced to diversify their income. Studies report of an intensification of circular and seasonal migration as an important coping or adaptation strategy.
The observed and projected changes in the rainfall characteristics are accompanied by flash floods, riverine floods and floods caused by cyclone activity in coastal areas. In the East African highlands, flash floods destroy settlements and agriculture regularly, often displacing farmers both temporarily and permanently. In the East African lowlands, large-scale riverine floods mainly affect and displace pastoralists in semi-arid and arid lands who practice flood-recession agriculture; but they also threaten urban dwellers. In Southern Africa, larger land masses along large river basins and low-elevation coastal zones (particularly in South-East Africa and Madagascar) are hit by floods regularly and massively, which leads to both temporary and permanent migration. Coastal communities and major cities located along the African shores such as Lagos, Accra or Mombasa are increasingly affected by sea-level rise related flood events, which, in combination with urban mismanagement, also increase migration within coastal regions.
Studies reveal that it is mainly East Africa where drought cycles are becoming shorter, more frequent and more intense due to global climate change and environmental degradation. But in all regions, it is primarily pastoralists and semi-pastoralists who are affected by displacement or temporary relocation due to droughts. Pastoralist displacement may take the form of local sedentarization or rural-urban migration. They often settle along rivers to water their cattle, which in turn increases their vulnerability to floods. As a consequence of more intense periods of droughts (which is especially a problem in Southern Africa), people leave drought-affected areas and migrate permanently. But in the context of both floods and droughts, circular labour mobility (both rural-urban and rural-rural) is a common reaction.
While environmental changes are key agents in the processes of human mobility and their potential consequences, they are also embedded and dependent on political, social, economic, cultural or other ecological factors. This is why, for example, the risk of forced displacement in the context of climate change is most pronounced in the Horn of Africa–due to generally fragile contexts and prolonged armed conflicts. Furthermore, in fragile contexts as in the greater Lake Chad region drought-induced water scarcity and associated mobility leads to a higher probability of conflicts over scarce resources between farmers and pastoralists. Many households affected by climate change are so poor that they do not have the necessary resources to move at all (so called “trapped populations”).
There are, however, also potentials of “migration as adaptation” to climate change. In many cases, individual household members migrate for some time to earn money and remit it in order to mitigate hardships that their families back home are facing. But there are no automatisms as problems such as labour exploitation, job unavailability and generally harsh living and working conditions for migrants often undermine this positive potential of migration.
Against this background, the policy ideal to address human mobility in the context of climate change in Africa would basically mean trying to prevent forced displacement and to foster positive aspects of mobility such as remittances. That would actually demand a multi-level approach, which should be jointly designed by several policy sectors like migration, forced displacement, climate, environment, rural development etc. But actors and institutions in the area of climate policies – similar to other policy sectors - have traditionally perceived migration as something, which is supposed to be prevented by mitigating the effects of climate change (via reducing greenhouse gas emissions) or measures of climate change adaptation. So, in order to make further and significant advancements concerning formulating policies on human mobility in the context of climate change, more capacity building and a bridging of gaps between different policy fields is needed. In the African context, there are some positive signs in that regard: The Migration Dialogue for West Africa (MIDWA), a regional consultative process supported by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), has established a Thematic Working Group (TWG) on “Climate change, land degradation, desertification, environment and migration“. Another example is Ghana’s not yet fully implemented National Migration Policy in Ghana, which regards migration in the context of environmental and climate change as a strategic area for inter-ministerial collaboration. Besides that, open policy spaces should be created or supported and more resources should be mobilized to strengthen vulnerable groups and communes, which play a vital role in that regard – yet their voices remain largely unheard so far. Finally, the creation of appropriate data bases and a documentation of best practices concerning how to address human mobility in (ecologically) vulnerable contexts would be highly important.