The environmental factor in migration dynamics – a review of African case studies

01 June 2010

Gunvor Jónsson
View Journal Article / Working Paper

Claims that climate change will shape the future of global migration are continuously being made in academia as well as popular and policy circles. This paper questions the empirical basis for such claims, drawing on a critical review of 13 case studies of environmentally induced migration in the Sahel and the wider migration and development literature. It highlights some of the conceptual and methodological flaws that recur in many of these studies. First, their terminology is often confused, with concepts such as environment and climate, change and variability being conflated. Second, some do not acknowledge the extreme climate variability and unstable environments that are the norm for many Sahelian people; in this context, mobility can be a successful coping mechanism, potentially reducing environmental stress. Third, the paper criticises the use of static push-pull frameworks which suggest that migrants are being ‘pushed out’ of marginal and degraded environments, neglecting the intertwined environmental, political, economic and cultural factors. Fourth, the paper highlights flaws in the sampling and questionnaires used, particularly in some of the more recent studies. In conclusion, the paper calls for more open research that explores the complex inter-relationship between environmental factors and mobility rather than starting from the assumption of a simplistic causal relationship.