Why do young West Africans migrate?

Toon De Clerck
14 January 2019
In West Africa, numerous minors migrate in search of better living conditions. Absolute figures are not available with regard to this phenomenon, that has been investigated by Save the Children and the Mixed Migration Centre.  

Save the Children’s Manuela De Gaspari explains the approach used in their research: ‘The researchers focused on the migration of unaccompanied minors in four West African countries: Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Senegal. They did not consider migration as a problem, but as a life phase in which the children were looking for opportunities.’

The research did not always run smoothly. ‘We had to overcome various obstacles’, De Gaspari explains. ‘First and foremost, there is little information about concrete figures. Many minors have never been officially registered in their country. Moreover, it is difficult to reach young migrants because they move internationally, while the fact that the region is very extensive and diverse makes it almost impossible to draw general conclusions.’


Diverse phenomenon full of danger

De Gaspari stresses that the mobility of children is a very diverse phenomenon: ‘Both in the routes used and in the underlying reasons, there is little uniformity. A constant is that the children move to economic hubs. But by no means do all of them want to go to Europe. Most of them stay in West Africa. Only a small part decides to cross the Mediterranean’.

On their journey, minor migrants encounter many dangers. An illustrative example is the story of 19-year-old Eric Soma from Burkina Faso, who left for the Malian capital Bamako and joined a group of migrants while hitchhiking. Once he arrived in Mali, he saw some of his companions being attacked and murdered.

Eric’s story is not unique. De Gaspari: ‘Young people are constantly at risk of becoming victims of sexual abuse, kidnapping, exploitation, attacks,... Certainly northern Mali and the region around Lake Chad are dangerous places, because armed groups recruit minors as child soldiers there.’

A constant is that the children move to economic hubs. But by no means do all of them want to go to Europe. Most of them stay in West Africa.

Manuele De Gaspari - Save the Children

Search for opportunities

Why are young people prepared to face so many dangers? De Gaspari explains: ‘They have several reasons to leave. The first one is economic: they are looking for work. This certainly applies to the oldest sons of the families. They are often sent out to earn money for the rest of the family. Fleeing (family-related) violence or traditional rituals such as genital mutilation are other reasons.’

Gaspari's colleague Amanda Azzali shares her point of view: ‘Young people are not just fleeing, they are looking for opportunities. Girls from the countryside flee the rigid conservative straitjacket and seek more gender equality. Moreover, they expand their social network and the journey often strengthens their self-confidence and self-image. During their journey they are obliged to learn new skills. A common example is how they teach themselves to prepare a meal, which increases their sense of self-esteem.’


Need for better control

De Gaspari and Azzali conclude that West African youth use migration as a strategy to counter the problems they face. The researchers do not consider migration as a problem, but as a social fact that needs more control, so that it becomes safer. ‘With Save the Children we make great efforts to achieve this. We do this by identifying the most vulnerable and marginalised young people. We support them and inform them about their rights’, Azzali concludes.

Read here the full research report of Save the Children and the Mixed Migration Centre.


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