The surge in displacement seen in Africa since the mid-2010s is a function of near-term and structural factors that are exerting multiple points of pressure on African households precipitating the decisions to uproot their lives and leave their homes.
Unresolved conflict perpetuates displacement
There are 13 African countries facing major armed conflict, and they account for almost 90 percent of the 25 million people displaced by conflict and persecution* on the continent. In recent years, Africa has hosted more than a third of the world’s conflicts and around 35 percent of all persons displaced as a result. This displacement figure represents both the accumulated effect of long, drawn-out conflicts as well as the sudden surge of displacement seen in new crises. In some cases, it is a combination of the two (see text box on Sudan). Rather than dissipating over time, long unresolved conflicts produce repeated waves of displacement.
The upward trend in forced displacement since 2005 can be largely attributed to such protracted conflicts whose effects bleed into the surrounding region. Notably, there are regional concentrations of conflict (and displacement) in the Great Lakes, the Sudans, Somalia, and the Lake Chad Basin. The contiguous pattern of conflict in Africa (see Figure 3), moreover, means that the prospects of finding refuge in neighboring countries is often unlikely.
Many who have fled the sectarian violence in CAR, for example, shelter in the DRC. At the same time, more than 15,000 Congolese have been displaced to war-torn South Sudan, which is hosting Sudanese nationals fleeing conflicts in the South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions. Meanwhile, South Sudanese have fled in all directions, including into Sudan, Uganda, the DRC, and CAR (see Figure 4).
Sudan: Half a Century of Dysfunction and Displacement
Sudan has experienced more than 50 years of political crisis punctuated by four large-scale conflicts. From independence in 1955 until 1972, the country faced civil conflict between north and south over issues of geographic, religious, and ethnic exclusion. After a 10-year interlude, fighting resumed, lasting from 1983–2005. In 2003, rebel groups in the Darfur region of western Sudan rose up against the government for oppressing the region’s non-Arab population. In response, the government carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing that killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians. Despite the negotiation of several peace agreements, the conflict did not end. When South Sudan gained its independence in 2011, the South Kordofan and Blue Nile States erupted in violence as populations in these regions had also wanted but were denied independence. This uprising became entwined with the Darfur conflict as the insurgents formed a loose alliance against the government.
Despite the forging of a power-sharing agreement that brought civilians into the government in 2019 after decades of military rule, there are still some 2.8 million forcibly displaced Sudanese. This number does not include the millions more Sudanese who had fled the country during the first and second civil wars to countries like Egypt where they permanently resettled. Similar patterns can be seen in Burundi, the DRC, Somalia, and South Sudan, among others. However, as these numbers swell, the prospects of newly displaced households finding a durable solution nearby—as millions of Sudanese did in Egypt from the 1970s to the 1990s—are increasingly dim.
So long as these conflicts persist and go unresolved, so too will the displaced persons crisis. While some may find opportunities to resettle in other countries, most will not, leading to a perpetual source of tension in the affected region.
How governments respond to citizens’ priorities and grievances is at the heart of much of the displacement on the continent. All 13 of Africa’s major armed conflicts are internal (rather than interstate). This underscores the critical relationship between exclusive governance, political crisis, and conflict. Governments that are more legitimate, participatory, and respectful of the rule of law tend to do a better job of mitigating such internal conflicts.
Of the 10 African countries with the greatest number of people displaced by conflict and persecution, 9 have authoritarian-leaning governments (see Table 1). Leaders in all nine of these governments have avoided term limits by either changing their constitutions or otherwise not adhering to these limits, allowing them to remain in power. The average tenure of African leaders without term limits is 18 years. This compares to just 4 years for countries with term limits.4 Countries lacking term limits in Africa also tend to be more unstable with a third of these countries experiencing major conflict. A restrictive political environment is thus both a direct driver of forced displacement as well an indirect driver through the conflict that results.
Eritrea provides a good example of the direct links between authoritarian governance and displacement. Its citizens have long fled the brutal conditions in the country—the number of Eritreans who have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe since 2009 is upwards of 120,000 (out of a population of 6 million). The number of Eritreans in neighboring countries is even higher—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) calculated almost 175,000 in Ethiopia alone. Since 1995, the government has enforced a mandatory national service conscription that effectively forces Eritrean citizens into indentured servitude, performing work for the government for an indeterminate period of time (though officially this is limited to 18 months). There is no free press or political sphere for citizens to voice grievances. A 2016 UN Commission of Inquiry report linked the mass displacement of Eritreans to the country’s “gross human rights violations.”5 The brief reopening of the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018-2019 generated a renewed surge in Eritreans seeking refuge in Ethiopia.
Corruption is a particularly pernicious element of poor governance that contributes to displacement. Research has shown there is a “tipping point” where once a threshold of institutional corruption is reached, for every slight increase in perceived corruption, a large decrease in domestic security follows.6 Corruption in the police and judiciary are particularly important. Once its citizens believe the police or legal system can no longer be relied upon for protection, a country becomes much more vulnerable to instability.
One ramification of a lack of trust in government security services is the emergence of non-statutory security actors. While some are well-intentioned, others lack training or accountability structures. Such groups therefore often devolve into extortion rackets that vie to control revenue-generating sectors of a local economy.7 The result is greater instability and displacement.
Perceptions of government corruption also make it easier for violent extremist groups to recruit and retain members, further contributing to instability and displacement.8 Even though the extremist groups themselves profit off of the corruption to channel funds and smuggle contraband and people, they justify their actions as proof of the state’s unfitness for governance. Not only does the state further lose credibility with its disillusioned citizens, its institutions are also dramatically weakened by the corruption, rendering the state an unattractive alternative to extremist groups. A country like Mali is a good example of how corruption undermined the legitimate authority of the government in communities that saw little attention from Bamako. As aptly noted by counterterrorism experts, “[c]orruption is the most powerful weapon in the armoury of violent extremism.”9
While the majority of dislocated Africans are forcibly displaced, economic factors are a key contributor to the flow of Africans trying to enter Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, and South Africa (see text box on migration routes). This has created highly potent political dynamics in these countries of destination. Yet, it is important to recognize that the majority of Africa’s economic migrants stay in Africa. An estimated 12.1 million economic African migrants live in a non-native African country. This number does not include the numerous African migrants who relocate to neighboring countries for seasonal or other short-term labor (otherwise known as circular migration). In total, roughly 80 percent of Africa’s economic migrants stay in Africa.
Interviews of individuals in transit along Africa’s migratory routes show that economic migrants, by and large, come from countries that are not uniformly the poorest of the poor nor embroiled in intense, countrywide conflict (see Figure 5). Rather, they are often responding to a combination of socioeconomic deprivations at home, a lack of governmental services for citizens, and perceived greater employment opportunities abroad.
Many young Africans make the decision to leave because they do not see a viable future for themselves in their home countries. The existence of transnational family and community-support networks abroad can make the decision to emigrate, and to emigrate further afield, easier. Nonetheless, many economic migrants embark on their trek even without such family ties.
Along the Mediterranean routes, many have been willing to spend months to years working on a “pay as you go” system toward their destination.11 There is also anecdotal evidence that, as word spreads about the dangers of robbery and extortion, many still choose to go but leave their money at home, saving it to be transferred through informal financial networks at different points along the journey or in cases of emergency.12 For many African migrants then, even the knowledge that the journey will be dangerous has not been a deterrent.
Major Routes Taken by African Economic Migrants
The Mediterranean Routes
Of the estimated 86,000 African migrants who have arrived annually in Europe since 2014, the majority hailed from Eritrea, southern Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, and Mali (see Figure 6). This pales in comparison to the estimated 1.5-2.5 million African migrants living along the North African countries of the Mediterranean. This population includes long-term and circular migrants who mostly come from other North African countries as well as from neighboring countries like Niger, Chad, and Sudan for work.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that Libya hosts the largest contingent of African economic migrants with at least 666,000 people. Between 250,000 and 350,000 are estimated to be in Algeria—mostly from Guinea, Mali, Niger, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, and Burkina Faso.13 While many may be transiting, Algeria has been a destination country in its own right since 2008, given the relative availability of employment opportunities in this hydrocarbon-rich country.
Egypt and Morocco are often considered origin countries. Morocco has a diaspora of more than 4 million, of which some 2.9 million are first-generation. Egypt’s diaspora is even bigger: more than 8 million, of which some 3.4 million are first generation. However, both countries have also become major stopping points for economic migrants. Egypt has a large informal economy and immigrant community, which many Africans seek out—whether they be long-term or merely transiting. The number of migrants in Egypt has increased since the government announced a crackdown on human smuggling in 2016. Since then, boat launchings from Egyptian shores have virtually disappeared.
In the last 5 years, more than 26,000 Moroccans have been intercepted crossing into Europe, putting it in the top five African nationalities attempting entry to Europe from the continent. However, the country has also become a destination country, hosting an estimated 55,000-85,000 migrants, the bulk being sub-Saharan, who may have intended but have been unable to cross into Spain.
The Arabian Peninsula Route
The Arabian Peninsula route tends to be used mostly by economic migrants from the Horn and East Africa (see Figure 6). IOM estimates about 160,000 migrants crossed the Arabian and Red Seas to the southern shore of war-torn Yemen in 2018.14 More than 90 percent of these migrants were identified as Ethiopian. This number reflects an upward trend since 2013, despite increased instability in Yemen.
The Southern Africa Route
The number of people migrating along the route toward South Africa every year is believed to be around 47,500, representing the full spectrum of seasonal to long-term migrants.15 The majority of these migrants are also from Ethiopia. Those that reach South Africa join the estimated 1-3 million long-term migrants already in the country, the majority of which are from neighboring countries, particularly Zimbabwe and Mozambique.16
Along the southern Africa route, the migrants have tended to rely on smugglers for help due to the potential complications they face if intercepted by police in transit countries. Under Kenya’s Citizenship and Immigration Act of 2011, for example, being unlawfully present in the country is considered a criminal offense, the penalty for which may involve a fine of up to KES 5,000 (roughly $50) or imprisonment for up to 3 years, or both.17 Even though the mainly Ethiopian migrants do not require a visa to enter Kenya, many do not have documentation proving their nationality. For that, and for help to pass through Tanzania onward, migrants from the Horn report employing smugglers. Investigations have found that the human-smuggling market in East Africa “runs primarily out of Nairobi and uses a chain of mukalas (human smugglers) to get migrants through the many jurisdictions on their journey.”18
The route can be just as dangerous and fatal as those toward Europe. While aware of the risks of the journey, many young migrants, their families, and communities, remain undeterred and optimistic that they will be successful.19
The Americas Route
The route from Africa to the Americas is not nearly as popular as the African routes as it requires more funds and at least a passport to start out with. Typically it begins with a flight from Angola or East Africa to Brazil or Ecuador. It can then cost $10,000-$20,000 for assistance to reach the United States overland.20 Nevertheless, Panamanian authorities recorded the crossing of 2,515 Africans from the Colombian border in 2018.21 Most were Cameroonian, Congolese, Eritrean, Angolan, and Ghanaian. Previously, roughly 5,400 Africans had crossed this border between 2010 and 2016. Though Mexican authorities had only started recording the sporadic appearance of African migrants in 2005, the 2,960 Africans (primarily from Cameroon, DRC, and Eritrea) entering the country in 2018—mostly through its southern border of Chiapas—suggests the expensive clandestine route to the Americas is gaining some attention.22
In Africa, demographic and environmental changes are also relentlessly compounding the drivers of displacement on the continent.
Growing populations are adding pressure on Africa’s youth to migrate
Sub-Saharan Africa’s population has more than doubled since 1984, from 537 million to almost 1.3 billion. Projections are that it will double again (to over 2.5 billion) by 2050. Africa’s population is also young. Sixty percent of Africa’s population in 2017 was under 25 years of age (41 percent under 15), making it younger than any other region in the world. Africa’s high fertility rates (on average, 4.9 children per woman in sub-Saharan Africa) are predicted to drop over the next century. But the fact that so much of the population has yet to reach adulthood means that it will be decades before African countries see a leveling off in population growth. This will have direct implications on population displacements in Africa.
“Half of the 10 African nations expected to have the largest populations in 2050 are among the UN’s list of least developed countries.”
Some of the African countries expected to grow the most in the next 30 years already have significant forcibly displaced populations. The six African countries with the largest forced displacement (South Sudan, the DRC, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Nigeria), accounting for more than 19 of the 25 million forcibly displaced people today, are expected to collectively more than double their populations by 2050 (see Table 2).
The Sahel, one of the poorest and most environmentally fragile regions, is also the region with the highest birthrates in Africa. Projections of a 120-percent increase in population in this region by 2050 is 20 percent higher than that of the continent as a whole (see Table 3). Three Sahelian countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger) are facing rapidly growing displacement due to Islamist insurgencies. These pressures risk accelerating instability and the incentives of those looking for long-term solutions to migrate out of this region and possibly further afield.
Half of the 10 African nations expected to have the largest populations in 2050 are among the UN’s list of least developed countries (LDCs): Angola, the DRC, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Tanzania (see Table 4). Rapid population growth in these countries will amplify the challenges citizens in these societies face in accessing basic needs of food, shelter, health care, and education. This is likely to cause more to seek livelihoods elsewhere.
Environmental pressures are further accelerating displacement
LDCs are particularly vulnerable to environmental shocks. From slow-onset changes—such as rises in global temperatures and sea levels—to sudden-onset disasters—such as flooding and landslides—climate change wreaks havoc on many African countries, displacing thousands every year.
Some of these natural disasters are expected to get worse and last longer. Weather extremes will not just repeatedly displace people in flood zones, but rising ocean levels will also make parts of the coast lines—where some of Africa’s largest cities are located—permanently uninhabitable. Rising temperatures and longer droughts will affect not just water availability but also individual livelihoods and national economies.
The World Bank predicts that, without concrete climate and development action, by 2050 more than 85 million sub-Saharan Africans could be forced to leave their own homes to escape these impacts.23 The effects on climate-sensitive activities like agriculture and fishing will translate into substantial losses in food production. Food insecurity related to degraded land for agriculture, shrinking pasture for livestock, and diminishing reserves of water, firewood, and other natural resources, will further contribute to displacement and permanent resettlement.
Because of their reliance on rainfall for almost all crop production, many African countries are particularly vulnerable to climatic changes. Ethiopia’s coffee industry, for example, contributes to a quarter of the country’s total export earnings. Coffee can only grow in specific agro-ecological zones. However, between 40 and 60 percent of these zones are at risk of becoming unsuitable due to expected climatic shifts.24 Cocoa plantations in West Africa are under similar threat.25
Sudan’s agribusiness employs up to 80 percent of Sudan’s labor force.26 It is expected that Sudan will see a rise in temperature of 1.3-3 degrees Celsius by the 2040s. All three of the World Food Programme’s most likely climate scenarios find that any increase in temperature will negatively impact Sudan’s agricultural output if adaptation measures are not implemented.27
Climatic shifts and shocks can also act as a “threat multiplier” in conflict-prone regions, adding to the overlapping factors that drive conflict and displacement.28 This is especially pronounced in countries with large pastoralist populations such as Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan. As environmental stresses heighten land pressures, such migratory populations increasingly experience confrontations with sedentary populations along the way.