Latest thinking on migration and mobility research in Ghana and beyond

Published on 16 June 2021

Rachel Dixon

Partnerships and Fundraising Officer

Imogen Bellwood-Howard

Research Fellow

Dorte Thorsen

Research Fellow

Akosua Darkwah

Last month, leading researchers gathered online to examine recent research on migration and mobility in Ghana and West Africa. They highlighted its implications and future trajectory, covering critical issues such as climate change, conflict, and the impacts of Covid-19. Together they identified three areas where we can develop the evidence and action needed to inform policy and practice.

Presenters at the event included:  Professor Akosua Darkwah and Professor Joseph Teye (both from the University of Ghana), Dr Francis Jarawura (University for Development Studies), and Dr Dorte Thorsen (Institute of Development Studies).

The webinar was chaired by Dr John Thompson and co-hosted by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University for Development Studies (UDS), and University of Ghana (UoG) through the Ghana Development Hub, which is part of the IDS International Initiatives.

Read more about the event and access the speakers’ presentations

Watch the webinar recording:

Climate change adaptation, intra-regional migration and Western perceptions

Prof. Joseph Teye shared a recent study that challenged Western media narratives about the exodus of migrants from Africa to Europe. The study found that most migration was intra-regional in West Africa, and that these flows are dominated by north-south movement from countries of Sahelian West Africa impacted by climate change. Unfortunately, policy makers still do not recognize migration as an important adaptation strategy for those impacted by climate change. He explained that drivers of migration include seasonal work, political factors, climate change, proximity, colonial legacies, and ethnic ties.

Most labour migrants work in the informal sector and this, along with the lack of formal jobs, fears of competition, and brain drain, are major labour market constraints that must be addressed. However, Prof. Teye emphasized that, if well managed, intra-regional migration can contribute to positive socio-economic transformations, strong remittance flows, skills transfers, the promotion of trade, and cultural diversity.

The panel discussed the importance of climate change in the picture of migration patterns. Dr. Jarawura’s research also challenges the Western media’s focus on the nexus between climate change and migration to Europe, neglecting migration within Africa and local regions, and linking it to securitization narratives. He encouraged us to move beyond simplistic narratives of mass African migration to the West to escape the impacts of environmental change, to intra-African and in-country, localized forms of migration. He also reminded us that local forms of migration can represent more innovative and sustainable ways of dealing with future environmental changes among rural people.

Gender and class

Prof. Akosua Darkwah raised important points about the gendered and classed nature of migration and crises. For example, in Ghana, women often move from the north to the south of Ghana to work as domestic labourers or in markets as head porters. The Covid pandemic brought to the fore the Ghanaian state’s differential treatment of poor female migrants compared to elite transnational migrants at the time of border closures and travel bans. There are also gendered patterns in international migration, for example female domestic workers migrating to the Middle East, male masons to Libya, and male drivers and construction works to the Middle East.


Dr Dorte Thorsen presented recent research on vocational training for young migrants in Casamance, Senegal. She found a range of reasons why young people travelled, for example during school holidays, to stay with family to access apprenticeships or to work, and to live with carers. Migration facilitated learning in different ways; ranging from being able to contribute to school expenses but missing out on holiday revision courses, to doing an apprenticeship with little income for five to six years. Inequalities in learning pathways were clear. For example, young men were typically given more space to learn their trade through being able to attend tailoring workshops for full days, while girls were under pressure to do domestic work with less time for their apprenticeship. This pattern was more pronounced for young women from well-off families, who wanted them to take on certain gender roles and responsibilities.


Covid-19 has had a significant impact on migration in West Africa and beyond. A briefing by the International Organisation for Migraiton (IOM)  in June 2020 estimated that over 20,000 migrants were stranded at borders in the West and Central Africa region. Dr. Jarawura explained that the pandemic has been both an incentive and disincentive to migrate. Increased restrictions on mobility (both within and across continents) alongside lockdowns has blocked some seasonal migration and reduced overall migration rates. However, we also saw some return migration from those based in cities, to their rural family homes. Covid-19 exposed the vulnerabilities of migrants living in urban areas who are likely to have low incomes and work in informal sectors.

Similarly, through the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa Programme, John Thompson and our partners researched the impact of Covid on food security and livelihoods in West Africa. They found that when lockdowns occurred there were significant urban-rural migration patterns as a means of coping. The stays were often short term. They also found an increased burden of care for rural households.

Areas for future research and action

The panel highlighted three key areas where we should focus research and action going forwards:

  • Intra-African migration and related issues of identity. For example, whilst research on ‘second generation’ migrants in Europe is commonplace, there is less on those who migrate within Africa.
  • The range of climate induced migration in West Africa, beyond irregular migration across oceans. This includes links between migration, poverty reduction and climate change adaptation, and going beyond climate change adaptation in the form of improved crop varieties and irrigation, to facilitated migration.
  • Representation of the transformative, positive outcomes and aspects of migration through more nuanced reporting and portrayal in the media. An example of this was the Migrating Out of Poverty programme, through which media representatives were trained on how to cover migration issues in a way that challenges negative biases.

Implications for the Ghana Development Hub

This conversation, and the recommendations for future research, will be a central part of our Ghana Development Hub strategy and collaborations going forwards. The Ghana Hub provides focus in a country at the leading edge of development thinking and practice due to accelerating environmental, economic, political and social change. It recognises that tackling challenges such as climate change, poverty and injustice requires knowledge sharing, mutual learning and collaboration inclusive of diverse perspectives within Ghana and globally.

The Ghana Development Hub creates space where Ghanaian researchers from within and outside of the country can share, learn and work with global researchers, governments, civil society and the private sector. The University of Ghana and the University for Development Studies are our two anchor partners for the Hub and we were thrilled to begin our public facing Ghana Development Hub activities with them, through this event.

For further information about the Ghana Development Hub please contact Rachel Dixon ([email protected])

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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