Understanding migration from a social-ecological perspective

By Joern Fischer

At the Development Research Conference in Stockholm this morning, I attended a session on migration in Africa, focusing especially but not only on Ethiopia. Two projects introduced and currently being developed struck me as worthwhile to summarise for readers of this blog.

First, Gunilla Olsson outlined her nascent project, which focuses on livelihoods as key drivers underpinning the decision to stay or migrate. Existing research, she highlighted, had mainly focused on socio-economic drivers of migration, while environmental drivers had received relatively less attention. Drawing on Black et al. (2011), she highlighted that other potential drivers include social and cultural, demographic, political, and institutional or governance drivers. Migration, she showed, was a key topic of our times, including within Africa, but also between Africa and Europe (see recent outcomes of the Valletta summit).

Gunilla’s upcoming research will address the adequacy of current governance frameworks and will investigate livelihoods as drivers of migration. The research will focus on Ethiopia, which she argued, has a number of different potential drivers operating all at once – including climate change, land use change, “land grabbing”, and conflicts. Moreover, Ethiopia has the largest refugee camps in Africa – and a lot of migration from Ethiopia is directed at the European Union.

Among several other interesting presentations, a second one I’d like to highlight was by Lisa Garbe and Kathleen Hermans, who is also in the process of setting up new research on migration in Ethiopia; and also taking a social-ecological perspective.

Lisa and Kathleen focused, quite specifically, on the role of drought as a potential driver of migration – a recurring and increasingly frequent phenomenon in many parts of Ethiopia. To this end, Kathleen showed spatial analyses that identified locations where the likelihood of out-migration is particularly high. Specifically, maps of (declining) net primary productivity across Ethiopia, and of rainfall variability together provide a good picture of where the environmental risk of droughts may be particularly pronounced. If this is combined with maps of population density, it is possible to identify likely hotspots of out-migration – places where population density is high, rainfall variability is high, and land is already in a degraded condition.

Building on this desktop-based analysis, Lisa led some field research in South Wollo – one of the regions previously identified as a potential hotspot of out-migration. Two kebeles (local municipalities) were selected for in-depth investigation, and in these kebeles over 300 households were surveyed and a number of focus groups were conducted. Household surveys focused on comparing livelihood strategies in drought-years versus non-drought years; and looked at coping strategies in the event of drought.

Looking at migration, in particular, the findings showed that only one of the two kebeles had migration as a common coping strategy. Moreover, the drought played an important role for migration only in the kebele with high migration levels, but not in the other one. Thus, one kebele appeared to be hit harder by drought than the other one – an interesting finding since the two kebeles are very close to one another. Such small-scale differences raise new questions for research, and pose challenges for adapting policy measures to local conditions.

No doubt there will be more interesting research coming out of Gunilla’s and Kathleen’s research groups in the future! Overall, I found this a nice session. Applying a social-ecological perspective to migration seems a nice avenue worth exploring in more detail.


4 thoughts on “Understanding migration from a social-ecological perspective

  1. But environmental drivers are intrinsically linked to socio-economic or livelihoods factors or drivers; so to me it is a matter of making it nuance through applying socio-ecological perspective as opposed to eureka or avatar moment as implied here.

  2. Great post. A friend and I are also working on climate-induced migration in Africa with similar focuses (arable land, rainfall, etc). We should attend more conferences revolving around geography.

    On a side note, the largest refugee camp in Africa and the world is the Dadaab complex, located in Kenya.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing attention to this topic!

  3. Thanks Joern for summarizing and sharing theme of the conference. I found this panel of the conference interesting. While the third presentation was evidence based in-depth investigation on environmental causes of migration, some of the presentations were a bit shallow and framed on conventional way of looking at the dynamics of migration. It lacks clear understanding of the national and regional conditions (more specifically, political-economic setting). There was a tendency to explain internal migration as entirely counterproductive. The speakers echoes the traditional migration discourse (eg. migration is primarily caused by economic reasons). Such claims, primarily emanated from lack of knowledge about the overall condition of the region. Further in-depth studies are crucial to be able to properly explain the dynamics of migration in the region.

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