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The image captures the emotional and physical toll of the journey across the Sahara Desert, highlighting the extreme conditions African migrants face.
Refugees and migrants in Africa face severe violence and exploitation particularly on land routes like the Sahara Desert Learn about the factors driving migration and the urgent need for international protection

By Darius Spearman (africanelements)

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Key Takeaways
Refugees and migrants in Africa face extreme violence and exploitation.
Risks on land routes like the Sahara Desert are higher than at sea.
Political instability, climate change, and economic strife drive migration.
Migrants face physical violence, kidnapping, sexual exploitation, and organ removal.
Perpetrators include criminal gangs and state officials.
International protection efforts are inadequate and underfunded.
Concrete protection measures and safe pathways are urgently needed.

Refugees and migrants traveling across Africa endure extreme violence, exploitation, and death, particularly on land routes such as the Sahara Desert. A recent UN report highlights that the risks on these land routes surpass those at sea, with more people estimated to die in the desert than in the Mediterranean Sea. This alarming situation calls for urgent international attention and comprehensive measures to protect these vulnerable populations.

Key Factors Driving Migration

Refugees and migrants across Africa embark on perilous journeys due to several interlinked factors. Political instability, climate change, economic strife, and racism all contribute significantly to the migration crisis.

Line chart depicting the increase in total African migrants from 20 million in 2000 to 40 million in 2023.
This line chart shows the increase in total African migrants from 2000 to 2023 highlighting a steady rise in migration over the past two decades
Stacked bar chart depicting displaced population in Africa: 18 million internally displaced persons and 12 million refugees and asylum seekers at the end of 2022.
This stacked bar chart shows the composition of the displaced population in Africa at the end of 2022 including internally displaced persons and refugees and asylum seekers

Political Instability

Conflicts in regions like the Sahel, Sudan, Mali, and Burkina Faso have forced countless individuals to flee their homes. These areas are rife with violence and unrest, creating environments where basic safety is unattainable, compelling people to seek refuge elsewhere. Political instability disrupts lives and displaces entire communities, leading to an ever-growing number of refugees and migrants.

Climate Change

Erratic weather patterns and environmental degradation have exacerbated food insecurity and economic instability, pushing people to migrate. The impact of climate change is particularly severe in regions dependent on agriculture. When crops fail and livestock die, livelihoods become unsustainable, driving families to leave their homes in search of more stable conditions.

Economic Strife

Scatter plot showing the relationship between poverty levels and climate change displacement, with poverty levels ranging from 33% to 37% and climate displacement averaging 2.5 to 2.8 million annually.
This scatter plot demonstrates the relationship between poverty levels and climate change displacement in Sub Saharan Africa

Limited economic opportunities and high poverty rates in Sub-Saharan Africa create pressure for individuals to seek better livelihoods elsewhere. Many people undertake dangerous journeys, hoping to find jobs and improve their living conditions. Economic desperation forces people into situations where they must take immense risks.

Racism and Xenophobia

Discrimination and violence against migrants and refugees further complicate their journeys and settlement in host countries. Racism and xenophobia manifest in various forms, from hostile policies to physical attacks, making the already difficult journey even more harrowing. These social and legal hurdles create an environment of fear and uncertainty for migrants.

Political Instability and the Migration Crisis in Africa

Political instability is a significant driver of the migration crisis in Africa. Various factors contribute to this instability, leading to widespread displacement and migration across the continent.

Key Drivers of Political Instability

Political instability in Africa is fueled by several key factors. Conflicts and violence are primary contributors, with ongoing strife in countries like Sudan and regions such as the Sahel. Additionally, autocratic rule and repression further exacerbate the situation, while economic decline resulting from political instability pushes more people to migrate.

Conflicts and Violence

Conflicts are rampant in many African regions, creating dangerous environments that force people to flee their homes. For example, the conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has rapidly evolved into a major crisis.

“The ongoing conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has led to one of the fastest unfolding crises globally. Over 8.6 million people have been displaced, with millions facing acute food insecurity and requiring humanitarian assistance.” (UN OCHA,

Similarly, the Sahel region is plagued by violence from extremist groups like Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). The weak governance and frequent coups in this region have only worsened the instability, leading to significant displacement and migration.

Autocratic Rule and Repression

Reversions to autocratic rule and the suppression of basic freedoms heighten repression and increase displacements. Military coups in countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad have destabilized these nations, forcing many to seek safety elsewhere. Autocratic regimes often resort to violent crackdowns on dissent, causing further unrest and migration.

Economic Decline

Political instability often leads to economic decline, which further drives migration. In Sudan, the ongoing conflict has devastated livelihoods, causing the economy to shrink significantly. With economic hardship on the rise, people are compelled to migrate in search of better opportunities.

Impact on Migration

Political instability directly impacts migration patterns in Africa, resulting in forced displacement, internal displacement, and cross-border migration.

Forced Displacement

Conflicts and violence force millions to flee their homes. In 2022 alone, conflict and violence displaced nine million people in sub-Saharan Africa. This displacement directly results from the dangerous and unstable conditions created by political conflicts. (IOM,

Internal Displacement

Many migrants remain within their countries, moving from rural to urban areas or to safer regions. For instance, Sudan hosts over nine million internally displaced individuals due to ongoing conflict. Internal displacement is often the first step for those seeking safety from immediate threats.

Pie chart showing 80% of African migrants migrate internally within Africa, while 20% migrate externally
This pie chart compares internal and external migration in Africa showing that 80 of African migrants remain within the continent

Cross-Border Migration

Instability often pushes people to seek refuge in neighboring countries. The conflict in Sudan has led to significant cross-border migration, with many fleeing to Chad, South Sudan, and Egypt. These movements strain the resources and capacities of host countries, leading to further challenges.

Risks and Abuses on Land Routes

Bar chart showing risks associated with migration routes: 5,600 incidents in the Sahara Desert, 7,115 in the Mediterranean Sea, and 3,000 in Libya.
This bar chart substitutes for a tree map visualizing the risks associated with different migration routes including the Sahara Desert Mediterranean Sea and Libya

Migrants and refugees face numerous dangers while traversing Africa. The risks include physical violence, kidnapping, sexual violence, human trafficking, and even organ removal. These threats make the journey incredibly perilous and often deadly.

Horizontal bar chart showing types of violence and exploitation faced by migrants: 38% physical violence, 20% risk of death, 15% sexual and gender-based violence, and 18% kidnapping.
This horizontal bar chart highlights the types of violence and exploitation faced by migrants based on a survey of 32000 refugees and migrants

Physical Violence and Torture

Sadly, there are numerous migrant accounts of their experiences with criminal gangs. This violence is pervasive and often goes unpunished.

“Many report experiencing severe physical abuse and torture during their journeys. Kidnapping and ransom demands have significantly increased, with migrants being held for ransom by criminal gangs.” (International Organization for Migration,

Sexual Violence and Exploitation

Sexual and gender-based violence is a prevalent threat, particularly for women and children. The journey exposes them to predators who exploit their vulnerability. Many women and children face sexual exploitation and abuse, adding another layer of trauma to their already difficult experiences.

Human Trafficking and Forced Labor

Migrants are often trafficked and forced into labor or sexual exploitation. This illegal trade exploits their desperation and lack of protection. Human trafficking networks operate with impunity, taking advantage of weak law enforcement and corrupt officials.

Organ Removal

There are reports of migrants having their organs removed, sometimes without their consent. This grim reality adds to the already severe risks they face, highlighting the extreme vulnerability of migrants on these dangerous routes.


Additionally, violence in the Sahara Desert has also been a factor among migrants.

“The harsh conditions of the Sahara Desert and the violence encountered lead to a high death toll among migrants, highlighting the urgent need for more robust measures to safeguard these vulnerable populations.” (ABC News,

Perpetrators of Violence

The violence and exploitation are perpetrated by a range of actors, including criminal gangs, armed groups, and state officials. These perpetrators take advantage of the chaos and lack of accountability to exploit migrants.

Criminal Gangs and Armed Groups

These groups are heavily involved in human trafficking, kidnapping, and other abuses. They operate with impunity, taking advantage of weak governance and law enforcement. Criminal gangs view migrants as easy targets for extortion and exploitation.

State Officials

Security forces, police, military, immigration officers, and border guards also contribute to the violence and exploitation. Corruption and complicity in these crimes are significant issues, further complicating the plight of migrants.

Inadequate Protection and International Response

Despite international efforts, protection for migrants remains inadequate. There are significant gaps in protection and assistance along migration routes, leaving many migrants vulnerable to abuse.

Gaps in Protection

“There are significant gaps in protection and assistance along migration routes, leaving many migrants vulnerable to abuse. Humanitarian efforts are hampered by insufficient funding and restrictions on access to key locations.” (AllAfrica,

Inadequate Funding

Insufficient funding and restrictions on access to key locations hampered humanitarian efforts. This lack of resources limited the ability to provide necessary aid and protection, and without adequate funding, many vital services remain unavailable to those in need.

Impunity for Perpetrators

Many abuses go unpunished, with low-level perpetrators often targeted while the main orchestrators remain free. This lack of accountability perpetuates the cycle of violence and exploitation, allowing perpetrators to continue their abuses without fear of consequences.

Recommendations for Improvement

The UN and other organizations call for more robust measures to safeguard migrants and hold perpetrators accountable. Concrete protection responses, addressing root causes, and creating safe pathways are essential steps to improve the situation for migrants.

Concrete Protection Responses

Implementing specific, route-based protection measures can save lives and reduce suffering. This includes providing safe havens and support services along key migration routes. Such measures are crucial in offering immediate relief and protection to those in transit.

Addressing Root Causes

Tackling the underlying causes of displacement, such as conflict, economic inequality, and climate change, is essential. Sustainable solutions require addressing these fundamental issues to prevent forced migration and improve conditions in migrants’ home countries.

Creating Safe Pathways

Establishing safe and legal pathways for migrants and refugees can reduce the need for dangerous journeys. Legal migration channels significantly reduce the risks associated with irregular migration and provide safer alternatives for those seeking refuge.

The plight of refugees and migrants in Africa underscores the urgent need for comprehensive international action to protect these vulnerable populations and address the root causes of their displacement.


Q: What are the main dangers faced by migrants in Africa?
A: Migrants face physical violence, kidnapping, sexual exploitation, human trafficking, organ removal, and death.

Q: Who are the perpetrators of violence against migrants?
A: Criminal gangs, armed groups, and state officials, including police and military, are involved in these abuses.

Q: What factors drive migration in Africa?
A: Political instability, climate change, economic strife, and racism are key drivers of migration.

Q: What measures are recommended to protect migrants?
A: Recommendations include concrete protection responses, addressing root causes, and creating safe migration pathways.

About the author:

Darius Spearman is a professor of Black Studies at San Diego City College, where he has been pursuing his love of teaching since 2007. He is the author of several books, including Between The Color Lines: A History of African Americans on the California Frontier Through 1890. You can visit Darius online at