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The impact of the Sahel conflict on cross-border movements from Burkina Faso and Mali towards Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana

The year 2020 saw a rapid increase in conflict, general insecurity, and displacement in the Sahel, particularly in Burkina Faso. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic and its secondary impacts, coupled with the impact of climate change on the majority agricultural economies further drove high levels of food insecurity in some regions.  Concerns were raised about the potential effects of the Central Sahel Crisis and a hypothesized subsequent increase in North-South mobility due to the relative stability of coastal countries.

According to a research conducted between December 2020 and January 2021 with IMPACT Initiatives and the support of UNHCR, 20 key informant interviews and supplemented by 25 interviews with refugees and migrants along the route, the research confirmed the need for further data collection and puts forth key elements for consideration to gauge how the situation and composition of mixed migration flows from Burkina Faso and Mali towards Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana may develop.

Increasing violence drives soaring internal displacement in the Sahel. An increase in violent extremism, inter-communal tensions and general insecurity, coupled with the secondary effects
of COVID-19, food insecurity, and limited shared resources has resulted in record-high displacement numbers in the region.

Violence is moving south-wards. While violence is believed to be spreading in an inland direction in Niger, the first half of 2020 also saw a considerable increase in violent attacks in Burkina Faso’s southern regions and the borderlands with Côte d’Ivoire. In the meantime, the south-ward spread of militant attacks from Burkina Faso’s central regions downward towards Côte d’Ivoire continues. Increasing violence has also been recorded in Mali’s southern regions of Sikasso, Kayes, and Koulikoro. Notably, the situation mirrors pronounced Jihadist ambitions to reach the Guinea Gulf countries via Burkina Faso and Southern Mali. According to a December 2019 analysis by the International Crisis Group (ICG), the longstanding communal, religious, and socioeconomic linkages between Burkinabé and coastal centres could serve as a potential launching pad for jihadist operations throughout the region, benefitting particularly from the regions’ gold mines and related trade routes to connected industries in the South. As per KI reporting, a further worsening of the security situation in the Cascade and South West regions of Burkina Faso, which is currently ongoing (examples of recent security incidents in the region included insular attacks on the Ivorian army at a border post, as well as an attack on a gold mine in the region, resulting in two deaths) is particularly worrisome.

Labour exploitation and the risk of human trafficking
Labour exploitation and the risk of human trafficking was the most reported protection risk, and mostly reported in relation to Côte d’Ivoire. The most affected group were reportedly children and youth, often in both farms (cocoa, banana, palm oil) and in gold mining sites. Several KIs worry that because of COVID-19 this phenomenon had become even more out of reach of authorities and other (IO/NGO) actors, as any monitoring visits have been paused for the time being. Some also cited the risk of children being enrolled in armed groups. Secondary data confirms thisview: over the year 2019, the government of Côte d’Ivoire reported having identified 1,004 potential victims of human trafficking and exploitation, the majority of whom (692) were found to be foreigners, mostly from Benin, Nigeria, Togo, and Burkina Faso. In addition to being forced to work in the agricultural sector (on cacao, coffee, pineapple,
and cashew plantations),89 402 of the identified individuals had been victims of sex trafficking. According to the United States Department of State’s ‘2020 Trafficking in Persons report, most traffickers identified in Côte d’Ivoire work in well-established intra-regional networks relying heavily on social networks and social media, making the phenomenon particularly hard to track.

According to secondary data, in Ghana, too, refugees and migrants are at risk of being trafficked. Victims of trafficking are overwhelmingly found in the sex industry and domestic service, and almost always comprise children (boys and girls) and women from neighboring countries. Similar to Côte d’Ivoire, trafficking and forced labour is hard to track and likely underreported. Due to the well-established networks and rogue techniques employed by traffickers, the data presented by NGOs and governments therefore most likely only scrapes the surface of a much larger issue threatening many of the migrants and refugees seeking to enter the coastal countries.

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