Labour migration from and reintegration to Burkina Faso

Like most landlocked countries with scarce natural resources, Burkina Faso does not offer many jobs for its population outside of agriculture, which is one of the reasons why international but mainly inter-regional labour migration has been since the colonial period an important option for young Burkinabè, who do not want to stay in subsistence farming. It is estimated that until the outbreak of violence in 2002, 3 million Burkinabè were living and working in Côte d’Ivoire, mainly as wage labourers on cocoa and coffee plantations. This amounts to one fifth of the population of Burkina Faso. The sheer dimension of this phenomenon poses some very pertinent questions – for individuals and the national economy alike - in connection to the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, since the latter country used to be the main destination for Burkinabè migrants and the most important economic powerhouse for West Africa. Since 2002, more than 360 000 Burkinabè have returned to Burkina Faso and the ongoing ethnic tensions in Côte d’Ivoire make it likely that a lot more will return in the coming years.

State of research

Some authors question the economic significance of Burkinabè labour migration on local households altogether and explain its pervasiveness in the experiences and the worldly wisdom that the young people are supposedly acquiring abroad [Hahn 2004]. However, this cannot explain why particularly regional migration has reached such an enormous scale in Burkina Faso. Compared to other countries in the region like Mali, Ghana or Senegal, transcontinental migration from Burkina Faso has remained relatively unimportant. The reasons for migration are multifaceted and lie within the realm of economics, history, politics and social networks. It remains to be seen, first, what the reasoning - particularly the economic reasoning - behind labour migration is; second, how individual decisions to migrate and therefore migration patterns are changed, now that Côte d’Ivoire is no longer a viable option; and third, which options returnees have for reintegrating into society and economy in Burkina Faso.

Several scholars have discussed identity in the context of immigration to Côte d’Ivoire before the outbreak of conflict there [cf. Launay/Miran and LeBlanc]. They have shown the varying importance of identity markers such as place of origin, language, profession, religion and nationality. Into the 1990s a specific “Dioula”-identity had evolved in urban areas among migrants, uniting people from very different national backgrounds, like Ivorians from the north and migrants from the neighbouring countries. Islam and a common language, Dioula - a simplified Mande-dialect that all Mande-speakers can pick up quite easily - were the two most important markers of identity for these migrants. However, there are no accounts of how identities have changed due to and in the aftermath of the conflict in which nationality was stressed as the main feature of identity and politicians fuelled xenophobia in order to mobilise support. On the one hand, it is obvious that the radical politics of Ivorité have pitted the north of the country against the south, but it is unclear how non-Ivorian Dioula, i.e. transnational migrants, have placed themselves within this new framework of power.

The Local Level

One thread of this research is to examine the local situation in south-western Burkina Faso by doing ethnographic fieldwork in one village in this region. Rural areas had to deal with the return of over 360 000 migrants, who were either expelled or lost their jobs and therefore returned (more or less) voluntarily when the conflict in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire broke out. The aim of this research will be to analyse the process of migration, return, reintegration and social change within one village by comparing the discourses and actions of migrants/returnees with those of non-migrants. The motives for migration and return and the perceived (economic and social) outcome will be the central theme for interviews and observation. Since some of the migrants belonged to a “second generation” of migrants in Côte d’Ivoire who never lived in Burkina Faso before, and since questions of citizenship or “Ivorité” played an important role in the conflict, it will be important to look at the migrants’ construction of identity and their affiliation to ethnically, religiously, regionally, linguistically or nationally defined groups. This is also important in order to understand migrants’ strategies of professional and social (re-) integration in Burkina Faso and possible tension arising in this context [Gupta/Ferguson 1992]. Information on these issues will be gathered during the fieldwork in rural south-western Burkina Faso (through participant observation, biographical interviews, village survey, genealogical trees, network analysis and examining the historical, social and political circumstances).

The National Level

A second thread of the research will be on the ongoing discussion about the potential benefits of international migration and of professional reintegration of returnees for development. Following the rising popularity of migration in the international debate, most prominently visible in the work of the Global Commission on International Migration, professional reintegration of migrants is often discussed under developmental aspects. The migrants are expected to return with increased knowledge, additional funds or both, and therefore to contribute to economic growth. The discussion has raised the nation states’ awareness of their own nationals abroad. The government of Burkina Faso has long since ratified the UN convention for the rights of migrant workers and their families and is actively pursuing new approaches in trying to get the diaspora and returnees to contribute to local development. Ironically, this ardour to include migrants into a country’s development process is occurring at a time, when anthropology has made a point of stressing that culturally bounded entities, akin to how nation states like to perceive themselves, are usually rather blurred - firstly, because cultural borders have never been clear cut, secondly, because the colonial era borders cross-cut ethnic and linguistic lines (particularly in West Africa), thirdly, because these borders could rarely be enforced by these nation states, and fourthly, because globalisation is leading to ever increased cross-border movements (of people as well as of goods, money, information and ideas). However, while the motivation for and yields of labour migration out of Burkina Faso as back are still unclear, the nation state has high expectations of international migration as a useful new tool in development. Interviews with politicians, civil servants and development experts, particularly from a project to reintegrate Burkinabè returning from Côte d’Ivoire, will complement my own experience of working with the German Development Cooperation GTZ on issues of migration and development.


Bringing the local and the national threads together is the major aim of this research project. It will examine how the decision-making of local actors (migrants/returnees and non-migrants) is influenced and shaped by economic conditions, the situation of conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, political discourse and development policy on migration and reintegration. It is clear that the nation state is not the single most important influence for individual decision-making, but due to its pervasive discourse, however, its influence on social change and migration patterns will have to be analysed thoroughly. The analyses will make use of anthropological works on globalisation, transnationalism, political economy, politics of identity and development anthropology.


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