In times of an ever more connected world, it is no surprise that the issue of migration is growing in importance for policymakers. While theorists have dived into this issue and established well-developed migration theories, the research into the reasons why people stay, remain neglected. Accordingly, it is interesting to explore this side of migration by looking at Côte d’Ivoire, a country where migration is a topic of daily concern. By exploring migration patterns in this country, this article suggests that general theories do not always fit and therefore it is crucial to consider the lived experience of migrants.


In 2020, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic drastically effected human mobility, including migration. Borders around the world closed and there were several disruptions to international travel. Thousand of migrants were stranded or forced to return when their job opportunities disappeared, even though some were also unable to return because of the situation. Although the pandemic worsened this situation, there has been an increase in migration numbers for decades. With increasing security threats, widespread conflict and environmental disasters in several countries, more people were forced to try and continue their lives somewhere else. Overall it has been estimated that 281 million people are living in a country other than their countries of birth in 2020. This is 128 million more people than in 1990 and over three times the estimated number in 1970.[1]


Côte d’Ivoire suffers from a problematic political situation and scores far below average on governance and stability factors.


Africa in particular is often considered as the continent of mass migration and displacement of people, which is in most cases due to either poverty or conflicts. Following famous theories of migration, it can be expected that these circumstances would push people to seek a better live elsewhere. There are 56 million people emigrating from African countries compared to 63 million from Europe and 51 million from Asia.[2] Additionally, Sub-Saharan Africa has had the second largest share of intra-regional migration in the world. Since migration is such a critical phenomenon, it is just as interesting to explore immobility, or in other words, the reasons why people stay when traditional migration theories predict they would leave.


Cote d’Ivoire: a deviant case

Cote d’Ivoire is one of those cases that seems to contradict widely accepted migration theories. While almost every country within the region has so-called balanced migration patterns, the case of Côte d’Ivoire has much higher immigration stocks relative to its emigration rates. This means that , meaning more people move to Cote d’Ivoire than those who move away. According to data from the Migration Policy Institute (2019), 2.5 million immigrants entered the country in 2019 compared to 1.1 million emigrants. This migration pattern occurred in a remarkable economic and political context.[3] First, the economy had grown with an average rate of eight percent since 2012 and is expected to have grown another seven percent by the end 2020 according to the World Bank.[4] Consequently, Côte d’Ivoire has one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. Second, in 2002 a heavy civil war emerged following dissatisfaction with leader Gbagbo. Thousands of civilians fled because of armed attacks, torture, and other human rights abuses. In 2010, violence erupted again when Gbagbo did not want to give up his position but  ultimately he was forced to resign.[5] Despite a return to peace, Côte d’Ivoire suffers from a problematic political situation and scores far below average on governance and stability factors.


The poorest people will not migrate because social and economic resources are necessary to move, which poor people often lack.


Understanding migration in Africa

Migration studies tend to focus only on the mobility side of migration and in doing so they suffer from a ‘mobility bias’. However, it can be very valuable to focus on the drivers of immobility as well, as they are as complex as those of migration.[6] In the case of Côte d’Ivoire, existing migration theories would expect the political and economic dynamics in the country to act as migration drivers, but this has not been the case since emigration numbers have remained relatively low. This article will explain this apparent paradox by applying general theories on migration drivers in the economic and political dimensions but instead use these to explain immobility.


Some facts and figures

Côte d’Ivoire is the country with the largest immigrant population in West-Africa, with nine percent of its population being immigrants.[7] The current migration system in West-Africa is characterized by migration from the dry and deprived Sahel region to coastal states such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria. Labour migration is largely determined by changes in the labour demand of the plantations and oil industries in these countries.[8] Considering emigration trends, emigration numbers in Cote d’Ivoire are way lower, which makes it an ‘exception’ and ‘outlier’ in the migration patterns in Africa. Côte d’Ivoire sees few of its citizens leaving but is a popular destination country. The people that do emigrate often take jobs in manufacturing, the hotel industry, the service sector, or agriculture. Additionally, the emigration of Ivorians is often driven by economic benefits such as better jobs and higher pay, instead of goals such as gaining personal freedom or better education. Apart from these insights into Ivorian emigration patterns, a comprehensive understanding of them is lacking.[9]


Figure 1: Proportionate distribution of international migrants, by region and country or area of destination, 2020


Migration: a zero sum game of capabilities and aspirations?

Several theories on the economic and political drivers and hinders or hurdles of migration have tried to explain the migration paradox in Côte d’Ivoire. Traditional, neoclassical theories argue that international migration is driven by weak growth, relative poverty and unemployment in origin countries, as well as growing labour demand in industrial countries. In short, this means that poor people are pushed out of their countries in search of better lives abroad.[10] Consequently, aid, development and rapid economic growth create new industries and employment opportunities at home that entice potential migrants to stay. From this point of view development reduces migration aspirations and thus overall migration.[11] Recent findings, however, contradict these classic economic theories. Instead of development causing a decrease in migration numbers, it is argued that development could increase the number of people migrating from the country, at least in the short or medium term. Evidence suggests that people who have more capabilities to move are more likely to take a chance on emigration. In other words, the poorest people will not migrate because social and economic resources are necessary to move, which poor people often lack.[12] Accordingly, it is suggested that people in Côte d’Ivoire might lack the economic capabilities to leave as a great part of the population is poor.[13]


Wealth in Côte d’Ivoire resulting from the extensive economic growth seems to be unequally distributed. For one group in the country the economic growth created wealth which diminished their migration aspirations, but most of the population could not benefit from this.[14] The increasing economic inequality thus further reduced people’s capabilities to migrate. Additionally, while most people in Côte d’Ivoire do not have a job that pays a cash income, many people work in low-skilled sectors like agriculture and are probably self-sufficient to some extent. Being unemployed or being employed in an agricultural job reduces the chance that someone considers emigration and could therefore explain the immobility in Côte d’Ivoire.


With civilian violence regularly escalating in Cote d’Ivoire this is expected to be a major reason for leaving the country.


The dimension of politics and violence

As economic factors influence migration patterns, so do political factors. Political drivers such as war, conflict and corruption could increase the aspirations of people to leave. For example, physical threats disrupt education and health services, may lead to collapsing markets and reduce access to public goods. Consequently, the prospects for decent livelihoods are curtailed which enhances the aspiration to migrate.[15] Furthermore, the breakdown of governments may give rise to violence beyond acceptable levels which leads to conscious decisions to leave.[16] With civilian violence regularly escalating in Cote d’Ivoire this is expected to be a major reason for leaving the country. Next to violence, several scholars have found a positive correlation between corruption and migration.[17] Corruption could create certain economic and social costs that pushes people to migrate to less corrupt countries.[18] Furthermore, it may lead to inequality or shift public expenditure away from important sectors such as health and education. These sectors are then affected by the increasing costs and lowering quality, thereby reducing life expectancy and literacy.  By creating inequality, corruption could however also constrain the capabilities of the poor to migrate. In such situations, corruption ‘traps’ people and may have a reverse effect on migration.[19] Following statistics from the Corruption Perception Index (2019), Côte d’Ivoire is suggested a corrupt country as it scored 35 out of 100 (0 being highly corrupt and 100 Very clean).


The lack of experience of Ivorians with violence and corruption contributes the aspiration to stay.


There does indeed seem to be a positive relation between emigration aspirations and high levels of (political) violence and corruption, but respondents did not experience current violence and corruption in Cote d’Ivoire as problematic.[20] The results on the corruption indicators were less obvious however. The level of corruption had a significant relation to the aspiration of migration, but most people did not have experience with corrupt practices, and few suspected that several national and regional public actors were involved in corruption frequently. So, in contrast to the macro-level data on governance indicators, a survey showed that most Ivorians do not experience political problems and therefore did not develop politically driven migration aspirations.[21]



Overall, an explanation for the immobility paradox could be found in the unequal character of Côte d’Ivoir’s economy as well as Ivorians marginal experience with violence and corruption. While economic growth diminished the migration aspiration for a large proportion of Ivorians, the lack of capabilities in relation to the economic dimension might be the best explanation for the overall immobility. Furthermore, the political circumstances in Côte d’Ivoire do not seem to drive people out of the country. Therefore, the lack of experience with violence and corruption contributes to the aspiration to stay.


What the case of Côte d’Ivoire shows is that theories within social science are often very general but in practice, explaining social phenomena relies heavily on specific contexts and lived experiences. Social science often requires to include the opinions of real people to understand what drives them to do something or not. The case of Côte D’Ivoire is a clear example where theories, while tested and researched for decades, are not complete without looking at what people actually do and feel. Overall, the results of this study suggest that theories, especially within social sciences, are never complete and should always be open to development. For policy makers and other actors involved it is crucial to not only base their plans and policies on existing theories and research, but always search for new outliers. Additionally, it is important to frequently go into the field and collecting people’s experiences and attitudes about the issues at stake.


Redacteur: Deirdre Meursing



[1] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. International Migration 2020 Highlights. United Publications,  2020.

[2] United Nations, International Migration.

[3] Maastricht Graduate School on Governance. “Study on migration routes in West and Central Africa: Cote d’Ivoire Migration Profile.” 2017. Retrieved from:

[4] The World Bank. “GDP growth (annual percent) – Cote d’Ivoire.” Accessed December 2022.

[5] Maastricht Graduate School on Governance, Study on migration routes.

[6] Halfacree, K., & Rivera, M. J. “Moving to the countryside …. And staying. Lives beyond representations.” Sociologia Ruralis, 52 no. 1 (2012):  92– 114.

[7] Maastricht Graduate School on Governance, Study on migration routes, 7.

[8] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “West Africa as a Migration and Protection Area.” November 2008.

[9] Flahaux, M. & de Haas, H. African migration: trends, patterns, drivers. Comparative Migration Studies, 4, no. 1 (2016): 1-25;  UNHCR Regional Representation for West Africa. “Cote d’Ivoire.” August 2017. Retrieved from:

[10] Massey, D., Arango, J., Hugo, G., Kouaouci, A., Pellegrino, A., & Taylor, J. “Theories of International Migration: A Review and Appraisal.” Population and Development Review, 19, no. 3 (1993): 431-466.

[11] De Haas, H. “Turning the Tide? Why Development Will Not Stop Migration.” Development & Change, 38, no. 5 (2007): 819-841.

[12] Bakewell, O., De Haas, H. Castles, S. Vezzoli, S. Jónsson, G. “South-South Migration and Human Development: Reflections on African Experiences.” IMI Working Paper Series, no 15 (2019); De Haas, Turning the Tide?, 810-841.

[13] Van Mil, S. “Exploring the Immobility Side of Migration: Analysing the Case of Côte d’Ivoire.” Bachelor Thesis, unpublished, 2020.

[14] Van Mil, Exploring the immobility side of migration.

[15] Raleigh, C. (2001). “The search for safety: The effects of conflict, poverty and ecological influences on migration in the developing world.” Global Environmental Change, 21, no. 1 (2001): 82-93.

[16] Black, R., Bennett, R., Thomas, S., & Beddington, J. “Climate Change: Migration as Adaptation.” Nature, 478 (2011): 447–49.

[17] Dimant, E., Krieger, T., Meierrieks, D. The Effect of Corruption on Migration 1985-2000. Applied Economics Letters, 20, no. 13 (2013): 1270-1274.; Proprawe, M. “On the relationship between corruption and migration: empirical evidence from a gravity model of migration.” In: Public Choice, 163 (2015): 337–354.

[18] Proprawe, On the relationship between corruption and migration, 337-354.

[19] Bohra-Mishra P, Massey DS. “Individual decisions to migrate during civil conflict. Demography 48, no. 2 (2011): 401–424.

[20] Van Mil, Exploring the immobility side of migration.

[21] Van Mil, Exploring the immobility side of migration.


Figure 1: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. International Migration 2020 Highlights. United Publications,  2020.

Stéphanie van Mill achieved her bachelor’s degree in Political Science: International Relations and Organisation at Leiden University in 2020. To do so, she wrote a thesis called ‘Exploring the Immobility side of Migration: Analysing the Case of Côte d’Ivoire’. Her thesis was nominated for the ‘best thesis’ prize of all graduates of the degree Politicology in its year. Last year she also achieved a master in International Public Management and Public Policy at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. There, she wrote a thesis about the effects of human rights violations around FDI. She is currently studying at the University of Geneva where she’s focussing on themes such as sustainability, human rights and enterprising in an internationally responsible way.