Africa faces a trio of issues that are accelerating youth migration – the youth ‘population bulge’, high unemployment and mounting climate impacts. The ability of young people to move is an important adaptive response to all three.
Youth migration can help Africa adapt to climate change and meet its development goals, if managed well. But if poorly handled, it poses many threats, including persistent unemployment, civil unrest and instability.
Children born in 2020 will face at least twice as many wildfires, crop failures, droughts, floods and heatwaves as those born in 1960. Approximately one-billion – or half – of the world’s children live in countries rated as ‘extremely’ high-risk for climate change impacts. About 820 million are exposed to heatwaves, 920-million to water scarcity, and 870-million to cyclones or flooding.
Africa has the world's largest share of young migrants: a quarter (25%) of Africa’s migrant population is under 18, and 16% are aged 15-24. Meanwhile, Africa’s child (0-14) and youth (16-29) populations are growing (see graph). Currently, 60% of Africans are under 25 years old.
African population structure, 1990-2043
Source: African Futures & Innovation, ISS
Africa’s ‘youth bulge’ has significant development potential. Increasing the working-age population relative to dependents (children and elders) can free up resources to generate economic growth. This demographic dividend materialises when a country has at least 1.7 working-age people per dependent, but only if the labour force has the health, education and skills to form a productive labour market. Failing to harness this dividend could result in more poverty and unemployment.
Despite being more educated, healthier and connected than previous generations, youth are confronting escalating climate impacts and high rates of un- or under-employment. Approximately 16-million youth in Africa face unemployment, and 40% consider their living situations to be very or fairly bad. They overwhelmingly see joblessness as their biggest problem and feel the continent’s ageing leaders don’t care about their needs.
Migration can be a necessary choice among young Africans facing multiple shocks with little or no social protection, including youth.
Climate change is both a direct and indirect driver of migration and displacement. As a fragility amplifier, it is difficult to isolate from other social, economic and environmental factors. The compounding impacts of climate change, job scarcity, political apathy and social unrest are significant migration ‘push’ factors.
Migration offers a vital adaptation strategy that allows families and individuals to diversify skills and livelihoods, reduce climate-related risks, and gain exposure to education or new skills. Measures that support safe, voluntary and dignified migration, cheap and accessible remittance channels and strong diaspora engagement will help unlock the development potential of migration.
Forced displacement has fewer development benefits and more threats. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a 200% increase in displacement across Africa at 1.6°C of warming and 600% for 2.6°C degrees of warming.
Most of the world’s displaced are under 25 years. Children and youth are moving in response to climate hazards, either unaccompanied or with family or friends. Prolonged displacement has severe and lasting effects on children that can continue into adulthood and undermine development. Displacement disrupts education, access to nutrition, healthcare, livelihoods and stability. These disruptions can have lasting repercussions, including physical stunting, health issues, and less economically productive futures.
Displaced children are also at higher risk of violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect. Girls face more barriers and risks than boys. Unaccompanied minors and children separated from their families are among the most vulnerable.
Young people must be recognised as change agents who can create solutions that unlock youth potential and respond to migration challenges and opportunities. Youth are becoming increasingly mobile and often have different perspectives and priorities than adults, yet are rarely involved in the design and implementation of responses.
Africa’s youth are already active in driving solutions to complex problems. They are more connected than ever and increasingly vocal about contributing to innovation, community resilience, social progress and political transformation. While many governments and multilateral processes include youth voices, these processes must amount to more than lip service.
Youth are keen to be heard and to participate in decision making. Across Africa, they are demanding opportunities to influence climate change and migration policies. African youth representatives have called on governments to protect people fleeing climate change, facilitate free movement and enable accessible and safe migration that can unlock economic development.
The issues of adaptation, loss and damage, and a just transition will be front and centre at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), starting on Sunday. The Global Goal on Adaptation was an essential outcome of COP26 and is one of the four goals for the COP27 Presidency. Africa’s youth will watch to see if wealthy countries fulfil their financing commitments and prioritise support for the world’s most vulnerable communities.
Adaptation measures should include mobility solutions that avert and minimise forced displacement and facilitate safe, orderly and regular migration for young people in Africa. These include green skills, livelihoods, infrastructure, and services that generate youth employment. This will require inter-generational dialogue and recognition that youth are already developing solutions ahead of the adaptation curve.
Young people’s priorities and views differ from adults' and offer innovative perspectives on problems old and new. COP27 – and actions that follow – will be wise to strengthen African youth participation, make mechanisms and texts more accessible to young people, and amplify their voices.
Written by Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo, Senior Research Consultant, Migration, ISS Pretoria