Sierra Leone: An Observation of Climate Change and Migration to Europe

By Cameren Lofton on April 6, 2020

In my last blog post, I discussed how climate change has affected migration from the rural and agricultural regions of Guatemala. This blog post will end the series on climate migration by highlighting migration from the country of Sierra Leone and how climate change is affecting the country.

Sierra Leonean Demographics, Economy, and Climate

The Republic of Sierra Leone, located in western Africa, has for a long time been the origin of refugees and labor migrants. However, it is one of the countries poised to be hardest hit by the effects of climate change. This has the potential to greatly alter migration from the country as residents search for new economic opportunities.

As of 2015, Sierra Leone’s population was around 6 million people. Due to poverty and extreme underdevelopment, the country is ranked 179 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index and ranks among the highest in malnutrition and child mortality. In addition to having a population that is susceptible to the negative effects of climate change, Sierra Leone has an economy that is not well-equipped to handle the consequences associated with climate change. In addition to its “rich soils, good rainfall, and abundant water resources”, the country has a climate that is mostly hot and humid. Sierra Leone’s economy is still heavily reliant on agriculture and natural resources. Rice and fish, two of its food staples, are threatened by increasing changes in rainfall and water quality.

The Effects of Climate Change

According to Sierra Leone’s Second National Communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the main effects of climate change on the country will be “decreased agricultural productivity, degradation of the coastline and damage to coastal structures, a shift from tropical rain forest to dry forest, food and nutrition insecurity, water stress and severe economic impacts that will undermine decades of development gains”. Climate change is predicted to increase temperature, instances of extreme weather, rainfall, and sea levels.

Rice is both an economic and cultural staple, comprising the largest portion of GDP from agriculture and almost half of the average person’s caloric intake. In addition to attracting more harmful insects, changes in humidity and rainfall can heavily affect crop yields. Fish, in comparison, also accounts for a large part of the average person’s diet in addition to a source of income for many. Rising sea temperatures threaten to change the water quality and level of nutrients in the ocean and other sites used for fishing.

Although Sierra Leone has an expansive water system, climate change threatens the future availability and quality of this water. Around 80% of the rural population receives water through this system. Furthermore, climate change threatens increases in the occurrence and intensity of floods, which account for “85% of disaster-related mortality” in Sierra Leone. In August 2017, residents in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, suffered a devastating mudslide and flash flood that killed more than 1,000 people and displaced many more. In addition to the high mortality rates associated with flooding, these projected changes also threaten “critical service and transport infrastructure”, leaving the country vulnerable on multiple fronts.

Migration in and out of Sierra Leone

From 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leone was entangled in a brutal civil war, during which civilians were often the target of violence and displaced from their homes. A peace agreement signed in 2002 has helped the country return to stability through democratic elections and a reform of the security sector. Still, during the conflict, the civil war was a source of large-scale forced displacement of Sierra Leoneans. In addition to forceful displacement as a result of the decade-long conflict, a lack of job opportunities has often led many to seek better economic prospects outside of the country.

Those from rural areas seeking better job opportunities often first travel to the country’s capital of Freetown, which is economically pressured by a lack of skilled workers and influxes of agricultural workers from the rural areas of the country. The destinations of Sierra Leonean migrants once they leave the country are varied. The neighboring countries of Guinea, Senegal, Liberia, and Mali host about a third of Sierra Leonean emigrants. On the other hand, the United States and the United Kingdom are among the top destinations for migrants due to their use of the English language and preexisting diaspora communities. “The view of Europe from Sierra Leone is an alluring one” and many migrants aspire to travel to Europe due to the difference in earning potential. According to UNICEF, the country receives around $79 million in remittances from those in the diaspora.

The Path to Europe

The path of migration from West African countries to Europe is a perilous one, fraught with danger, deceit, and death. Migrants from West Africa usually first cross through Niger, then the vast Sahara Desert to get to Tripoli in Libya, where they risk crossing the Mediterranean Sea. In 2015, almost 4,000 migrants died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Still, it is estimated that “more people might die while crossing the Sahara desert than while crossing the Mediterranean”. Smugglers make exorbitant profits off of desperate migrants and their families by over-charging and double-charging for the long trip from West Africa to Europe (usually Italy).

Local agents recruit migrants and connect them to smugglers. However, these agents do not always pay the smugglers the full amount they are given by migrants, leaving the migrants stranded at various points in the trip. In Libya, those who have been deceived by their agents and are unable to find a way to pay their ransom risk being “auctioned off” in Libya’s open slave markets. This journey can last months and can consist of physical and emotional torture. Even upon arrival in Europe, migrants, especially those with no connections, face the uncertainty of their status in their new residence in addition to multiple forms of exploitation and anti-African and anti-immigrant sentiment.


For decades, Sierra Leone has been the source of both refugees and migrants searching for better opportunities. Those affected by climate change could resemble either of these groups, as national disasters push some out of their homes and the changing climate threatens others’ economic opportunities and success. As I end this series, I would like to call attention to the increasing dangers faced by those pushed out of their homes and jobs by the negative effects of climate change.



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