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Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa



Generation Exodus? Youth mobility politics and radical change in West Africa

1½-day workshop organised by CODESRIA / NAI

8-9 December 2022, Dakar, Senegal

This hybrid workshop invites a collective reflection on the role of human mobility in shaping West Africa’s economic, political, and social future, with a particular focus on the practices, aspirations, and reflections of young people in the region. The workshop seeks to facilitate an exchange between researchers, decision makers, policy analysts, and youth activists on this important theme.

Young people are often at the frontlines of political mobilisation and societal change. In many West African contexts, human mobility has become increasingly central to such forces. In the Sahel region in particular, jihadist violence has generated the fastest growing displacement crisis in the world. At the same time, European interventions in the aftermath of the so-called refugee crisis of 2015-16 are challenging the region’s long-standing principles of free movement. How do these challenges affect the outlooks and roles of young people in the subregion? Whereas the 2010s may be said to have been a decade where young people were making their voices heard on the streets, from Cairo to Cape Town, many observers outside the continent now fear that the future will be one of increased emigration towards the global north. These fears often centre on the continent’s projected population growth, and the threat of conflict and climate related displacements. Are we seeing a shift from a generation of voice to a generation exodus?

In a deeper historical, social, and political light, the idea that West Africa’s young generation is seeking its fortunes elsewhere seems to reflect external political concerns more than empirical realities. Human mobility has played an incomparable role in the political, economic, and social history of West Africa. In addition to its deep history of settlement and exchange, the region’s political economy was to a large extent shaped around the availability of mobile labour. This human resource was systematically exploited through forced labour and extractive plantation economies under colonial occupation and, after independence, reshaped as regional circular migration systems that shaped the geopolitical and economic landscape of the region significantly. At the same time, the gradual depletion of arable land led to growing tensions in the most fertile regions and these tensions and localized conflicts, in turn, fuelled political discourses in which migrants were targeted and demonized. In parallel with these broad historical changes, finally, social and family ties have always brought people together over long distances in this region, and mobility, in this way continues to function as a fundamental social resource, as it has for generations.

In light of this recent economic, political, and social history, the role of mobility in West Africa is currently being reshaped by the European imposition of restrictive migration governance regimes; the growing threat of regional jihadism emanating from the Sahel region; as well as in response to global challenges related to the covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. In the context of this onslaught of mobility-restrictive measures and discourses, young people have become increasingly defined as the heart of the perceived problem. The region features the youngest population in the world, and the projected population growth over the next generation is set to double the number of people seeking meaningful lives and livelihoods. What is rarely heard are the voices of young people in West Africa themselves.

Contributions should address the overall theme of the workshop, as outlined above, and be delimited in relation to one of the following subthemes:

  1. Understanding mobile youth labour

Mobility is, in many contexts, connected to livelihood strategies. In many West African contexts, young people aspire to and are expected to contribute to their own and sometimes their family’s sustenance through labour, and internal or transnational mobility may serve as a central resource in this regard. Regional mobility is often evoked as a source of mobile labour but rarely understood empirically, and the roles and experiences of young people are particularly absent. How is mobile youth labour recruited and organised? Who are the brokers of these movements, and how have the forms, effects and discourses been changed or consolidated over the past decade?

  1. Social and political youth mobilisation

The increased politicisation of immigration in the global north dominates current thinking around African mobilities in general, and the mobilities of West African youths in particular. At the same time, young people in many West African contexts are challenging these external perceptions of their aspirations and practices, while also mobilising to claim recognition of their fundamental rights, and accountability and action from their elected leaders. The politics of mobility, in this regard, relate as much to global power structures and injustices, as they reflect more localised questions relating to identity, citizenship and belonging. How are young people mobilising in relation to mobility-related discourses or courses? What are their grievances, and who are their audiences?

  1. Deconstructing child and youth migration

The mobility of young people is often treated with ambivalence in both academic and policy-related discussions. A central ambivalence concerns the mobility of children, which reflects an important socio-cultural institution but also a field of intervention geared towards child protection and anti-trafficking measures. Debates in this regard highlight the tension between biological age and social constructions of childhood, and invites critical and empirically grounded analysis of the meanings and roles of family, community, and care. How do young people and other actors in West African contexts articulate and challenge ideas about child and youth migration? What are the fault lines between external and localised discourses around rights and protection of young people on the move, and which forms of movement are most relevant in specific empirical contexts in this regard?


Participation in this workshop is possible either in person or virtually, and is premised on the submission of a short abstract (200 words) and a bio (max 200 words), submitted to cohostingworkshop@codesria.org.

Please indicate in your submission email whether you intend to participate virtually or in person, and whether you require financial assistance to cover travel and accommodation costs.

Participation is premised on the submission of a full paper before the workshop (see deadlines below), in order to allow for substantial engagement of all participants during the workshop.


Important dates

Deadline for submitting abstracts: 31 October 2022.

Information about the selection of contribution will be shared with all applicants no later than 15 November 2022.

Presenting authors of accepted papers must register for the Workshop by 20 November 2022.

Full papers must be submitted no later than 25 November 2022.


Paper abstracts

Length: 200 words

Language: English or French

Font: Times New Roman 12

No references, tables or graphics in the abstract.

Re abbreviations, please write the full name at first mention, abbreviation in parenthesis.



The Scientific Committee is looking forward to your contributions and to meeting you in person, this year in Dakar.


Scientific Committee: Jesper Bjarnesen, Papa Sow, Khady Diop, Almamy Sylla/Yacouba Cissao (from the Soft Infrastructures research project)


Workshop Format

Day 1 Opening session by the organisers (NAI and CODESRIA)


Key Note address by decision maker/policy expert


Paper session 1 (4 papers)


Paper session 2 (4 papers)


Workshop dinner

Day 2 Reflections by the organisers (NAI and CODESRIA)

Paper session 3 (4 papers)


Plenary session on main take-away points and ideas for publication project(s), moderated by organisers

Closing of the workshop


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