5 tips for reporting on migration in Africa — and around the world

Jan 6, 2020 in Specialized Topics

Migration is a regular issue across Africa. Each year, thousands of African migrants — largely from sub-Saharan Africa — take a dangerous journey through the Mediterranean Sea, to Europe in search of a better life.

Nigeria, Sudan, Benin and Ghana are some of the countries migrants are likely to leave. According to a report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 181,000 migrants traveled by sea from Libya to Italy in 2016, and since 2014, 7,401 migrants have died in transit across Africa.

The Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ), an investigative media organization in Nigeria, organized a capacity-building training for 22 journalists across newsrooms in the country on reporting migration. The training was commissioned in September by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The goal of the training was to empower and equip journalists with the skills, methods and techniques to report on migration issues in Nigeria and across sub-Saharan Africa. 

The following tips will help a journalist reporting on migration, both in sub-Saharan Africa and throughout the rest of the world.

Know the laws

The first step to report on migration is to understand the laws regarding migration in each of the countries you report in, especially the laws that protect the rights of migrants. The law enriches your story, keeps you safe from potential legal cases that may arise as a result of libel or defamation, and ensures that you don’t distort facts about the migrants. 

“Migration is a phenomenon that we cannot wish away, no matter what we do,” she said. “So there must be frameworks to protect those who are taking the route,” said Franca Attoh, an associate professor at the University of Lagos. In order to become successful in this beat, she said, a journalist must have these laws available at their fingertips. 

She explained that the International Migration Law (IML) is a legal framework of the IOM, and it covers a variety of principles that regulate the international obligations of countries with regards to migrants. 

“Migrants are generally entitled to the same human rights protection as all individuals,” Attoh said. “They are given special protection under international law to address situations where their rights are most at risk, such as the workplace, in detention or in transit.”

The International Labour Organization’s Migration for Employment Convention protects migrant workers by guaranteeing their basic rights such as access to health care and the right to non-discrimination.

Understanding these laws and the ways they affect migrants helps you report knowledgeably on the topic. However, when in doubt, the reporter should reach out to a legal expert or senior colleague who is more experienced in migration reporting to make sense of the laws, and their implications.

Pitch your ideas

Pitching stories on migration requires you to put on your thinking cap, said Theohilus Abbah, a veteran journalist and director of the Daily Trust Foundation, the charitable wing of Nigeria’s largest newspaper. However, migration stories have many different angles, and don’t have to be siloed into one beat. There are so many different angles to take, that anyone — no matter what beat they’re on — can pitch a story on migration.

A great example of a migration story is Innocent Duru’s three-part investigation focused on the challenges Nigerians seeking asylum face in Europe. Another migration story focuses on Nigerian migrants who were victims of trafficking.

During the workshop, Abbah shared some examples, and explained to the participants various migration story ideas they could pitch to editors. These included the labor and employment of migrants, investments by Nigerian immigrants, the impact of migration on crime, human rights and discrimination, foreign aid, brain drain, rural-urban drift, internally displaced persons and migration-related laws.

Abbah also suggested exploring data and statistics from anti-trafficking agencies like the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons and the IOM, for example. These are good places to get story ideas, and data to support your reporting.

Cultivate sources

As with every beat, to make gains as a journalist covering migration, you must have a bank of sources. In fact, having as many sources as you can helps you to fall back on another when one fails. 

Freelance investigative journalist Tobore Ovuorie shared how she cultivates sources for her migration stories at the training. According to her, sources can be created in unusual ways, and everyone from local police to people who work in a pub are good sources for migration stories. When you first establish a source, Abbah provides the following tips to build and maintain a relationship with them:

  • Ensure a transparent and honest relationship with your sources, and never lie or mislead them. Do not make promises you cannot keep.
  • Verify their personal details, and be suspicious of any parts of the story they try to hide.
  • Ask difficult questions. 
  • Respect the decision to remain anonymous, but ask why he/she prefers this. (Editor’s note: See the IJNet resource on anonymous sources)
  • Respect the decision of your source not to reveal personal details that might make them vulnerable, or put them at risk.
  • As usual, don’t get too close to your source as this might undermine the ethical basis of your work.


Abbah suggested collaboration among fellow African journalists as a means of breaking big stories. Since migration is almost always a cross-border topic, it is beneficial to collaborate with colleagues in other countries to carry out large investigations. 

For example, for a story on the poor treatment of Nigerian migrants in Libya, collaboration with a local, Libyan journalist would be the first step for creating an impactful story. 

There are some media platforms designed to connect local journalists from different countries. Hostwriter, an international media organization based in Berlin, Germany is one of them. Other examples include Solutions Journalism Network, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Global Investigative Journalism Network and others.

Stay safe

Unfortunately, reporting on migration can have major security concerns. For example, when Ovuorie investigated migration and trafficking, she went undercover to join the traffickers on their trip in order to expose the syndicates. Whether or not you are taking on such a large story, every reporter must adopt some safety tips. 

During her session, Attoh shared practical ways to stay protected while covering migration stories: 

  • Always tell your editor or other management what you are working on so that they can keep tabs on your reporting activities, in case anything happens.
  • Decide on a safe meeting place to avoid putting you or your sources in harm's way.
  • Keep records of everything. This could be in written notes, on a computer, or as an audio or video recording. Records must be as accurate as possible, and dated and filed in such a way that they can be recovered when necessary. This way, if anything happens, your last notes will leave a trace on how to find you.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Daan Huttinga.