E.g., 06/01/2023
E.g., 06/01/2023
Burkina Faso: Testing the Tradition of Circular Migration

Burkina Faso: Testing the Tradition of Circular Migration

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For the Western African nation of Burkina Faso, as with its neighbors in the region, migration has been a way of life for over 1,000 years as people followed livestock and crops on a seasonal basis. The arrival of European colonial powers in the 19th century completely reshaped migration patterns. In the last 50 years, more traditional migration patterns have been reestablished, though these have retained important colonial characteristics. Overall, one Burkinabè in five now lives abroad.

Since its independence from France in 1960, the country has struggled to improve its agriculture-based economy. According to the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), which measures life expectancy, literacy, and standard of living, Burkina Faso has the third lowest HDI in the world, outranked only by Niger and Sierra Leone.

Although the country has seen some rural migration to the capital Ouagadougou, at least two-thirds of migration is to Côte d'Ivoire, its neighbor to the south and the traditional destination of Burkinabè emigrants. In 1990, the country's net migration (numbers of migrants entering the country minus those leaving) was 28,000, and, by 2000, this had become a loss of 68,000 a year, in a population of about 11 million. Due at first to colonialism and now globalization, Burkinabè tend to migrate not on a seasonal basis but for periods of up to two years before returning, and there is evidence that children born abroad are increasingly remaining in their country of birth.

Despite intolerant policies and conflict in Côte d'Ivoire in 2000 and 2002, which forced thousands to return to Burkina Faso, it continues to be the top destination although exact data is not available.

Burkina Faso has largely avoided upheavals and civil wars, familiar stories to many of its West African neighbors. It has not produced many refugees, and it has only received small numbers from neighboring Mali, most of whom have returned.

Yet, Burkina Faso, home to some 32 languages, three major religions, and 10 main ethnicities within its own borders, has become a destination for other migrants. Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of people living in Burkina Faso who were born outside the country tripled, from 438,000 in 1990 to over a million a decade later, almost 10 percent of the population. Thus, while a net exporter of people, Burkina Faso itself is rapidly becoming a country of migrants.

Historical Background

Prior to French colonization, which began in 1886, seasonal, also known as circular, migration centered on three principal occupations: herding, farming, and trade. Pastoralists followed their cattle and goats around the region in a seasonal movement, seeking better grazing in time with rainfall. Subsistence farmers tended their own fields, and, after the harvest, moved elsewhere to farm for others in Western, even Central Africa.

Those involved in short-term trade, usually women, took surplus crops to regional markets for exchange. Such trade resulted from a geographical division of food production, encouraged by the introduction of new crops from the Americas. These markets meant an area at the "hungry" end of its year would have a supply of food grown elsewhere. Some seasonal migrants settled in what were becoming semiurban market villages.

The region's various ethnic groups, such as the Mossi (some 50 percent of the country's population), the Lobi, and Fulani, among others, had once ruled areas whose boundaries crossed many colonial borders. Members of these groups were accustomed to moving in an economic zone that today crosses the borders of at least nine nations.

French conquest forcibly sought to restructure the region's economy and its migration patterns. Upper Volta, as Burkina Faso was then known, had no plantations of its own. Instead, it became France's main source of laborers for a variety of jobs, including plantation and factory work in Côte d'Ivoire as well as construction of Upper Volta's road, port, and communication links.

The French rulers had various means for forcing local people into these wage-labor jobs. They introduced taxation payable only in French francs, the currency used to compensate those who worked on plantations and in construction.

However, some Voltaïnique farmers fled tax collectors by migrating to British-dominated Ghana, where there was no forced-labor policy and where wage laborers were needed. The farmers were able to work and then return home when the tax collectors had left, in time to maintain their crops. This tactic worked only temporarily, as French currency exchanges refused to accept British pounds.

After 1893, each administrative district was issued a set quota of migrants. Upper Volta was expected to provide up to half a million workers, principally for Ivoirian plantations. Whole villages were depopulated as tribal chiefs — particularly Mossi, the most powerful people in the region before colonization — agreed to send their young men to fulfil these quotas, an attempt to keep some semblance of power.

Strengthening the effects of taxation, the French sought to bring local food growing into a European dominated economy. Trade in food stuffs had to be done in French francs, not by barter. Once currency from waged labor had become more common, the French set very low prices for these cash crops; it became difficult to make a living from market trading, which again forced local people to seek waged work.

The resulting, often forced migration of up to half the adult male population between 1900 and 1946 was not supposed to meet seasonal needs of Voltaïnique farmers but the global demands of first nut oil, then coffee and cocoa markets. Thus the district of Koudongon, west of the capital and the most densely populated district in the country, lost some 60 percent of its male adult population in the years between the two World Wars. As such, it was impossible for a Voltaïnique farmer to migrate to the Côte d'Ivoire, then return home in season to work his own land.

When the construction of administrative, transport, and communication infrastructures was completed, the French needed office administrators, clerks, and teachers. Of course, such jobs required at least primary, and, in some cases, secondary levels of education. As a result, people began to migrate to the capital but also to Ghana and Côte d'Ivore for education and for office and vending work.

Between 1932 and 1946, about 80 percent of Voltaïnique migration was within the region. Besides the Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, there was movement to Mali and Senegal for work on rail lines and other French projects. After World War II, migration to these other destinations declined, as did migration to Ghana, which experienced economic deterioration. Côte d'Ivoire, on the other hand, experienced a boom and sought out more workers. Moreover, other destinations had not built up the type of ethnic networks that aided migration to the Côte d'Ivoire, nor was there the economic growth in destinations such as Mali demanding more migrant workers.

The other source of waged employment was the French army, which actively recruited from its African colonies during both World War I and World War II. Colonial citizens who settled in France in the 1940s began the movement to Europe, which increased thanks to demand for colonial workers in French factories. Even so, few Voltaïnique migrated to France for either military service or factory work, because the French army economy had been so badly damaged during the war.

Burkina Faso's present-day borders took shape in 1947, when France carved it out of several adjoining colonies. What had been called Upper Volta was simply divided up. This move increased Voltaïnique migration to France's other, more productive colonies, particularly Côte d'Ivoire.

By this time, the French had successfully produced a waged-labor workforce. As a result, when forced labor was abolished after World War II, the French had made migration a necessary part of finding work.

Migration Since Independence

After World War II, emigration flows were evenly divided between Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana. Between 1960, when the country gained its independence, and 1973, Côte d'Ivoire became the destination for 55 percent of emigrants, with Ghana receiving only 18 percent. A key factor in the change seems to have been a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in Ghana (at least partly fueled by the government), whereas Ivoirians continued to accept, even encourage Burkinabè migration.

In addition, in these years, France was undergoing economic improvement and had begun to recruit lower-paid migrant labor from its former colonies, including Burkina Faso. Yet the Burkinabè response remained relatively low, probably because existing networks to Côte d'Ivoire were well established.

The character of their international migration was no longer seasonal, lasting an average of about two years followed by a return on a permanent basis. By 1973, the majority still worked in farming, but office work was increasingly popular and accounted for about 20 percent of such migrants. Likewise, rural-urban migration within the country had increased to some 20 percent of the total during the 1960s, with more people seeking office work in the two principal cities; much of this retained a return character as the country also saw substantial urban-rural migration.

In the decades following independence, Burkina Faso made various attempts to improve its economy and living standards, including both rural and urban development policies, implemented as part of Five-Year Plans. Rural development agencies were established to funnel funding into farming areas, foreign investment was encouraged, especially in cotton growing, and the government attempted to make credit available to rural people.

The government seems to have been uncertain about migration, sometimes openly declaring loss of migrants to be a problem yet also briefly setting up a labor agency to encourage such migration in the 1970s. This agency failed primarily because Burkinabè did not use it, tending to migrate using their own networks.

Since 1991, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has applied its Structural Adjustment Program in Burkina Faso. The program demands opening of markets, financial stability (including reducing company taxation while increasing personal taxation and efficiently collecting such taxes), and privatization of state-owned resources such as water facilities. There has been economic growth, but many have questioned the impact of the IMF programs, including former chief economist at the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz. The country's economy has remained impoverished and dependent on agriculture. The major companies are French owned, there is little development of Burkinabè businesses, and emigration continues. By 2000, between two and three million Burkinabè were working in Côte d'Ivoire, nearly 20 percent of Burkina Faso's population.

Until the 1980s, most women migrated for family reasons, usually leaving their parents' village to move to those of their husbands. There they did farm work, housekeeping, and child rearing. During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a noticeable increase in self-employment, which often included selling goods in towns. In some ethnic groups, women had long had a primary role in trade in local markets. By the 1980s, more women were working in offices and as teachers.

Before 1932, 85 percent of women moved within the country; by the 1970s, 30 percent of migration by women was abroad, especially to Côte d'Ivoire. The percentage of men migrating abroad with a spouse doubled between 1947 and 1973, but there is evidence that some women were migrating to find waged work, either working with a husband in farming or doing office work.

Burkinabè migrants have long tended to use their Burkina identify cards (a legacy of French rule) and not seek Ivoirian passports. Due to Ivoirian policy, Burkinabè children born there have no more legal rights to stay then their parents. Yet most such children see their place of birth as home. Parents whose children settle abroad may move to one of Burkina Faso's main cities, each of which have an airport, or to a village closer to a major road (many villages have no road links during the rainy season), so their children can easily travel back for visits.

Migration Differences Among Ethnic Groups and by Area

Within Burkina Faso, three major ethnic groups dominate the migration flows: Mossi, Fulani, and Lobi. About 80 percent of Mossi migrate in groups rather than alone; among the Fulani the rate of group migration is about 60 percent.

But each ethnic group, due to traditions and socioeconomic status, has a different strategy. Although French colonialism attempted to change such patterns, and globalization, particularly in the form of IMF programs, has continued to demand that Burkinabè modernize their economy, such ethnic economies and migrations strategies have been reasserted.

The Mossi, who compose about half of the population and occupy the Central Plateau region, were principal international migrants to Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana during French rule. By 1929, British authorities in Ghana counted nearly 80,000 Voltaïnique migrants crossing the border; most of them would have been Mossi. This migration had always primarily taken place under a system headed by several strong chiefs, who oversaw networks across Burkina Faso and in the destination country. But, in the 13 years after independence, these flows decreased 40 percent according to Dennis Cordell, a key researcher of Burkina migration. During this period, forced labor was gradually ended, so chiefs no longer had to send young men abroad.

Research suggests that many Mossi families have since developed a strategy of sending at least one member to Côte d'Ivoire at a time, to some extent overseen by tribal chiefs. Some remain abroad for long periods to oversee these networks to help new arrivals find work. The rest of the family remains at home, working the family fields.

Most Mossi return home after about two years. The majority still return to their family network, though there is evidence that more and more find life in a rural area unacceptable and drift off to more urban areas.

The Fulani, who live in the north, are mainly cattle and goat herders for whom Côte d'Ivoire is an important market. Better-off groups often send one member there to drive a herd for sale while others go to acquire capital with which to purchase a herd. In the Fulani economy, "rich" families are considered rich because they have enough members to allow one member to migrate and enough capital to finance the trip. Issues of social status among the Fulani transcend borders. When members of one Fulani subgroup, which is seen as inferior, migrate to Côte d'Ivoire, they tend to seek work as butchers, considered a job with low status.

The Lobi way of life is tied to agriculture and trade. In the 19th century, they migrated from northern Ghana to Upper Volta to seek new fields, having exhausted their previous farmland. They continued to move within the region due to various French policies. The Lobi produce food for markets and cash crops; they are credited with doubling Burkina Faso's export income in recent years.

Today, the Lobi move in large family groups, still seeking new lands to replace exhausted fields. In the past, there was some return migration, groups returning after some seven years to fields that presumably had replenished themselves in the interval. However, as the Lobi have met other ethnic groups, their potential for migration and return has been more and more limited. The average Lobi lives in three villages in a lifetime. But more colonial patterns of seeking work farther from home have continued so that about 28 percent of the Lobi people live away from their home village for 15 years or more.

All of these patterns are evident in different parts of the country. Bam province, north of Ouagadougou, is a striking case of internal migration to the country's southwest provinces of Volta-Noire and Hauts-Bassins, where the government opened new farm land in the 1970s, partly because a local, transmittable disease was eradicated. The area, home to sugar and produce farms, also has helped Burkina Faso become one of the world's top producers of cotton.

The villagers of Soukoundougou leave Bam province for three to five months when it is the rainy reason in the southwest. The whole village, except the oldest, walk to their temporary home, where they build a crop settlement. They return when the harvest is complete. Central-West and Mossi villages regularly lose people to this farming area because they choose to settle there permanently and not return.

An increasing number of young Burkinabè migrate to Côte d'Ivoire alone, without using Burkinabè social networks. They do not use these networks in part because they want to escape what they consider an oppressive social system in which tribal elders make decisions. However, by going it alone, they can have a particularly hard time finding work.

For instance, some Fulani migrate alone to Côte d'Ivoire with the goal of working and saving enough to buy goats or cattle. Because they do not use social networks, they often fail to find a job. Although they may find butchering work, they may be seen as a failure because this type of work has long been filled by another ethnic group with lower social status. Should a migrant fail even in this enterprise, reasons of social stigma can make return difficult if not impossible.

Ivoirian Policy and the Return of Burkinabè

Felix Houphouet-Boigny, who became independent Côte d'Ivoire's first elected president (1960-1993), instituted a policy of "land belongs to those who cultivate it." This policy ensured that the established pattern of migration to Côte d'Ivoire from Burkina Faso continued.

As a result, the economy of Côte d'Ivoire became dependent upon Burkinabè. By 1998, 56.6 percent of all migrants to that country were from Burkina Faso, and they made up about 13 percent of its population.

However, by the 1990s, the world price of cocoa, the most lucrative crop and major source of employment, plummeted, causing the government and economy serious problems.

When Houphouet-Boigny died, his successor, Konan Bedie, lacked his predecessor's stature. Challenges to his position from two opposition parties increasingly saw use of the "ethnic card" in elections. Bedie finally prevented his main opponent from standing on the grounds that he was not "an Ivoirian." An antiforeigner campaign using the slogan "ivoirité" was launched. It stigmatized opponents as "northerners" and "foreigners."

The first military coup took place just before the 2000 election. Opposition leader Laurence Gbagbo, who adopted all the nationalist identity policies of Bedie, won, and remains leader. He tried to purge the army of opposition, whereupon another coup was launched in 2002. By then, Côte d'Ivoire was effectively divided into northern ethnic groups against southern ones. France sent in troops and forced a cease fire.

Such antiforeigner campaigns resulted in fierce antagonism to migrants, particularly the Burkinabè. In January 2006, the United Nation's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs online news service estimated that more than 365,000 Burkinabè had fled home from Côte d'Ivoire. Migrants' home villages have absorbed many returnees, but others have gone to the capital city or to the relatively prosperous southwestern regions.

However, the UN Resident Coordinator in Burkina Faso, George Charpentier, estimates that since 1998 over a million have been forced to return, a third of them under age 15. In addition, Côte d'Ivoire has blocked the rail and road links to its port, Abidjan, on which Burkina Faso depends to export fruit, cotton, and other crops to European markets. The recent drought in the north put extreme pressures on the whole economy, already reeling from trying to reintegrate the returnees.

When Côte d'Ivoire regains stability and experiences economic growth, it is likely that it will follow the example of other countries in the region that have expelled large number of migrants — meaning Burkinabè workers will again be welcome.


In the 1990s, remittances made up about six percent of Burkina's GDP. Although remittances to Burkina Faso have proven hard to count, the World Bank estimated that in 1990 Burkinabè sent home $140 million. However, turmoil in Côte d'Ivoire, the primary source of waged work and hence of remittances, with occasional expulsions of Burkinabè, saw this figure fall to $67 million by the end of the 1990s. In 1994, exports accounted for $216 million of while imports stood at $344 million, thus demonstrating the importance of remittances in the country's income and expenditure accounts.

However, returning migrants do not always send remittances home or bring them back to invest except for some Fulani who may invest in herds, or Lobi who may invest in more stock for trading.

Mossi migrants do remit money, but there is a tendency for a returnee to bring money back personally, or even to use it to buy goods — sunglasses, umbrellas, and good clothes — which are used to impress those at home. In effect, questions must be raised as to whether the Mossi economy has any real notion of accumulation of capital and investment.

Migration to Burkina Faso

Despite its problems, Burkina Faso attracts a range of immigrants, from Syrian and Lebanese merchants to French professionals to Malian workers. The 1,124,000 immigrants from other countries resident in the country at the time of the 2000 census made up 10 percent of the country's 11 million people.

The numbers of migrants coming into Burkina Faso, at the rate of about 50,000 new migrants per year, has doubled since 1990. The 2000 total is made up of several sources. Ethnic groups like the Fulani and Lobi, who also live respectively in Mali, Ghana, and Côte d'Ivoire, routinely move to Burkina Faso. Just as Burkina Faso's economy assumes such migration, the same is true of Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, and others. Malians move into Burkina Faso to replace Burkinabè who have migrated elsewhere but also pass through on their way to Côte d'Ivoire.

In recent years, Burkina Faso, which has not been involved in the region's conflict areas, has become a destination for refugees. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants states that in 1996 the country hosted more than 25,000 refugees, most from Mali where there has been fighting between the government and armed insurgents. This number dropped to 1,000 at the end of 2000 as Malians returned home.


Mossi and Fulani ethnic-based networks have long existed to aid migrants. But as increasing numbers of young people independently make their way abroad to escape what can be a constricted life at home, more commercial trafficking networks have moved in. Males will pay such traffickers thousands of euros, which can leave then in debt for years, to be brought to another country in the region. There is evidence of limited trafficking of Burkinabè women into Europe for prostitution.

More disturbing is the trafficking of children for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation. Children are trafficked around and from Burkina Faso into Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Benin, Nigeria, and Mali. The country is also used as a transit post to move children from Benin, Togo, and Mali. Girls are used as domestic servants, beggars, and prostitutes while boys work as miners (particularly in gold mines), wood and metal workers, and domestics.

As Côte d'Ivoire has undergone IMF structural adjustment initiatives, employers there have sought out lower and lower paid workers. With the expulsion of thousands of adult Burkinabè workers, children have become a new source of cheap labor. The UN has reported that agents in Burkinabè villages offer children as young as 10 training opportunities in carpentry, mechanics, and even sewing. The agents give parents between $50 and $100 per child but then sell the children into virtual slavery in Côte d'Ivoire.

Although the government lacks sufficient resources to adequately address trafficking, it has recognized the problem and taken steps to improve the situation, passing an antitrafficking law in 2003. In 2004, four child-trafficking networks were broken up, resulting in 41 arrests. The government signed an agreement with the government of Mali in 2004 to cooperate on transborder child trafficking, which has brought some results: 20 Burkinabè child trafficking victims were repatriated that year because of this agreement. Four child-trafficking networks were broken up, resulting in 41 arrests.

The government has also established Vigilance and Surveillance Committees in nearly all provinces, and is working with UNICEF on providing transit centers for trafficked children. These centers served some 900 children in 2005. At the same time, the law passed in 2003 against trafficking, which carries strong penalties, has not been used, and while a signatory to international legislation on the issue, the government does not fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.

Looking Ahead

Unlike many of its neighbors, Burkina Faso does not have a large diaspora in the West, either in the United States or Europe. As explained earlier, there has been little Burkinabè migration to France. Italy has become a new destination for Burkinabè who go there to fill a demand for agricultural workers.

Yet, the reason for migration among Burkinabè does not solely revolve around the search for better-paying work and better opportunities. It is conceivable that the economic and social mores of the country's various ethnic groups can explain why most migration has been regional. Whether movement to the West increases will probably depend on the extent to which the country responds to economic modernization pressures.

One of the ongoing concerns of the Burkina Faso government is the permanent loss of citizens who seek education abroad and do not return. Secondary and university-level education is only available in Ouagadougou and Bobo Dioulasso. Since 1932, Mossi have gone to Ghana and non-Mossi to Côte d'Ivoire for higher education due to lack of adequate provisions at home. This division follows the historical links of Mossi with Ghana and non-Mossi with Côte d'Ivoire explored earlier. Again, most Mossi will be chosen by a tribal chief, though individual migration for education is on the increase. Among other groups, this will be a family decision. Once individuals complete their education, they often stay and find work where they can, with office work and teaching being increasingly popular vocations.

After French President Jacques Chirac launched an initiative two years ago to build closer links between French-speaking countries, a hundred Burkinabè were recruited by French-speaking Quebec in Canada to study at the Université of Montreal. This university has developed joint work with the Sahel Institute in Mali and is carrying out regular studies of Burkina Faso. It is possible Burkinabè students will remain in Canada, where, as of Canada's 2001 census, a few hundred Burkinabè had already settled.

Links by French universities, such as the University of Laval with the University of Ouagadougou, and the establishment of several French-supported research institutions in Burkina Faso, are increasing the movement of Burkinabè professors and students to France to present papers and do joint research. Consequently, there may be an increase in brain drain in the future.

Like its neighbors, Burkina Faso is a member of the region's free trade zone, ECOWAS (Economic Community of African States), which has worked towards a region-wide passport and removal of border controls to encourage free movement of people. However, Burkina Faso and its neighbors have done little to implement ECOWAS recommendations. While removal of border posts has taken place in theory, several national governments have carried out policies of forced expulsion. Burkina Faso's government has not gone this far but has spoken of significant problems with so many of its people migrating.

Although Burkina Faso takes part in seminars hosted by the World Bank and other institutions, on subjects such as supporting diaspora communities and using remittances to finance growth, it has developed no policies to turn such hopes into practice.

In short, there is every reason to expect that individuals, families, and ethnic groups will continue to shape Burkinabè migration more than the government of Burkina Faso.


Available data has been steadily improving. The National Migratory Survey, a retrospective survey carried out in 1974-1975, covers the years 1900 to 1975. In the early 1990s, the International Organization for Migration, with help from the UN Population Fund, organized a project on Emigration Dynamics in Sub-Saharan Africa. The inquiry Dynamique migratoire, insertion urbaine environment au Burkina Faso, published in 2001 by the Université de Quebeçois, and published as a Cahiers Quebeçoise de demographie, provides further data.

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