Phd Scholarship: New Methods and Perspectives on African Migration (Interface Demography, Vrije Universiteit Brussel)

Research topic

Migration patterns vary substantially across regions and countries, and flows have changed considerably over time. Africa has a long history of internal and international migration, with migrants moving within and beyond the continent. In 2015, the UNDESA estimated(1) that 14 percent of international migrants1 in the world originated from the continent. According to the JRC report(2) the number of people in Africa moving from their home country is set to increase in line with population growth over the coming decades. The majority of the people on the move remain on the African continent, with about 40% of them coming to Europe. As an important force of development in both sending and destination regions, migration forms a top-priority issue in the global policy debate. The main objective of this study is to incorporate the remote sensing perspective to analyse the migration patterns within and from Africa, the drivers behind them (such as environmental factors, epidemic dynamics, etc. in addition to socio-economic aspects). The project also aims to provide a deeper understanding of the potential effects of policy decisions on migratory flows, and project potential scenarios for the future. 

The reasons that force people to leave their country, the factors driving the routes chosen by the different communities to migrate, the migration patterns, and, moreover, the monitoring of the migrants and their safety along their way, could be much better understood and managed if there was a larger synergic exploitation of the available data sources (and technologies), including space and non-space big data. 

Satellite data are ideal data for monitoring, measuring, verifying and reporting. Data are objective, spatially continuous and consistent, reach everywhere and see beyond what human eye can perceive, allow for comparisons across time and space, and are sustainable – with EC’s Programme Copernicus the long-tern availability and free of cost access to weekly Sentinel data across the world is ensured. The synergic use of satellites with non-satellite data reinforces the power of any application, and specifically the analysis of migration. Satellite data are a particular valuable data resource in migration analysis as they enable performing systematic, consistent and accurate monitoring of areas (no matter how remote or inaccessible) affected by conflicts or by anthropic/natural hazards. Satellites have been also used to assess and predict the risk of diseases in tropical zones (Cholera, Ebola, Meningitis, etc.). Projects such EPIDEMIO and VECBORN (ESA) demonstrate the use Sentinel 1 and 2 missions to analyse relationship between environmental variables and epidemics in developing countries, which are also a migration driver. Furthermore, satellites were used along with cell phones to assess and predict the risk of diseases, like cholera in Bangladesh3. The impact of violence around the world, of anthropic or natural origin, leaves visible traces on the surface of the earth. These effects can be observed and recorded by eyewitnesses, journalists and researchers. But witnesses can be scarce, remote areas can be difficult to access and safety concerns can prohibit the presence of independent monitors. 

Accounting for these factors – environmental, epidemic and socio-economic – simultaneously can be quite complex and both, the global-scale and, particularly, the detailed (sub-national) scale must be considered to achieve a throughout understanding. A better understanding of migration in and from Africa is needed.

Job description

We expect you to prepare a doctoral dissertation under the supervision of Prof. Tuba Bircan and Prof. Sylvie Gadeyne in the fields of Sociology, in which you

o develop and work on case studies to map and monitor voluntary and involuntary migration within and from Africa with satellite imagery

o pay special attention to refugee camps to identify changes over time and to observe the growth and decline of refugee numbers

o analyse the drivers of migration with a specific focus on environmental factors and epidemic dynamics in Africa

o assess the use of satellite imagery for humanitarian aid

• For your PhD you make use of remote sensing, machine learning algorithms and quantitative methods

• You are expected to support the teaching staff in their educational tasks (max. 10% of your time)


• Master in Statistics, Data Science, Mathematics, Computer Science, Geography, AI or social sciences with a strong quantitative focus (High study grades are recommended)

• Solid hands-on experience with R and/or Phyton programming and statistical software (i.e. STATA, SPSS, etc.) and advanced statistical modeling is a must

• Familiarity and/or technical knowledge of Big Data tools and machine learning algorithms (Hadoop, Spark, Mahout)

• Interest in remote sensing and space data

• Great affinity with social and global issues, in particular migration/human mobility

• Excellent writing and analytical skills

• Proficiency in English is a must

• Female candidates and members of ethnic minority or refugee groups are particularly encouraged to apply.


• A 4-years fulltime PhD-scholarship, renewable on a yearly basis
• A monthly scholarship depending on the academic work experience.
• Full reimbursement of (public transport) commuting expenses in Belgium.
• A dynamic and stimulating research environment.
• Suggested (but not fixed) starting date: May 2020

Deadline for application: 15 February 2020

For more information, see: