Rationalising the ‘irrational’: How divine protection is utilised by migrants in high-risk migration

Charlotte Gilby 1.jpg

Photo by Chuttersnap on Unsplash.

Why do some individuals who are not fleeing violence or persecution, make the arguably ‘irrational’ choice to embark on high-risk migratory journeys?


This question has inspired my research into the cost-benefit evaluations that migrants make when undertaking high-risk journeys, in particular, the routes through the Sahara Desert. Before deciding to leave home, potential migrants are forced to evaluate instability and lack of opportunity at home with the potential gains they could achieve elsewhere; incorporated into this calculation are the potentially high migratory costs and risks (death, robbery, serious injury or assault). In spite of the risks and costs, many migrants choose to embark on journeys that are high-risk and dangerous, such as crossing the English Channel or the Sahara Desert. Traditional models of migration offer economic reasoning or simplified push-pull models as the sole reason and rationalisation for migration, but in doing so neglect the less ‘rational’ concepts that influence decision-making, including social prestige, rights of passage, culture, love, and religious beliefs. 


Based on my research, religious beliefs often have a pronounced influence on migration decisions, which can explain some of the ways in which individuals rationalise taking migration risks. In a challenge to Western scientific notions of validity and replicability, sociologist Jens O. Zinn suggests that ‘non-rational strategies’ such as religion, beliefs and hope can help to bridge the gap between the academic notion of ‘rational’ and the unexplained but existent forces that everyone experiences. Religion is a force within peoples’ lives which is not suspended during the process of migration, yet is completely overlooked in migration literature.


Globally, there are entire spaces dedicated for the religio-spiritual pre-departure preparations, such as the Grand Mosque in the city of Agadez, Niger – commonly called the ‘gateway to the desert’. In these spaces, migrants engage in a range of beliefs, practices and ceremonies to spiritually prepare for their journeys. In some instances, these practices invoke a migrant’s belief in divine protection from a God or Gods. I propose that some migrants will – through certain practices and beliefs – invoke their God(s)’s protection in order to mitigate perceived migratory risks, ultimately increasing their chances of migration success, thus allowing them to embark on their journey. It is difficult to quantify the strength of a migrant’s belief in God(s) and, moreover, observational difficulties can prevent distinguishing between true belief and performativity. However, I propose five basic categories of religious protection which migrants may call upon for safety and success. These categories are informed by academic findings and interviews with migrants from secondary sources. They are not mutually exclusive and are often used in combination with each other:

Charlotte Gilby 2.jpg

1. Transactional protection: Migrants engage services or goods in order to provide themselves with a form of protection. Examples include buying amulets, rituals, sacrifices, seeking advice from Marabouts (religious leaders), removal of curses, or ceremonies. Migrants have the most control over this type of protection because it requires a conscious effort and taking purposeful action to increase their migration success. While not every action or transaction will be designed to increase divine protection, many are.

2. Comparative protection: Migrants believe that those who are less dutiful than they are will incur higher migratory risks, while they in turn will also gain some protection by dutifully following their religion. This hierarchical superiority is often a reflection of social pressure to be perceived as more religious than others and a desire to explain uncontrollable environments. 

3. Rule-based protection: The migrant believes that they will receive divine protection because they have been a dutiful religious follower. This does not rely on the actions of others, but instead, the migrant believes that their religious strength or purity has sufficiently impressed their God(s) to be rewarded with divine protection.

4. God's approval protection: The migrant believes that their journey is approved of by God(s), therefore they will be provided with a protected and safe journey. This category encompasses a range of opinions from believing their journey will be protected because God(s) approves of their goals (like education or work), to God having directed their actions. This is a difficult category to identify because it depends on the migrant’s self-perception. For example, many West African migrants use the phrasing ‘if God wills it’ or ‘in sha'Allah’ (an Arabic phrase that translates to ‘if Allah wills it’). Whilst these terms are used colloquially, the frequency of their use in migrant interviews combined with the significance of religion in West Africa (and other parts of the world) questions to what extent this is only a colloquialism.

5. Fate: The migrant has no perceived control over potential obstacles because their God(s) have complete control over their life, migration trajectory or death. Fate can be conceptualised in many different ways. For example, some conceptualise that God has determined their death time, therefore it does not matter where they are or what they are doing; if their death time arrives, then they will die.


These categories do not represent a complete understanding of divine protection relating to migration but instead provide an initial framing device. This framework helps to conceptualise the ways in which migrants individually rationalise high-risk migration. There is ongoing research into migrants’ understandings of migratory risks, both based on their baseline understanding (family, friends or independent research) and after information campaigns. Whilst many migrants have imperfect migratory information, there are examples where migrants are very aware of the risks (both physical and ‘metaphysical’, like vampires or curses) and still choose to embark on high-risk routes. This religious rationalisation provides another angle of inquiry for understanding migrants’ high-risk migratory decisions.


Overall, the divine protection rationalisation framework suggests a new way of looking at how migrants rationalise high-risk migration, especially when there is a significant risk of death or serious injury. Whilst it may not be exhaustive, hopefully, it will ignite a conversation about rationalising the ‘irrational’ factors of irregular migration. Finally, I also hope that this article invites the reader to question, how can a person balance Western scientific or economic rationalism and personal rationalisations (through religion, love, hope) in decision-making? 

Charlotte Gilby.png

Charlotte Gilby

I am a recent Masters graduate from the London School of Economics studying migration and policy. I wrote my dissertation about how migrants crossing the Sahara Desert use religious understandings and practices to mitigate perceptions of migratory risk. I have had the fortune of migrating between the UK, France and Canada for my education as well as conducting research in Ethiopia. I am currently taking time out to gain some professional experience before starting a PhD.

You can contact me about anything raised in the article at gilbycharlotte@gmail.com

puerro largo.png

You might also like...

Alina Berg 00 main title pic.jpeg

Authentication of movement: Who gets to be a pilgrim on the Camino?

Tamara Khamis (photo by Tamara).jpeg

The visibility of Islam in Japan

Soumia Bouhdoud Pic 1S.jpg

How vocabulary reveals the tough reality of sub-Saharan migrants in the city of Kenitra, Morocco