This year the African Union is focusing on the problems of Africa’s refugees and forced migrants. But more must be done to promote peaceful migration and harmonise labour migration policies.
When African leaders assembled in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, for the annual African Union (AU) summit in February, they aimed to address a major issue that has been afflicting the continent: migration and its impact.
Under its theme for 2019 – “Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Towards Durable Solutions to Forced Displacement in Africa” – the continental body committed to promoting better regional integration and harmonising labour migration policies in line with the needs and resources of member states.
In May 2018, the AU Department for Social Affairs drafted a revised policy framework to replace the Migration Policy Framework for Africa that was adopted in 2006.
Key elements of the revised framework include strategies on diaspora engagement, border management, irregular migration, forced displacement, migration and trade.
As Africans migrate within and out of the region to Europe, driven by poverty, conflict and the lure of better opportunities, the international conversation has focused largely on tragedies in the Mediterranean.
But while out-of-Africa migration is a problem, research has shown that more than 80% of African migration happens within the continent.
Major intra-regional corridors include Burkina Faso-Côte d’Ivoire, South Sudan-Uganda, Mozambique-South Africa and Sudan-South Sudan, according to the AU. There were an estimated 21m migrants in Africa, of which 18m are Africans and the rest from Europe, Asia, and North America.
West Africa accounts for the largest share of intra-regional migration with over 70% migration within the sub-region linked to employment.
About 1.3m moved from Burkina Faso to Côte d’Ivoire or vice versa in 2017 alone.
This trend owes much to common cultural and ethnic affiliations and shared languages, as well as reforms by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that aim to remove barriers to the movement of people, trade and capital.
The major sectors that drive economic migration in the continent include agriculture, mining and construction, but there is increasing demand in domestic work, retail and hospitality as well as high-level skill sectors such as finance, information technology and engineering, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
As migrants leave their countries of origin to move to other countries within the region, research shows that they bring with them a range of skills and expertise at all levels that could reduce occupational gaps, widen the tax base, promote trade, innovation, entrepreneurship, investment and develop local economies.
A December 2016 study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that migrants accounted for over 10% of global GDP.
However, more than 90% of this accrues to developed nations, including the United States at about $2 trillion, Germany at $550bn and the United Kingdom at $390bn.
Migrants from developing countries accounted for $4.1 trillion (or roughly 60%) of overall global migration output, but in the developing countries themselves the contribution of migrants was only $600bn, or 3% of their combined GDP.
Many internal migrants in Africa are refugees who struggle to become economically active in their host country.
According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, sub-Saharan Africa is home to more than 26% of the world’s 25.4m refugees.
Yet migration is only expected to increase. Africa’s current population of 1.2bn in 2017 is projected to rise to 2.5bn by 2050.
Young people aged between 15 and 24 make up about 231m, a number expected to double to 461m by 2050.
The majority of the people engaged in regional migration are young people under the age of 30, according to the AU.
As many African countries race to catch up with this demographic bulge and struggle to provide sufficient jobs and opportunity, migration will remain a major lure for many.
In response to these trends, the AU migration policy says that “the movement of persons for trade, especially short-term migration, is becoming of increasing relevance”.
But movement among African countries is heavily limited, constrained by limitations on freedom of movement, visa requirements, and limited infrastructure such as a lack of direct road networks linking major cities.
Visa requirements remain a major barrier – it is oft reported that a Nigerian requires 38 separate visas to travel around the African continent.
The African Union itself has been making efforts to address the challenges that hamper free movement of people and trade, including pushing for the implementation of the Continental Free Trade Area, the AU Free Movement of Persons Protocol and the launch of the Single African Air Transport Market.
Implementation among member states remains slow, however, with many particularly reluctant to push for pan-African freedom of movement as a result of domestic political pressure and anti-migrant feeling.
In recent years, South Africa, long a magnet for workers from across Africa, has witnessed waves of deadly xenophobic violence against migrants.
“Ongoing continental-level efforts to facilitate intra-African mobility, trade, investment and technology must complement the positive contribution of African migrants to the economies of origin and destination countries,” said Professor Aderanti Adepoju of the Network of Migration Research on Africa.
If states want to make the positive case for migration, they must not end their efforts at the African Union level.
To begin to put a positive spin on Africa’s migration story, governments must do more to improve migrant integration, according to UNCTAD’s Economic Development in Africa report.
The report says that private sector platforms should connect recruiters, employers, and migrants.
Regulations could be improved for migrant workers to offer better employee protections and ensure that they are paying taxes and contributing positively to their host countries.
Meanwhile, migrants should continue to develop links with their countries of origin to develop two-way trade.
For migrants and host countries, boosting economic activity is a sure way to get along and make the positive case for cross-border movement of Africans.