Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

After the 'migration crisis': the many faces of African migration

12 May 2020
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

How has migration from Africa changed over the last decades?

Migration from Africa has been conceptualised in various ways: as a drag on development, as rural to urban movements, as intra-regional movements, as a consequence of poverty and as an outcome of individual decision-making processes. Yet, all these are mostly fallacies.

First, migration is not an outcome of poverty. In Africa, people migrated over long distances unhindered by artificial boundaries both before and shortly after independence. It was the post-independence search for sovereignty that introduced concepts like ‘international migration’ and prompted governments to securitise national borders and jealously guard the limited employment opportunities available in their various countries.

Second, migration is not always the result of independent decision-making processes but rather an outcome of community-based decision-making processes. Families and communities often pool resources to sponsor a migrant or migrants in the hope that these migrants will maintain close links with and ultimately benefit the families and communities left behind. This is the case even in the poorest countries of the Sahel.

Third, the money that the African diaspora sends back as remittances has now overtaken overseas development assistance. An estimated $60 billion was remitted yearly between 2012 and 2016. This is more than official development assistance to the continent as well as a more stable source of financing than foreign direct investment. These remittances first came in trickles, but the trickles were very important. They were used to invest in housing, agricultural activity and services that local authorities are supposed to provide, such as roads, potable water and better educational systems. They weren’t, as many economists have led us to believe, used for conspicuous consumption. 


Why do many Africans want to migrate and where do they want to go?

Afrobarometer is an independent, pan-African, nonpartisan survey research network that provides reliable data on Africans’ experiences and evaluations of quality of life, governance, and democracy. Our main goal is to ensure that the voices and opinions of African citizens feed into policymaking. In our seventh round of surveys, which were conducted between late 2016 and late 2018 in 34 African countries, we asked participants about migration. There had been reports of young Africans dying on the Mediterranean and in the Sahel desert while attempting to get to Europe, and we at Afrobarometer sought to better understand these media stories.

Some of these stories were not entirely false, but there were also several myths that were debunked by our data. Take the profile of African migrants, who are often described as poor people desperate to leave the continent. In fact, the data tells us that the non-poor are as likely to consider migrating as the poor are. The majority are young, between 18 and 35, and they mainly want to migrate to find better jobs or escape poverty. Other reasons – cited by far fewer potential migrants – include pursuing business opportunities, or to further their education.

A second myth relates to the destination of migrants. There is a widespread perception that all African migrants want to go to North America or Europe. But the most preferred destination for potential migrants is another country within Africa: 29% cite another country within their region, while 7% look elsewhere on the continent. In practice, the International Organization for Migration reports that more than 80% of Africa’s migration involves moving within the continent. Among potential migrants, Europe (27%) and North America (22%) are the second and third most preferred destinations. Australia, the Middle East, and Asia and Central/South America attract much less interest.

Southern Africans are most likely to prefer intra-African migration, albeit with wide country variations. For instance, in Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Malawi, more than two-thirds of potential migrants said that they would rather stay in Southern Africa. Yet in Mauritius, less than one in twenty want to stay within Africa.

In contrast, West Africans are more likely to want to go to Europe or North America than potential migrants in other regions, although here, too, numbers vary by country. Large majorities of potential migrants from Cape Verde, The Gambia, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Ghana indicated a preference for Europe or North America. But in Burkina Faso and Niger about 60%-80% of potential migrants stated they wanted to stay within Africa. North Africa shows the strongest preference for Europe. Less than 1% of Moroccan potential migrants, for instance, said they would want to stay in Africa.


The Horn of Africa is one of the main areas of origin for African migrants and refugees. Why is that?

The countries belonging to IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) in the East and Horn of Africa regions all have long histories of mobility. We had a long history of trade including the Saharan movements, Arab traders along the Indian Ocean coastline, and Portuguese settlers in East Africa long before the 1889 Berlin Conference organised Europe’s imperial ambitions in Africa. People from the region have also long travelled to Mecca for pilgrimage. Additionally, we have cultures and communities transcending national boundaries across the region.

In recent times, however, conflict and insecurity have driven large migration flows in and out of the East and Horn of Africa regions. Conflicts in Somalia and South Sudan, the Eritrea-Ethiopia war, and the Ugandan government’s conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army have all led to the death, suffering, and displacement. South Sudan’s civil war, for example, created around 1.9 million refugees and over two million internally displaced persons between 2013 and 2015. Secondary mobility, especially for the youth, is high in refugee camps as people move to urban areas in search of opportunities.

Beyond this, climate change and natural disasters are increasingly driving people out of their homes and communities. IGAD is one of the African regions most affected by drought. IGAD was originally named the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development when it was created in 1986, and its purpose was to coordinate efforts to combat droughts and other natural disasters in the region. Droughts now occur every two years. We’ve worked hard to improve both our response and the resilience of communities, but these natural disasters have intensified and are driving more and more people across borders.

So people are moving for many reasons. It's not only displacement, it's not only migration – it's a mix of drivers and people with different protection needs. This has given rise to the phenomenon of mixed migration, which is now a permanent feature of migration dynamics in the region. You cannot really differentiate one ‘type’ of flow from another.

Where do African migrants go when they don’t go to Europe?

The route that has received the most attention lately is, of course, the Mediterranean route to Europe that goes through Sudan, Egypt and Libya. However, if you look at statistics, you will see that migration is a regional phenomenon. The majority of African migrants migrate within the African continent. They largely move to neighbouring countries.

In the IGAD region, over two-thirds of migrants are hosted in other countries within the region. For those who migrate out of the region, the majority of them migrate to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. They transit through Djibouti and cross over the Gulf to Yemen. A significant number also head towards South Africa, but because they cross over land reliable data for that route are scarce.

Migration flows towards the Middle East have grown while flows towards Libya and across the Mediterranean have declined. This is in part due to Europe’s policy responses and in part due to the collapse of the Libyan government and the rise of migrant detentions. Perhaps I should qualify this: we don’t actually know whether less people are travelling to Libya. We only know that the number of people crossing the Mediterranean has declined. My take is that flows to Libya have continued to grow or perhaps have declined marginally, we just don’t see this because more and more people are being detained.

In any case, what makes Gulf countries more appealing to African migrants and refugees than European countries is access to work. We hear stories of people who have travelled to Gulf countries and gotten jobs almost immediately, while in Europe access to work is only granted to regular migrants. Irregular migrants are closed off from everything. This partly explains why many of those travelling to the Gulf are young, unskilled and uneducated. They’re able to find work in the informal sector there, for example in domestic work, looking after livestock or poultry production. More recently, we have seen an increasing number of unaccompanied minors travelling to the Gulf. The data suggests that they currently amount to approximately 20% of the total number of Africans travelling to the region. This is a situation that we are closely monitoring.


What has changed since the so-called migration crisis of 2015?

The year 2015 was presented as a crisis of migration due to the unprecedented and spectacular deluge of migrants into Europe. The majority of these migrants were from the war-ravaged societies of Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. Only a minority were from Africa.

Several dynamics explain the migratory flows from Africa to Europe at the time. Some are connected to demographic trends. While it’s true that many African migrants were running from conflicts in Eritrea, Ethiopia and the Sahel region, others were simply restless and unemployed youth. They wrongfully believed the hype about life in Europe and were prepared to bear any risk to get to their preferred destinations there.

There were political dynamics at play too, especially the destabilisation and collapse of Libya. Before its collapse, Libya had free healthcare, free education and high employment levels. It was also resource-rich and human resource-poor, so it welcomed other Africans and non-Africans who came there to work. The breakdown of social norms of governance that followed Qaddafi’s demise in 2011 created a vacuum that allowed previously suppressed tribal groups to spring up and take control of migration routes. This has had catastrophic consequences for migrants.

The European response to these migration dynamics was neither appropriate nor effective. Europe subcontracted the defence of its borders to Mediterranean countries such as Morocco and Libya, even though the latter has long stopped being a functional state. At the same time, several countries failed to adhere to the principle of burden sharing and refused to absorb or even give temporary shelter to new arrivals. Countries like Greece, Italy and Spain complained of course, but in a context where right-wing political parties were instrumentalising migration these states’ actions were, to an extent, understandable.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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