Will free movement across Africa happen and, if so, what will be the impact?
Going back over 40 years, there has been an ambition on the part of some African states – resisted by others – to establish freedom of movement for both goods and people within the continent. ECOWAS led the way at the regional level and proved that these freedoms did not lead to neighbouring countries being flooded by either competing goods or people. Today, the ISS estimates that of the African Union’s 55 member states, 42 are in some form of freedom of movement arrangement – although some of these arrangements are limited to a specific time period.
Given that Africa is much larger than Europe – with twice as many countries and around 65% more people – the dynamics are different. As such, internal migration should be settled within regions before it is rolled out across the continent. And this should be in three phases: first free movement, then work rights, then settlement. How long this process will take depends on political will. Already, this is the plan of action for the AU in implementing the free movement protocol and the African continental free trade area.
In ECOWAS, there is already evidence of political will, but less so in southern Africa. Most countries in southern Africa follow a political system that requires parliamentary approval for major constitutional changes. In the farming region of Western Cape, for example, there are concerns about migrant workers from Lesotho willing to work for less than locals. It wouldn’t be that simple though. Research undertaken by the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of Witwatersrand at part of the Migrating for Work Research Consortium (MiWORC) indicates that migrant labour is a complex phenomenon. For example, there seems to be more foreign migrant labour in the service industry (such as in retail, hospitality, maintenance, accounting and law), construction and manufacturing than in mining, farming and similar sectors.
What is clear is that migration impacts all aspects of the host society regardless of whether it is regularised or not. The current Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates this clearly, and as a recent ISS report argues, it is essential that non-nationals are included in the country’s response. Prevention, testing and treatment should be available to all.
How does Afrobarometer engage African leaders and what does it recommend?
We share our data with African leaders and civil society organisations. These findings on migration provide better context and are especially useful for policy makers who seek to address the challenges of international migration. Last year, for example, we launched the Pan-Africa Profile Report on Migration in Kenya in collaboration with the IOM Regional Office for East and Horn of Africa and the European Union Delegation to Kenya. Our findings featured prominently in the 2019 Mo Ibrahim Forum Report and have been cited in a number of publications, including a research paper that we jointly published with the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. I believe that this work goes a long way in changing narratives on African migration.
Above all else, we believe that the data we collect on the causes, forms and patterns of migration are critical in identifying key areas that need to be tackled. One is the issue of brain drain. Our data indicates that the two most important groups that are critical to Africa’s development – the youth and the highly educated – are those most likely to migrate. Second, we need to critically examine the reasons why people want to migrate. The reasons we hear are strikingly similar to what we are told when we ask people to identify the most important challenges that their governments should prioritise. Unemployment ranked among the most important driving factors of migration. Similarly, when you look at how Africans assess the performance of their governments, employment is one of those areas where African governments are consistently rated poorly. African governments must make conscious efforts to grow their economies and expand opportunities for gainful employment and secure livelihoods in their countries. Development agencies and host countries can also help create enabling environments in Africa for the youth so they are not tempted to go seeking greener pastures elsewhere. For example, we could aim at creating development hubs in each region that can provide quality jobs and good educational systems for the youth.
That said, migration is not all bad, and it is important to highlight the positive dimensions as well. We asked our survey participants about remittances, for example, and we found that 21% are relying on remittances from relatives living abroad. Moreover, there is great support for free movement on the continent. Overall, 56% of our respondents stated that they should have the right to move freely to another country within the region, for work or business. This support is highest in the ECOWAS region, which has the longest experience with free movement, and in Central Africa. Even in Southern Africa, 51% of respondents support free movement. African leaders should consider acting on citizens’ call for the removal of barriers to intra-African migration in order to foster intra-regional trade.
How can perceptions of African migrants be changed?
If you think about migration in marketing terms, Africa is selling but Europe isn’t buying. That’s not to say that migrants aren’t needed in Europe. They are. Its populations are shrinking, and without migrants to fill gaps in the labour market future growth will not be guaranteed. But they aren’t exactly welcome.
From an African perspective, do we have a strategy to market what we have? Europe needs migrants while Africa has an oversupply of potential migrants – people who are ready and able and willing to migrate and take wages at any cost. Why aren’t the two sides negotiating labour migration like you would in a normal market? Couldn’t there be a mechanism that would allow both sides to have self-reinforcing strategies? This isn’t happening right now because while the demand side is strong, the labour supply chain is extremely weak.
In my view, African countries need to do three things to improve their position. First they must alter their demographics by implementing strategies to minimise rapid population growth. Right now African countries have very young populations and changing that will be fundamental. Second, they must seek to upgrade nationals’ skills so that labour migrants will have more to sell. Highly skilled professionals can be marketed internationally, whereas unskilled migrants that will do anything at any time can always be dislodged at will. Third, they must create multilateral agreements to manage migration flows between countries. That has already been done on a bilateral basis, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to go about it. What about multilateral agreements between the European Union and, say, ECOWAS, or SADC or even the African Union? That could be one way of ensuring that the supply of migrants matches the demand in terms of both skills and volume.
It would also be a way of tackling brain drain within Africa. Migration takes a hard knock on Africa’s human capacity and human capacity building. It takes a lot of national resources to train highly skilled professionals, especially in the most sought after professions like medicine. There is currently an apparent overproduction of medical personnel in Africa and Europe is skimming off that excess. Meanwhile, Africa imports doctors from elsewhere.
It’s not the correct way to do it, but the problem is that we don’t have policies that optimally utilise what we already have. For example, locally trained doctors in Zimbabwe don’t generally want to work in rural areas. They’d rather stay in the cities like Harare. And the government, instead of creating proactive policies to encourage them to go, instead said, ‘let’s go to Cuba and bring in doctors who cannot speak a word of the Zimbabwean language’. That’s where the dilemma is. Our nations take short-term solutions to long-term problems.
A long-term solution would be, to my mind, intra-African circulation of labour. We speak similar languages from Kenya to South Africa and from Ghana to Nigeria, and there’s no reason doctors from Nigeria or Kenya can’t go to South Africa, or the other way around. Such a system could address so many of Africa’s skilled labour shortages. If you look at the recommendations from the World Health Organisation, not a single African country has reached the threshold for number of doctors per population. So why do we say we have an oversupply of doctors? We don’t, really. They are simply really poorly distributed. That’s true of many other parts of the economy. We have poor distribution between sectors of the economy, between sectors of the population, and between urban and rural areas. It’s a problem of infrastructure deficits. It’s a problem of incentives. It’s a problem of management. It’s bad management.
Will the Global Compact on Migration help or hinder African migration?
From an African perspective, I think that the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) can play an important role in the governance of African migration – perhaps naively so. It is a nice document that provides a comprehensive overview of what can and should be done to deal with migration. At the same time I appreciate that it is broad and politically sensitive, and so I understand why there are doubts about its global uptake. Already, we see some states adopting a pick-and-choose approach to the GCM whereby they apply the elements they agree with and disregard others. Other states are simply avoiding any mention of it in policy documents and official statements.
This is not the case in Africa, though. African countries were proactive throughout the GCM negotiations. They’ve developed an action plan for the implementation of the GCM, and regional bodies like IGAD are pushing for the implementation of the GCM as well. It would be great to see African states continue to be as proactive and progressive on this as they have been, rather than see them follow on the heels of Europe’s securitisation agenda. They must continue to embrace migration as an issue that is as old as humanity and that, in many ways, contributes to economic growth and development in their countries and beyond.