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Migration is a conveniently ignored reality in Southern Africa. The lack of regional governance is a critical challenge.

Chris Nshimbi
15 August 2013

Southern Africa’s various underlying migration-related issues remain a thorny reality in the region. This July saw Southern African Development Community (SADC) states converge at the region’s consultative process on migration, the Migration Dialogue of Southern Africa (MIDSA) Conference in Maputo, Mozambique. The conference was the second of its kind under SADC Secretariat and International Organization for Migration (IOM) auspices. This year’s theme was “Enhancing Labour Migration and Migration Management in the SADC Region”, and concluded with the encouragement for all SADC states to support the implementation of the Regional Labour Migration Action Plan. SADC Ministers indicated their hope that the conference outcomes would feed into the second UN General Assembly High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Management slated for New York this October.

International migration continues to grow as the world economy continues to globalise. There were 214 million international migrants in 2010, compared to 155 million in 1990. From the total global increase over two decades, the number of migrants living in the so-called Global North increased by 46 million while those in the Global South increased by 13 million. As part of the global south, Africa too has had a large share of persons moving across the continent’s national boundaries. Africa had 1.02 billion inhabitants in 2010, 19.3 million of which were immigrants. Of the 19.3 million immigrants, 16 million were born on the continent and made Africa itself their major destination. Notwithstanding the current trends, Sub-Saharan Africa has a long history of migration – across national boundaries and within respective countries.

Migration can propel economic development as it reinforces and diversifies the labour force, which is a key factor of production. From a regional integration perspective, labour migration can facilitate the supply of qualified and skilled human resources for the development of a region, while strengthening the economic ties among neighbouring countries. These preconditions were historically important for the establishment of the common market and free movement of capital and people in Europe.

On the other hand, migration can strain social safety nets, as the inflow of migrants stretches the socioeconomic and political infrastructure of the receiving country. Migrant-sending countries are also at risk, from brain drain and loss of critical human capital.  Such conditions are especially likely in regions characterised by economic disparities. These migration pressures are a fundamental (and largely inevitable) component of social life the world over. Migration ‘governance’ is, therefore, crucial. As migration cannot be avoided, the key question is: how can it be more successfully governed?

Migration, the ignored reality in Southern Africa and the EU parallel

The increase in the number of international migrants in Southern Africa is partly due to economic liberalisation and the structural adjustment programmes that countries in the region implemented in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This has compelled cross-border migrants to seek a better economic life outside their countries of origin. Others migrate clandestinely as local herdsmen, and as members of ethnic groups, whose domicile straddles Southern Africa’s ‘artificial’ state boundaries.

However, international migrants have long circulated the Southern African region, driven by a variety of factors such as ethnic and shared backgrounds, work, conflict and trade. Large-scale migration occurred from the rest of Southern Africa to the diamond fields in Kimberley in the 1860s followed by migration to the newly discovered gold mines on the Witwatersrand in the 1880s. An organised labour migration system and the institutionalisation of labour migration was orchestrated by the South African Chamber of Mines through establishments like the Rand Native Labour Association. Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi and Swaziland, among others, supplied most of the unskilled labour for South Africa’s mines. The South African Government concluded bilateral agreements with its neighbours to meet the nation’s mines and agricultural labour needs.

The migrant labour system thus established largely defined patterns of migration in Southern Africa, even in the post-independence era. In the 1960s and 1970s countries like Zambia and Botswana attracted their own share of international migrants from the region to their copper and diamond driven economies. A political dimension, involving liberation struggles and post-independence conflict in some Southern Africa countries, adds to forced migration in Southern Africa. Countries still under colonial rule during the 1960s and early 1970s such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Angola had refugees living in Botswana, Tanzania and Zambia. South Africa, itself still under apartheid, and Namibia had many nationals living in exile in the region and beyond.

Many have observed that a considerable amount of the current cross-border labour migration in Southern Africa consists of undocumented or illegal migrants. This is at odds with the Southern African Development Community’s declared goal of progressively eliminating obstacles to the free flow of labour. It is precisely because there is no free movement in the region that there are so many irregular movers.

SADC lacks a formal regional framework governing the cross-border movement of its people. National laws of respective member states continue to regulate cross-border and labour migration throughout the SADC territories. SADC States also continue to conclude bilateral agreements through Joint Permanent Commissions of Cooperation with one another that relate to, among others, labour migration. Such agreements may dampen prospects of ratifying the 2005 Protocol on Facilitation of Movement as members find them a desirable alternative to the regional regime. It has also been pointed out that even if the protocol is ratified, bilateral agreements will still be popular while South Africa continues to push for a bilateral rather than regional approach.

Respective SADC States are currently preoccupied with national interests regarding migration. This is evident in their immigration laws. SADC citizens need work permits to engage in work in second SADC States. Immigration legislation in respective member states currently incorporates few international standards in its provisions on migrant labour issues. Hence the national immigration control acts in member states that only allow for non-nationals to get employment in a country on condition that they are unlikely to pursue any employment, businesses, professions or occupations that locals already sufficiently occupy. States such as Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe that are currently reviewing migration legislation as they develop their national migration policies, will give regional integration a significant boost if they accommodate international and regional standards such as International Labour Organization (ILO) covenants and the Charter of Fundamental Social Rights in SADC in their new policies.

The implied goal of a Single or Common Market, which the SADC region aims to achieve by 2015, vis-a-vis freedom of movement connotes, among other goals, free movement of labour or persons. In the EU, for example, free movement of four factors (goods, services, capital and persons) is enshrined in the European Community Treaty and constitutes a fundamental principle of the EU, besides forming the basis of the Single Market. However, in the European project the use and application of free movement gradually evolved from largely connoting the free movement of workers within the community circa 1968 to the free movement of people in general in the 1990s. The 1991 Maastricht Treaty enacted in 1993 crowned free movement in the EU with the promise of European citizenship, along with the lifting of most internal border controls between EU member states so that all EU citizens had the right to live and move freely within the EU.

With the adoption of the Regional Labour Migration Action Plan, is SADC on track towards eventually achieving free movement of citizens? Continuing to draw the parallel with the EU experience, the EU has now progressed from accepting free movement to allowing all EU citizens regardless of employment status (i.e. including retirees and economically inactive persons) to establish themselves in second member states. Nothing about this EU progress was automatic, however. The question to ask in the case of Southern Africa might be: how long will it take SADC to realise what the EU accomplished in a quarter of a century? As the the SADC Regional Labour Migration Action Plan 2013 – 2015 gets under way, those involved hope to have a better answer to this question in two years’ time.

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