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The Status Quo is Unacceptable: It’s time to normalize the narratives on African Migration, Experts Urge

Technical experts to the High-Level Panel on Migration in Africa (HLPM) concluded a two-day meeting at the headquarters of the African Development Bank (AfDB) in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, with a strong call for a new narrative on African migration based on the notion that migration is normal and inevitable.

Noting that charity begins at home, the experts called on African leaders to reverse the growing global trend towards “securitization of migration,” by acting on commitments to ease travel restrictions and promote regular migration across the African continent.

“The status quo is unacceptable,” emphasized Sibry Tapsoba, Director of the Transition Support Department at African Development Bank in opening remarks, describing the situation in Côte d’Ivoire where migrants make up around 12% of the population and where large numbers of children and adult migrants, including a number of high-profile residents, have no identity papers. Thokozile Ruzvidzo, Director of Social Development Policy Division at the Economic Commission for Africa, intimated that “The time is now for us to reflect on where we stand and where we need to go in response to migration challenges on the continent.”

The meeting considered key messages from three specially commissioned reports on migration in Africa that addressed, respectively: costs and benefits of migration; demographics and trends; and the changing landscape of migration governance on the continent and globally. A synthesis of the three reports will feed into the final, policy-oriented, HLPM report due to be finalized at the next meeting of the Panel. The meeting is scheduled to take place from 16-17 October 2018 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The numbers do not lie

Highlighting “myths, perceptions and realities” of African migration, Daniel Makina, University of South Africa, noted that Africa accounts for the lowest share of global migration, while making a significant contribution to the GDP of destination countries. He cited projections that at current rates, intra-African migration alone could propel Africa’s per capita GDP from US$2,0008 in 2016 to US$3,249 by 2030. He noted, however, that to harness the “demographic dividend” of its large youth population, Africa requires to make concerted efforts to sustain economic growth and create jobs.

Describing immigration into Africa as a key blind spot in the current discussions, Linguère Mbaye, AfDB, cited data from UNCTAD’s Economic Development in Africa Report 2018, which estimates that around 22% of international migrants residing in Africa were born on another continent. “This is the other side of the coin, and that would help to deconstruct the existing negative narrative and give a more balanced picture of migration in Africa,” she added.

Hein Haas, Migration Professor at the University of Amsterdam, cautioned that ignoring the “undeniable facts” could lead to both sides of the migration debate locking themselves into entrenched positions. Among these, Haas highlighted that: Africa is “the least migratory region in the world”; the overwhelming majority (9 out of 10) of African migrants enter Europe legally; destination societies, and elite groups in particular, benefit most from migration; and African migrants are generally well educated and are not the “poorest of the poor,” which goes against the conventional wisdom that poverty drives migration. He stressed, however, that African migration is bound to continue to increase as more people will have the “aspirations and capabilities” to move. He concluded that these realities call for a more nuanced interpretation of migration trends in order to develop more realistic responses.

“The real question here is not how to stop migration but how to deal with migration as part of a broader sustainable development agenda,” emphasized Loren Landau, Director of the African Center for Migration and Society, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He lamented the continuing characterization of migration as a “problem” noting it leads to policy positions that frame economic development as the “solution” to migration. Stressing that governments have sufficient data on overall migration trends, he called for a focus on data analysis to gain insights on specific social/economic impacts – especially at local level.

Landau described the two competing approaches to migration governance on the continent as “facilitation and securitization,” with the latter increasingly seen in bilateral agreements with Europe. On the way forward, he proposed a multi-pronged strategy to “normalize and incentivize inclusion.” Among features of such an approach, he called for “continental resistance to aid conditionality for containment and securitization,” while promoting “welcoming communities” by providing greater support to local and subregional authorities.

Creating hope

Many participants noted the challenge of getting these messages to the ordinary citizen who has to deal with the impacts of migration on a daily basis. The need to demonstrate that migration can be a win-win solution for all was emphasized, as a way to counter mistrust and rising xenophobia in some countries. However, participants also pointed out that this requires having an honest discussion about what is not working. An example was given of the Ecowas region, which has already adopted provisions to facilitate free travel as well as re- establishment of migrants, but where labour mobility across countries remains a key bottleneck.

We agree on the fundamentals, but how do we push these lofty ideas?” asked HLPM member Danisa Baloyi, as she called for clear guidance to the Panel on the way ahead.

Thokozile Ruzvidzo, Director, Social Development Policy Division, ECA, stressed the need for the final HLPM report to include “some hard truths,” including challenges in ongoing bilateral negotiations on returnees between some African countries and the EU that make it difficult for Africa to speak with one voice.

The experts called for the HLPM report to promote a new narrative through balanced messaging and practical recommendations that can help countries shift from the current focus on stopping migration towards frameworks that facilitate net benefits from migration. To inspire other countries, one participant called for the report to celebrate the introduction of visa-free travel by a number of countries, including Benin, Rwanda, Seychelles, Mauritius and Senegal.

On effective use of migration data, participants called for greater emphasis on “social remittances” to balance the current focus on financial remittances. Describing Mauritius as a “very good case study” of the benefits of migration, William Muhwava, ECA, stressed that the long-term benefits of visa free travel far outweigh the loss of visa income in the short-term, which include increased tourism and circulation of goods and services. He added that at the continental level, such benefits could account for as much as US$2 billion of the economy and accrue at all levels – from household to national.

Among specific messages for inclusion in the HLPM report, the discussions called for:

  • A phased approach to migration governance in Africa, starting with removing visa restrictions while gradually exploring ways to achieve the aspirations of right of residence and right to establishment
  • Involving local communities and authorities in migration planning through awareness raising as well as financial support and capacity development
  • Advocating for the implementation of frameworks and protocols that have already been adopted by the different Regional Economic Communities
  • Integrating the Global Compact on Migration within regional frameworks to enhance accountability
  • Strengthening data analysis on African migration trends and impacts
  • Prioritizing job creation and labour mobility for young people



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