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Africa: Migration, Inequalities, & Human Rights

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Oct 13, 2011 (111013)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Issues related to the situation of refugees and other migrants are hotly contested in locations as diverse as Libya, South Africa, Kenya, Western Europe, and the United States. Anti-migrant sentiment is a recurring phenomenon, featuring restrictive legislation, official abuses against immigrants, and in extreme cases, xenophobic violence. Yet these issues are most often considered in isolation, rather than also as among the most telling indicators of fundamental structural inequalities between nations.

As regular readers of AfricaFocus are aware, migration is one of the issues regularly covered in AfricaFocus Bulletin (see I am pleased to report that a new 95-page paper I wrote for the Nordic Africa Institute's Current African Issues series is now available.

The systematic inequality in today's world, which condemns millions of people to grinding poverty and untimely death, should be as unacceptable as slavery, colonialism, and apartheid. In this essay I argue that addressing specific migration issues, such as xenophobic violence, "brain drain," or the contribution of remittances to development, is insufficient without also rethinking assumptions about the relationship of life chances and rights to nationality as an accident of birth, which, like race, gender, or ethnic group, should not serve as justification for differential treatment.

Topics included in the paper include: framing migration, the diversity of African migration, migration frameworks: international and internal, migration and global inequalities, migration and development, migration and human rights, varieties of migrants' rights organizing, and framing advocacy agendas. There is also an extensive set of references, including books, reports, articles, and websites.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the foreword to the paper, by Fantu Cheru, the executive summary, and an annex on "Implications for Development Goals and Measures."

The full text of the paper is available for download from the Nordic Africa Institute at, and will also be available later on the AfricaFocus website as well. Additional excerpts on specific topics will appear in future issues of AfricaFocus Bulletin.

Update Oct 24, 2011
The paper is also now available in sections, in html format, at

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

African Migration, Global Inequalities, and Human Rights: Connecting the Dots

William Minter

Current African Issues, no.46

Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala 2011


Professor Fantu Cheru
Research Director
The Nordic Africa Institute

The era of the so-called Washington consensus of market fundamentalism is long past. The developed countries are mired in structural economic crises, while emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil are advancing their economic presence on the world scene and inspiring new policy debates about the prerequisites for development. And a recent joint study by China's International Poverty Reduction Centre and the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggests that "Africa will be the next big emerging region".

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set povertyreduction targets for the year 2015, but they did not fundamentally break with the ideology of market fundamentalism. Addressing only "poverty", these goals avoided fundamental issues of international inequality and social injustice. However, it is now clear to many people, including many policymakers in both rich and poor countries, that economic growth is meaningless unless it is accompanied by measures to reduce the structural inequalities in societies. The post-MDG agenda must focus on addressing the underlying structures of production, distribution and ownership – and of power – that perpetuate imbalances.

In Africa, that means we need developmental states that have the capacity to advance both economic growth and social justice. We need new politics that empower the poor and values that advance common objectives and ethical principles. We need new institutions that really work on behalf of the marginalised segments of society. There must be incentives to improve productivity growth, jobs and incomes, as well as resources for realising human aspirations and human security.

But in our globalised and globalising world, no country, large or small, can advance its own interests without considering its neighbours, its trading partners, its region and, indeed, the entire global order. Developmental states need a developmental world.

In this essay commissioned by the Nordic Africa Institute, William Minter takes migration as an indicator of the need to move beyond the national dimension. Migration, he argues, should not be seen as a self-contained issue, considered in the destination countries as a problem to be managed or in countries of origin as an adjunct to development. Rather, migration should be understood as a process emerging from the relationships between countries, especially inequalities of power and wealth. New measures beyond the MDGs must include the national level of analysis, but also directly address the imbalances between countries.

One must also focus on the rights of migrants themselves. Bringing together results from areas of research most often considered separately, Minter stresses that fundamental human rights are due both to those who decide to leave their countries and those who decide to stay. The rights of migrants are threatened by anti-migrant sentiment, xenophobia and the criminalisation of migration in places as diverse as Norway, Italy, Libya and South Africa. And the rights of the global majority in developing countries are still threatened by a systematically biased global economic order. Until fundamental inequalities between countries are addressed, the pattern of migration in today's world will continue to evoke the spectre of South Africa's apartheid era, when authorities tried to confine blacks to their "homelands", except when their labour was needed elsewhere.

African development and global development, in short, require more than measures to address growth and poverty. Conflicts over migration are dramatic indicators that "development" must also directly confront morally unacceptable global inequalities.

Executive Summary

The concerns of destination countries and the framing of migration as a problem have long dominated public debate on international migration, and to a lesser extent, policy analysis and scholarly research. Anti-migrant sentiment, leading to restrictive legislation, official abuses against immigrants, and in extreme cases xenophobic violence, is widespread in countries as diverse as South Africa, Libya, Italy, Switzerland, and the United States. Migrants are widely blamed for crime, for "taking our jobs," and for threatening national identity. Empirical evidence to the contrary has had relatively little impact on public opinion.

At the same time, there has been increasing attention in recent years to the impact of migration on the development of migrants' countries of origin, with emphasis on the potential contributions of remittances, efforts to counter the "brain drain" of skilled professionals, and the role of the diaspora in investment and "co-development."

Migrants' rights organisations, particularly in Western Europe, have taken the lead in highlighting the need for protection against abuses of the human rights of migrants themselves. There is also increasing scholarly attention to the topic, as well as multilateral institutional attention by, for example, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. But it is still true that the rights of migrants themselves are most often marginalized in official discussions between migrant-receiving and migrant-sending countries.

In 2009, the UNDP Human Development Report called for "winwin -win" approaches to migration policy that would provide benefits for receiving countries, sending countries, and migrants. Such scenarios will have little chance of success unless steps are also taken to address fundamental issues of global inequality so that both those who stay and those who move have access to fundamental human rights. The growing phenomenon of irregular migration, and more generally of "problem" migration that leads to conflict, does not result only from specific national policies. It also derives from rising inequality within and between nations, combined with the technological changes that make migration a conceivable option for larger and larger numbers. Thus trends in migration do not only point to problems or opportunities for development; they also signal fundamental issues facing both those who move and those who do not.

This essay highlights the relationships between different migration issues and the broader context of global inequalities. It "connects the dots" rather than exploring any one issue in depth. It is intended to stimulate further debate and research that can contribute to re-framing migration not as a technical issue for migration specialists, but as one of the fundamental issues that must be addressed in order to bring about a more just global order.

While African refugees, numbering some 2.8 million at the end of 2009, are prominent in the international image of African migrants, they constitute less than 10% of all African-born migrants living outside their country of birth. The majority of African migrants, like the majority of migrants from other world regions, do not fit the definition of refugees fleeing violence or political persecution; rather, they are seeking to escape economic hardship and find better living conditions. Much of that migration is indeed "forced," but the force involved is that of economic inequality between countries and regions.

This paper first reviews African migration by region and then traces frameworks for understanding migration, particularly the links between migration and global inequalities. This sets the context for exploring the specific issues of migration and development and migration and human rights. The paper concludes with examples of migrants' rights organizing, observations on framing advocacy agendas, and an annex suggesting the implications of migration for expanding development goals and measures.

In North Africa, the majority of migrants go to Europe or the Middle East. In Africa's other regions, most migrants move to countries within the African continent, with smaller proportions moving to Europe, North America, the Middle East, or other regions. In West Africa, the movement is largely within the region, from inland to the coast. In Southern Africa, migrants flow predominantly to South Africa. In Central and East Africa, the flows vary markedly by country, depending on geography and on the history of colonial and linguistic ties.

In considering migration and development, the dominant themes of research and debate have been remittances and the flow of skilled labour (brain drain/ gain). There has been more attention in recent years to the broader roles of the diaspora population, but the complexity of diaspora relationships remains one of the major areas that needs further attention.

In practice, protection of the rights of migrants, including both refugees and other migrants, falls far short of that already agreed in international law. Although the 1990 Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers has been ratified by only 44 states, including no major destination country, multiple international human rights agreements require respect for the rights of all people, regardless of migrant status. The failure to respect these universal human rights, and particularly the rights of irregular migrants, is reinforced by antiimmigrant public opinion, by right-wing political mobilisation, and by the practices of governments in their management of migration systems.

Any effective defence of migrants' human rights will require greater organization by migrants themselves, as well as coalitions with other allies committed to justice and human rights. As illustration, the essay includes brief mentions of four cases of migration-related activism in different contexts: the Sans-Papiers in France, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration in California, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and the Migrants' Rights Network in the United Kingdom. A final section lays out summary observations about advocacy related to migrants' rights in destination and transit countries, to immigration "reform" and "managed migration," and to migration and global human development.

An annex proposes possible additions to measures of progress based on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), stressing (1) measures of global inequality and inequality between countries involved in migration systems, (2) measures that might make the MDG goal 8 of "partnership" less vague, and (3) measures for countries of origin on policies related to emigration and relationships with their diaspora populations.

Annex: Implications for Development Goals and Measures

As an illustrative exercise, this annex examines what it might mean if migration were to be taken seriously as showing the need for fundamental changes in common development goals, rather than only a separate unconnected issue. The Millennium Development Goals which now define measures of global progress for 2015 are defined as "antipoverty" goals52, and do not mention inequality. And, with the exception of goal 8, which calls for a vaguely defined "global partnership for development," they all apply only at a national level, and are applied exclusively to developing countries.

Yet the failure to find sustainable solutions to protection of the rights of migrants and the social conflicts related to migration is a constant reminder that global human development does not depend only on developments within individual countries. Relationships between countries, and in particular, the levels of gross inequality that impel high levels of migration, also require measurable goals for progress, even if achievement of those goals faces formidable obstacles.

While these are unlikely to be included in the least common denominator of official consensus, and are undoubtedly more difficult to measure than nationallevel goals, such a thought experiment should be part of the agenda for expanding the debate. Yet even current efforts to expand the scope of measurements of societal progress fail to consider this transnational dimension.

Such transnational and relational measurements should include measures of transnational inequality, measures for developed countries that might make the concept of "partnership" less vague, and measures for countries of origin, focused on the effectiveness of their policies on emigration and the diaspora.

The most important, and also the most unlikely to be incorporated into official targets, is the level of transnational inequality. At a global scale, notes inequality expert Branko Milanovic (2011: 151–152), global inequality is now at an all-time high of 70 Gini points, greater than in highly unequal countries such as South Africa and Brazil. Although the rising level of aggregate inequality is now being held back by rapid growth in China and India, inequality both between countries and within countries continues to grow. The ratio between the average income of the top 10 percent and the bottom 10 percent is about 80 to 1. According to the 2010 Human Development Report, the average income of OECD countries in 2008 ($37,077), was 4.7 times that of the developing Arab states ($7,861) and 18.1 times that of Sub-Saharan Africa ($2,050). Life expectancy of 80.3 years for OECD countries contrasts with 69.1 for developing Arab countries and 52.7 for Sub-Saharan Africa. For mean years of schooling, the comparison is 11.4 to 5.7 and 4.5, respectively.

Such high levels of inequality make continued immigration on a scale far larger than sustainable, with much of it forced by economic need, unavoidable, regardless of the levels of restriction imposed or the attempts at management of migration. Despite rich-country reluctance even to consider setting goals to reduce inequality, that adds a practical incentive to the moral imperative for greater global equality. It also provides a rationale for measuring inequality not only at the global level but within major regional migration systems. Changes in both policies and results will depend on changes in the political and economic power of developing countries themselves, as illustrated in the rising prominence of the BRICS54 emerging powers. Despite recent increases in growth rates, Africa's bargaining power is much more limited. But it is already time to build a conceptual framework for more ambitious goals, with measurable indicators, that move beyond the Millennium Development Goals.

Hypothetically, if one were to take as a goal "reducing global inequality by half by the year 2050," that could serve as a baseline for similar goals within more limited groups of nations. At a global level, using the Gini index as a measure, that would mean reducing the level of global inequality to 35 Gini points, slightly higher than levels of inequality within most European countries, but lower than that in the United States. Or, taking ratios of average income, this would mean reducing the level of inequality between Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, to 9 to 1 instead of 18 to 1.

Defining similar measures for groups of related countries could contribute to discussions linking migration issues with those of the related development trajectories of the countries involved. Such measures, for example, would be relevant for evaluating the "Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean" announced by the European Union in March 2011. Other sets of regions linked to Africa for which such transnational measures would be relevant include, at the most general level, the OECD countries and Africa, European Union and Africa, North America and Africa, and the non- African Arab world in relation to East, West, and Central Africa. Within Africa, in addition to the levels of inequality within the continent as a whole, the levels of inequality between North Africa and East, West, and Central Africa and those between South Africa and the remainder of Sub-Saharan Africa are both particularly relevant for migration and the equity of development outcomes. In each case, the measure of progress should be demonstrable success in reducing the ratios of inequality between regions at different levels of development.

Focusing on transnational inequality and migration could also facilitate exploring measures of "partnership" which are less vague than those now included in Millennium Development Goal 8. The first target listed for that goal, "develop further an open, rule-based, predictable, nondiscriminatory trading and financial system," could, ironically, easily be a prescription for increased inequality. In addition to the familiar indicators already included on aid, market access, and debt sustainability, indicators such as the following could shed light on the realities of partnership:

  • Supplement and compare measures of Official Development Assistance with tracking of illicit financial flows from developing to developed countries. The non-governmental organization Global Financial Integrity (http://www.gfip. org) has begun to build the evidence base for such measures, identifying some US$6.5 trillion in such flows out of the developing world from 2000 through 2008 (more than 7 times ODA for the same period). Data on the destination of these flows requires reforms in developed countries on transparency for financial reporting. But judging the net transfer of resources relevant to global inequality is not feasible without their inclusion.
  • When estimating the financial effects of migration on origin and destination countries, include not only remittances but also gains and losses due to migration of skilled labor. Using the concept of "migration balances," researcher Thomas Melonio (2008) has proposed such a comparative measure, and suggested that destination countries should assume the obligation (additional to existing levels of development aid) of compensating origin countries for such losses of skilled labor.
  • There are elaborate measures of policies for integration of migrants in European and some other developed countries ( But this should be supplemented by measures that also include the level of openness in relation to the structural demand for migration resulting from transnational inequalities. One such measure, for example, might be the ratio of regular immigrants to the total of irregular immigrants, deportations, and interceptions. Including deportations and interceptions as well as irregular immigrants would ensure that the measure would not be improved by increased restrictions and enhanced enforcement measures that simply displace potential irregular immigrants to other countries.

For countries of origin of migrants, probably the most relevant measures are simply indicators of whether and how fast they are closing the development gap with potential destination countries for migrants. More specific measures of success, with respect to migration, might include the subjective measure of reducing the number of people who say they want to leave (as measured by the Gallup Potential Net Migration Index, available on and the more objective measure of reducing the tertiary emigration rate of professionals leaving the country.

In terms of the contribution of the diaspora to development, in addition to the topics of remittances and investments stressed in recent World Bank reports (Ratha et al. 2011), attention could also be given to developing measures of constructive home country to diaspora relationships. This would, of course, require greater efforts to collect data on diaspora populations, including both initiatives by origin countries and collaboration between statistical agencies in origin and destination countries.

The failure of many countries to protect their diasporas has been starkly visible in the crisis of evacuation of migrants from Libya in 2011, as those left behind have been disproportionately those from Sub-Saharan Africa. The extent to which this is a failure only of capacity or also of will is not clear. But it is clear that few African countries have adequate consular facilities to protect their overseas nationals. Significant increases in such efforts would be a highly visible sign of progress, and perhaps even a candidate for indicators such as the ratio of consular officers to diaspora nationals.

Other measures that could be useful should the data be available might include:

  • What proportion of emigrants retain citizenship ties to the country of origin? While this would reflect in part the availability of the option of dual citizenship, it would also be an indicator of the extent of loyalty and potential contributions to development in the home country.
  • Measures of income and other development indicators for the set of people born in a country, including both residents and emigrants, as suggested by Clemens and Pritchett (2008). In terms of measuring human development, this would give equal weight to people born in a country, whether they move or stay.
  • An appropriate complement to such a measure would be the levels of inequality between those in the diaspora and home-country residents. The greater the gap, the less likely that relationships with the diaspora would or should be viewed as sustainable contributions to national development.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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