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Africa: Migration Reports Show Complex Realities

AfricaFocus Bulletin
August 27, 2018 (180827)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"In the case of Africa, the very idea that the situation to be faced is a rapidly increasing “migration crisis” driven by a growing number of young men and women desperately trying to enter Europe denies the basic facts [such as that] the vast majority of Africans move within the continent; most Africans move for reasons of work, study and family; and most Africans living abroad are not from the poorest sections of their societies of origin." - UN Economic Commission for Africa, Situation Analysis

The images of African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean or trying to cross the barbed-wire fences between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, while anti-immigrant politicians in the European Union rant against migrant "invaders," are real. But their prominence in the news is misleading, as made clear by reports by international agencies and scholars as well as news coverage by journalists willing to take the time to explore in greater depth.

In fact, notes the report cited above and excerpted in this AfricaFocus Bulletin, "African migration is not necessarily essentially different from migration in and from other world regions. In fact, Africans are underrepresented in the world migrant population and Africa has the lowest intercontinental outmigration rates of all world regions."

Moreover, as stressed in the latest report from the UN Conference on Trade and Development, cited below, migration and development as normal phenomena should be mutually reinforcing. Instead of trying to curb migration, both source and destination countries should be trying to maximize the benefits for both sides, while at the same time protecting both voluntary and forced migrants from human rights abuses.

Increasing restrictions with walls and stepped-up policing of borders, argues a recent analytical book, are themselves fueling violence, in contrast to an approach that would regulate but not close off borders. [See Violent Borders, by Reece Jones, Verso Books, 2016.]

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from the two reports cited above, as well as suggestions for sources to follow for regular in-depth coverage of migration issues. Journalists face a difficult task in calling attention to crises while not reinforcing stereotypes. But readers also have the obligation to put the stories in context of deeper analysis.

One example, of internal migration within Africa, illustrated below with a graphic and links to relevant sources, is the migration from West Africa to North West Africa (the Maghreb), not only as a route to Europe but also for education and employment within the Magheb. That migration, as with migration out of Africa, features both "normal" migration and the violence which comes from the attempts to curb migration by destination-country states.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration, visit

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Sources for In-Depth News Reporting on Migration

For articles that give background as well as first-hand reporting on migration, two regular sources to follow are IRIN News ( and Refugees Deeply ( You can bookmark these sites and subscribe to regular email updates from either site.

A selection of recent articles from the two sites shows the range of topics:

Refugees Deeply, Aug. 16, 2018
Fear Dampens Hope Among Eritrean Refugees in Ethiopia

Refugees Deeply, Aug. 16, 2018
School Started by Refugees Becomes One of Uganda’s Best

IRIN News, Aug. 16, 2018
Returning from Libyan detention, young Gambians try to change the migration exodus mindset

IRIN News, Aug. 7, 2018
Meet “Baba IDP”: the local hero making sure Boko Haram victims get healthcare

Refugees Deeply, Aug. 2, 2108
Unlike Salvini, Italians Still Believe in Welcoming Strangers

IRIN News, July 19, 2018
From the hopeful refugee to the frustrated detainee, meet the real people stuck in Libya

Refugees Deeply, July 10, 2018
Why Algeria Is Emptying Itself of African Migrant Workers

IRIN News, July 5, 2018
Thousands of Sudanese fled Libya for Niger, seeking safety. Not all were welcome

African Regional Consultative Meeting on the Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration

Addis Ababa, 26 and 27 October 2017

Draft report 1

Situation analysis

Patterns, levels and trends of African migration

United Nations Economic Commission for Africa – Direct URL:

[Excerpts only – see full 33-page report for footnotes, graphs, and references.]

This document has been drafted by Hein de Haas, and incorporates insights from the subregional reports prepared by Papa Demba Fall, Pierre Kamdem, Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, David Gakere Ndegwa and Ayman Zohry.


1. More than migration in other world regions, African migration is commonly portrayed as a phenomenon driven by poverty, violence and other forms of human misery. Media images and political narratives routinely portray African migrants as victims, who easily fall prey to “unscrupulous” smugglers and human traffickers who “ruthlessly” exploit their desperation to reach the European “Eldorado”. Images of rickety boats packed with African migrants and refugees arriving on European shores and the increasing death toll this involves add to the image of an increasing “migration crisis”. In the media, in policy and in some academic circles, a dominant narrative is that fast population growth and persistent poverty and conflict in Africa combined with environmental degradation and climate change threaten to lead to a possibly uncontrollable increase in the number of young Africans desiring to cross towards Europe and other overseas destinations (see Collier 2013). Such ideas of an African exodus tap into deep- rooted fears of an impending “migration invasion” that may well spiral out of control and that therefore needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

2. The most common “solutions” for the perceived migration crisis proposed by Governments and international organizations typically consist of a blend of:
(a) Preventing unauthorized migration by [sic] “fighting” and “combating” smuggling and trafficking (through intensified border patrolling and policing in transit countries);
(b) Deportation or pressuring unauthorized migrants and rejected asylum seekers into “voluntary return” or “soft deportation” (Boersema, Leerkes and van Os 2014; Pian 2010) (through readmission agreements with origin and transit countries such as Libya, Morocco, Senegal and Turkey);
(c) Addressing the root causes of migration by reducing poverty and increasing employment in African countries (particularly through aid (Böhning and SchloeterParedes 1994), which has increasingly become conditional on collaboration with readmission of unauthorized migrants);
(d) Informing and sensitizing prospective migrants about the dangers of (unauthorized) migration and the arduous circumstances in Europe (through media campaigns, artistic events, and other activities (see Pelican 2012));

3. Such narratives tend, however, to be based on a number of questionable assumptions about the nature and drivers of African migration, in particular, and migration from and towards developing countries more generally. In the case of Africa, the very idea that the situation to be faced is a rapidly increasing “migration crisis” driven by a growing number of young men and women desperately trying to enter Europe denies the basic facts that:

  • The vast majority of Africans move within the continent.
  • Africa is the least migratory region in the world.
  • Most Africans move for reasons of work, study and family.
  • Most Africans living abroad are not from the poorest sections of their societies of origin.
  • Unauthorized overland and maritime journeys represent a minority of all moves.
  • Only a very small fraction of unauthorized migration can be characterized as “trafficking” (see Kihato 2017).

4. Such basic facts also make it clear that African migration is not necessarily different in its essence from migration in and from other world regions. The whole idea that African migration is somehow “exceptional” seems – largely unconsciously – to tap into European stereotypes and colonial ideologies about Africa as a continent of general disorder, violence and poverty, which partly served to justify colonial occupation, with Europeans intervening to impose order, peace and prosperity (see Davidson 1992). Such stereotypes perpetuate the idea that African countries somehow need to be “helped” to foster development and manage migration – which in practice often amounts to “externalizing” European political agendas aimed at an increased policing of African borders and the overall criminalization of migration and smuggling (Brachet 2005; Kihato 2017). That, in turn, often clashes with the desire of African Governments to liberalize internal movement and to proceed to the full implementation of the various treaties signed on the protection of migrants and refugees.

5. Furthermore, the idea that African prospective migrants need to be informed about the dangers of the journey, that they need to be “rescued” from the hands of smugglers and traffickers and that they would be better off if they had stayed at home, is based on the paternalistic assumption that most African migrants do not know what is in their own best interest. Many African (and other) migrants must deal with exploitative recruiters and employers and although many migrants’ expectations of life at their destination will remain unfulfilled, and notwithstanding the fact that thousands of migrants have died while crossing borders in recent decades (see Crawley and others 2016b; Perkowski 2016), the idea is, nevertheless, deeply problematic that African migration is a largely desperate and generally irrational response to poverty, violence and human misery at home. First, it reduces (poor, African) migrants to victims and denies their capability (their “agency”) to make reasoned and rational decisions for themselves. Second, it taps into stereotypes about Africa as a region of poverty, violence and general disorder in which a deepening humanitarian crisis is causing an increasing exodus of desperate young people from the continent. Such stereotypes about African “misery migration” continue to be fuelled by media images about the phenomenon of trans-Mediterranean “boat migration’ and political narratives about an impending migration invasion.

6. Third, it misinterprets the nature and causes of African migration as essentially different and exceptional compared to migration elsewhere. This does not of course mean that poverty and violence are irrelevant for understanding African migration, but that there is a risk of “pathologizing” African migration as a largely desperate “flight from misery” and a response to destitution and population pressures.

7. Fourth, and most crucially, such representations of migration as the antithesis of development are based on flawed assumptions of the fundamental causes of this migration. In particular, they ignore increasingly robust scientific evidence that, particularly in low-income countries, processes of economic and human development tend to increase internal and international “outmigration” (Clemens 2014; de Haas 2010b; Skeldon 1997; Zelinsky 1971),

8. Such evidence upsets popular but misleading push-pull models, which predict that most migration should occur from the poorest communities and societies. This illustrates the need for a fundamental rethinking of the nature and causes of human migration. That is particularly relevant in the context of African migration, which is still predominantly cast in essentialist portrayals driven by sensationalist media images and political crisis narratives. To contribute to such an effort, this situation analysis aims to achieve an evidence-based understanding of the nature and drivers of African migration over the post-Second World War period.

9. The present report will start by reviewing the main patterns and trends of African migration over the past decades. While focusing on international migration, the analysis will not artificially ignore internal migration, based on the understanding that movement within and across borders are intrinsically interlinked (King and Skeldon 2010) and that they stem from the same processes of social transformation and development (de Haas 2010b).

10. The analysis will draw mainly on, first: our own analysis of available migrant population (“stock”) and migrant flow data, such as that obtained from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the Determinants of International Migration project; second: it will draw on available empirical studies from African countries and also on the subregional reports that have been prepared for the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in concordance with this regional report (Fall 2017; Kamdem 2017; Kihato 2017; Ndegwa 2017; Zohry 2017). Where appropriate, however, this analysis will occasionally draw on evidence gathered in other developing regions or global analyses in order to assess the extent to which African experiences resemble – or differ from – more general evidence on the characteristics, patterns and drivers of human migration as well as the role that policies play in affecting these.



56. The preceding analysis highlights interesting figures and trends on African migration. Although political narratives and media images focus on the purported “exodus” of Africans to Europe, the bulk of African migrants move within the continent. However, the overall intensity of intra-African international migration has remained stable in recent years. This stagnation of migration intensities seems to be related to the imposition of migration barriers which reduce unrestricted migration. Given the dominance of intra-African migration, it is appropriate that the migration discourse, policy responses and research interests should focus more on this form of migration.

57. The idea that African migration is somehow “exceptional” seems to tap into stereotypes. African migration is not necessarily essentially different from migration in and from other world regions. In fact, Africans are underrepresented in the world migrant population and Africa has the lowest intercontinental outmigration rates of all world regions. Africa has also re-emerged as a migration destination, particularly for Chinese workers and merchants as well as European skilled workers, retirees and other “expats”. The absolute number of international migrants living on African soil has grown from an estimated 20.3 million in 1990 to an estimated 32.5 million in 2015.

58. The share of African-born people living outside of the continent has shown a slight increase – from 1.1 per cent in 1990 to 1.4 in 2015. This increase is high and rising in absolute terms – although still relatively small in terms of the proportion of Africans in the global migrant population. This increase has, however, been largely due to legal, registered and thus “orderly” migration rather than to a rising, disorderly and potentially uncontrollable tide of

59. Although more research is needed to corroborate this hypothesis, the increasing policy focus on selection of skilled migrants by OECD countries has facilitated the emigration of educated and relatively well-off Africans, but visa requirements and border controls have decreased access of relatively poor Africans to legal migration opportunities, particularly to Europe. On the one hand, this seems to have increased their reliance on smuggling and unauthorized border crossings – the unauthorized status of migrants increases the risks of labour exploitation, discrimination, violence and other forms of abuse, which can sometimes evolve in situations of trafficking.

60. On the other hand, the limited opportunities for legal migration to OECD countries for lower-skilled workers seem to have partly stimulated the partial geographical reorientation and diversification of African migration to countries in the Gulf, China and elsewhere. Other explanatory factors behind this geographical diversification of African emigration may include the waning influence of (post-) colonial ties to Europe and the growing politico-economic and cultural influence of China and the Gulf countries in Africa as well as the more liberal entry regimes in the new destination countries.

Destination Maghreb

For a report on recent expulsions from Algeria, see "Inside Algeria’s Mass Expulsions of Sub-Saharan Migrants Aug. 7, 2018 -

For a report analyzing the nuances of "Changing Migration Patterns in North Africa," May 2, 2018, see

Economic Development in Africa Report 2018: Migration for Structural Transformation.

UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), May 2018 / Direct URL:


Images of thousands of African youth drowning in the Mediterranean, propelled by poverty or conflict at home and lured by the hope of jobs abroad, have fed a misleading narrative that migration from Africa harms rather than helps the continent. The latest edition of the UNCTAD flagship Economic Development in Africa Report takes aim at this preconceived notion and assesses the evidence to identify policy pathways that harness the benefits of African migration and mitigate its negative effects.

This year, 2018, offers the international community a historic opportunity to realize the first global compact for migration, an intergovernmentally negotiated agreement in preparation under the auspices of the United Nations. Our contribution to this historic process is the Economic Development in Africa Report 2018: Migration for Structural Transformation.

Migration benefits both origin and destination countries across Africa. The report argues that African migration can play a key role in the structural transformation of the continent’s economies. Well-managed migration also provides an important means for helping to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, both in Africa and beyond.

The report adopts an innovative, human-centred narrative that explores how migrants contribute to structural transformation and identifies opportunities for absorption of extra labour in different sectors across the continent. African migrants include from highly skilled to low-skilled persons, who migrate through legal channels and otherwise.These migrants not only fill skills gaps in destination countries, but also contribute to development in their origin countries. Children remaining in the origin country of a migrant parent are also often more educated than their peers, thanks to their parent’s migration. The connections that migrants create between their origin and their destination countries have led to thriving diaspora communities. They have also opened up new trade and investment opportunities that can help both destination countries and origin countries to diversify their economies and move into productive activities of greater added value.

Contrary to some perceptions, most migration in Africa today is taking place within the continent. This report argues that this intra-African migration is an essential ingredient for deeper regional and continental integration. At the same time, the broad patterns of extra-continental migration out of Africa confirm the positive contribution of migrants to the structural transformation of origin countries.

We believe this report offers new and innovative analytical perspectives, relevant for both long-term policymaking and for the design of demand-driven technical cooperation
projects, with a shorter time frame and will help Governments and other stakeholders in reaching informed decisions on appropriate migration policies in the context of Africa’s regional integration process.

It is our hope that these findings will improve policy approaches to migration for African Governments, as well as for migration stakeholders outside the continent.

Mukhisa Kituyi
Secretary-General of UNCTAD

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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