Current Affairs

AFRICAN MIGRATION: Separating fact from fiction

AFRICAN MIGRATION: Separating fact from fiction
  • PublishedDecember 11, 2019

African migration, especially into Europe, has become a major political and emotional issue. But behind the screaming headlines, the reality is very different, as a report from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation attests. Omar Ben Yedder, reports.

Demystifying the numbers behind migration

One of Europe’s biggest worries is the prospect of unchecked mass migration from Africa. Tragic stories of hundreds of migrants drowning in rickety boats from notorious embarkation sites like Libya, have become almost daily occurrences in the global media.

Many if not most of these unfortunate souls who find watery graves are labelled economic migrants from all corners of Africa. Those who survive the various ordeals to getting to the ‘promised land’ in Europe then have to run the gauntlet of hostile regulations and detentions.

A growing number of right-wing European politicians are stoking fears of a Europe being ‘swamped’ by Africans and warning of a loss to their culture and way of life. But, behind the screaming headlines and horrifying TV images, the migration story is very different and much more nuanced.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s comprehensive report on youth, jobs and migration released in April, the Ibrahim Forum Report, goes a long way to separating fact from fiction.

Although reliable statistics on African migration are thin on the ground, and even the definition of ‘migrant’ is open to debate, what is not disputable is that most African migration is within Africa.

The headline-making migrants to Europe are in fact a minority. The same is true with internally displaced persons and also refugees. The majority are hosted in camps or settlements within the continent. In September, migrants trapped in Libyan detention centres were evacuated to Rwanda under an emergency plan agreed with the AU and an offer in 2017 by President Paul Kagame to accept 30,000 African migrants.

Migration has become a very emotive issue and as a result very political in Europe. The scarcity of accurate data just feeds misconception, suspicion and fear. The report sets out to demystify the facts and counter the often reactionary and baseless statements.

In Africa, migration in itself has a positive impact on host communities. Côte d’Ivoire for example, derives 19% of its GDP from migrants; the figures are 13% for Rwanda and 9% for South Africa.

 Xenophobic violence in South Africa

Recent incidents in South Africa – where the youth unemployment rate is in the region of 40% – have once again brought the debate about immigration to the fore.

South Africa is a paradox in itself. It’s the most unequal society in the world, but at the same time has the most modern infrastructure on the continent, and scores highly in terms of governance.

It is also in nominal terms, one of the richest economies on the continent and as such, it attracts the most economic migrants from other African countries, despite the nation itself suffering from high unemployment.

Interestingly, there does not appear to be a clear correlation between migration and the quality of governance in host destinations. Migrants will go where they believe jobs are to be found. Countries like Equatorial Guinea or Gabon, both of which have a high number of migrants relatively speaking, do not score highly on the Ibrahim Governance Index, whilst the Seychelles or Mauritius, which do, do not attract high levels of inward migration.

Positive impact for both sides

The Ibrahim Forum Report in fact goes further and shows that intra-continental migrations have positive impacts for both the countries of origin and the destinations.

For the destination country, migration generally leads to improved labour productivity and also acts to fill gaps where otherwise there would be shortages. Many of the migrants in South Africa, for example, are in the construction sector, allowing it to grow. Migrants are also active consumers and there is no evident strain on poverty levels or public services.

For the country of origin, remittances are obviously an important source of income – this year’s total African remittances outweighed both FDI and ODA flows. Diaspora communities also boost exports of local produce from their home countries, thus further stimulating their home economies while providing often welcome varieties, of food or fruit for example, to their host communities.

Paradox of requirements

Unemployment and the lack of opportunities are the biggest drivers of migration and also probably the biggest threats to the continent, both in social stability and poverty reduction.

A survey conducted by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research institution, confirmed that unemployment is the biggest problem faced by the youth.

Unemployment and job precariousness mean that the young are no longer making the natural transition from youth to adulthood.

Whether unemployed or working irregularly in the informal sector, they are stuck in a situation of ‘waiting’ where they are not financially independent and cannot develop further as they lack access to economic opportunities.

The irony of this situation is that while the Ibrahim Index of African Governance and other sources show that this generation of African youth is the most educated and the best positioned in terms of health and human development, it is also the least able to find jobs after formal education.

Indeed, data suggests that there is a very weak correlation between higher education grades and employment. According to

Camilla Rocca, head of research at the Ibrahim Foundation, this points not only to a mismatch between education and market needs but also to a paucity of skilled jobs due to the lack of a developed manufacturing and industrial sector.

Vocational training is also very low: only 1.1% of 15-24 year olds participated in a vocational education programme in 2017.

Finding solutions

To deal with some of these issues and to ensure the continent does not experience a severe brain drain, the report calls for even more mobility on the continent, and indirectly champions the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Africa will become more appealing to the youth if they can move more freely and the skills gaps – and there are many – will be filled by Africans who would otherwise be attracted to opportunities in Europe or the US.

One area that will need to be addressed is the digital divide. Although most of urban Africa is connected, the report estimates that 66% of Africans are still offline.

They will need to be connected or else the impact of programmes such as Kenya’s Huduma, through which the government administers a number of public services, will be limited.

In the same vein, the report states that 40% of children under five, for example, are not registered at birth and therefore deprived of access to critical services such as healthcare and education. In addition, they lose the right to be formally identified and recognised, which according to Rocca is central to any discussion on governance and development.

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has been very vocal about two main things: governance and leadership. It has also been very committed to strengthening the data landscape in Africa – “bad data leads to bad politics,” says Rocca. “That’s why we put this basic data [birth registration] at the heart of governance, because without an identity, you cannot enter into a relationship with your governments, which is the core of governance.

Written By
Omar Ben Yedder

Omar Ben Yedder is the Publisher and Managing Director of IC Publications. After a short stint at investment bank Merrill Lynch, London, Omar joined the group in 2003. Omar's work and personal interests include media, development economics, leadership and education. Omar studied Economics and Languages at Durham University and also is a chartered management accountant. Omar is Tunisian, and is based out of London, spending two weeks a month on the road.

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