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African migration: A golden opportunity squandered

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African migration: A golden opportunity squandered

A recent UN forum on migration was a golden opportunity for Africa to make its case on the movement of labour across the world but a weak stance and infighting meant that the chance was squandered, writes Onyekachi Wambu.

 The recently concluded UN International Migration Review Forum (IMRF), which took place in mid-May, exposed many of the contradictions and hypocrisies around globalisation and the movement of people. It also cruelly exposed, at a global level, African weaknesses and divisions.

When the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration was agreed by the UN in 2018, member states also approved the IMRF, to be held every four years, as the inter-governmental platform for discussing and sharing progress on the compact, especially to ensure its continuing alignment to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Although the process is inter-governmental, input into the draft IMRF Progress Declaration documents involved a variety of stakeholders, including migrant organisations, business, and civil society groups. 

The IMF delegates were ostensibly there to consolidate and even extend the main goals of the compact – ie., safe, orderly and regular migration – while reducing the negative impact of irregular migration. Other objectives aimed to enhance the contributions that skilled and unskilled migrants make to development in their residence, heritage and transit countries.

They hoped too to guarantee the following guiding principles: “people-centred, international cooperation, national sovereignty, rule of law and due process, sustainable development, human rights, a gender-responsive, child-sensitive, whole-of-government approach and whole-of-society approach”. 

This is a huge and contradictory agenda, involved with managing the estimated 281m international migrants who are important players in the global economy. Each migrant, according to the World Bank, impacts on average 4.5 people (over a billion people) in their country of heritage – a key part being the $751bn they send in remittances. These figures do not take into account the millions from diasporas, the result of historic migrations.

Ignoring the elephant in the room

However, when all you have is a hammer, all issues, especially at this level, present themselves as nails. So inter-governmental processes don’t adequately account for the elephant in the room – which is that the biggest migration flows, movements from villages to cities, are internal, within countries, and therefore outside their jurisdiction.  

Attempts to deal with interstate migration which do not deal with the core triggers, or a strategy that would provide livelihoods and an economy that would anchor people within their rural communities, are ultimately doomed to failure.

Also, it would involve a meaningful discussion about the role globalisation has played in moving people away from rural areas, and about the current global trading order. A recent UNDP report, Scaling Fences, on African irregular migrants into Europe, revealed that their main motivation was the transformational impact earning euros or British pounds would make on their lives at home.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the process of globalisation has meant the increasing deregulation of economies, including currency regimes, to ease the free movement of capital, goods and services, but not labour. 

Despite Africa currently enjoying a comparative advantage in labour costs, unlike other factors of production, labour cannot move freely at all, and young Africans currently ‘export’ themselves across the Sahara and Mediterranean in a totally dysfunctional manner.

African labour has always had great difficulty inserting itself into the global economy. 400 years ago our ancestors were captured and trafficked, for free labour. Today, they now pay $5,000 and take huge risks to move into European labour markets. 

African governments, whose voices were muted at the IMRF, did not really challenge these big issues about the historic global terms of trade. Perhaps it had to do with the difficulties they encountered, coming to an inter-governmental conference on migration at the UN, where their delegations were unable to secure American visas – some were offered interviews in November 2022, for a conference taking place in May 2022! 

Perhaps it was also difficult just trying to retain some of the progressive language from the Global Compact in 2018 against the growing hostility against migrants. 

However, when African governments should have been coming together to develop a united front against these big issues, Ethiopia and Egypt decided to have a side battle over the waters of the Nile, taking it to a vote on an amendment which the Ethiopians lost. 

This was shameful, also because it was the only time a vote was held, as the Progress Declaration was passed by consensus, despite several Western countries immediately distancing themselves and opting out from its provisions.

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Written by Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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