Make intra-African migration a safe, orderly, productive process

Monday May 20 2019

In recent years, images of young Africans attempting to reach Europe, sometimes through the most daring and desperate routes, have become a fixture on global and national news channels. Cynical politicians in Europe and the United States have argued, for the sake of winning votes, that these (largely male) immigrants are “invading” their countries, threatening to steal locals’ jobs, or worse.


Nothing could be further from the truth: There is no mass exodus from Africa.

In 2017, more than half of the world’s migrants originated from just 21 countries. The top four were India (6.4 per cent), Mexico (five per cent), Russia (4.1 per cent) and China (3.9 per cent). The African country with the largest share of migrants, Egypt, was 19th.

Africa accounts for only 14 per cent of migrant flows, most of them confined to it. Recent reports — by the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, among others — show around 70 per cent of Sub-Saharan African migrants remain on the continent, mostly within East and West Africa (18.5 per cent and 16.7 per cent, respectively). Almost half (46 per cent) of all intraregional African migrants are female.

The West thus faces little risk of a massive wave of African migrants. And a substantial number of migrants is not necessarily a bad thing: Intra-African migration fosters economic connections between rural and urban areas and among regional neighbours.


A 2018 Afrobarometer survey of 34 African countries shows younger, better-educated urbanites are more likely to consider emigrating than their older, less-educated rural counterparts. They are often motivated by the desire to find a job (43 per cent) or to escape economic hardship (33 per cent).

Tapping these migrants’ potential, and ensuring that intra-African migration is a safe, orderly and productive process, will require African governments to create better frameworks for managing it. Beyond collecting and sharing data, international institutions can share knowledge and best practices with governments, as the Migration Dialogue in West Africa has done. African governments should increase their contributions to such initiatives, so far funded by Western donors.


Technology can also help. The non-profit Techfugees, for example, is already working to coordinate the tech industry’s response to the refugee challenge, spurring the development of solutions “for and with displaced people”. Existing projects include Migreat, which helps refugees to navigate the asylum application process, and GeeCycle, focused on recycling and donating mobile phones to refugees.

Keeping migrants safe requires governments and media to set the record straight. In South Africa, for example, anti-immigrant rhetoric has recently fuelled xenophobic attacks on Malawians and Zimbabweans.

African migration flows are not as large as some politicians claim but could increase as the effects of climate change intensify. Climate change contributes both to extreme events and chronic emergencies.

Migrants’ home countries also have a role to play. Migration represents a brain drain within Africa — given that most young African migrants are educated, their departure undermines development in the countries that need it most, while fuelling growth in host countries by filling labour gaps, boosting consumption and expanding the tax base.

Migrants do send back remittances — one of the largest sources of financial flows to developing countries — but this money is used mainly to supplement consumption for recipient families rather than to finance productive investments. That is why home-country governments should generate quality jobs to entice youth to stay home.


Entrepreneurship has been hailed as the solution to Africa’s jobs problem. But it requires concerted action from governments. For example, to address the mismatch between the skills companies seek and those the youth possess, governments should invest in science, technology, engineering, and math (Stem) education and vocational training. They should work with the private sector to improve the business environment.

They should also capitalise on the dynamism of the large informal sector, which employs 75-90 per cent of Africans. Formalising agriculture, agro-processing and small-scale manufacturing and service enterprises will require governments to provide infrastructure, public services and access to credit.

At the recent Now Generation Forum in Abidjan, debates among youth delegates made clear that African young people will no longer passively await a better future. They are doing everything in their power not just to develop their skills and find quality jobs but also to bring about political change — as just occurred in Algeria and Sudan.

Mr Soulé and Ms Toulmin are associates at the Institute for New Economic Thinking’s Commission for Global Economic Transformation.