Does Africa need a new narrative on migration?

A new narrative on migration in Africa is emerging. It challenges and debunks commonly held perceptions and myths about African migration and African migrants, revealing that most people are not crossing seas and oceans to migrate, but rather crossing land borders in their quest for greener pastures.

In fact, 94 per cent of people who do cross seas and oceans from African countries to reach other destinations do so through regular channels. According to the first-ever “Africa Migration Report,” these people are mostly business travelers and students, taking planes and passing through airports and official land borders. It reveals an unknown and underreported reality — that African migration is predominantly intra-African, contrary to the often horrific, dramatic, and sensationalized impression of irregular migration from Africa across the Mediterranean Sea.

It also finds that Africans only account for 14 per cent of the global migrant population, Asians account for 41 per cent, and Europeans account for 24 per cent.

Addressing distortions

An Africa-specific migration report emerged in order to address key distortions that continue to characterize public discourse on African migration — the culmination of nearly three years of collaborative work between the International Organization for Migration, the UN Migration Agency, and the African Union Commission. Discussing issues from labor and the environment, to children’s and human rights, the report — published in October — seeks to leverage the African migration agenda toward continental development and integration.

Against the stated goal of challenging false narratives around African migration with facts and data, three points and challenges are worth highlighting:

The first is that migration as an academic discipline is not well-established in academic institutions of higher learning on the continent. The few African researchers on migration are, in turn, also largely influenced by the thinking of the dominant academic views on the topic — consequently influencing the outlook and direction of African policymakers.

The result is that non-African perspectives on migration are sometimes transposed onto Africa, compelling the continent to view migration and mobility in Africa through a prism of a problem to be fixed rather than the reality of life that it is, and a reality that — if well managed — could benefit both sending and receiving countries, and the migrants themselves.

Secondly, while the policies that the AU has put out over the course of the past two decades depict a continental political body that is very progressive in its thinking and outlook on migration, implementation of these policies by its member states has tended to lag behind. The revision of the Migration Policy Framework for Africa in 2018 provides an opportunity for the AU and its member states to recognize the importance of strong policy and institutional frameworks to more effectively manage migration as a key development component rather than only as a burning problem to be fixed.

The policy frameworks and positions on migration adopted by the AU are beginning to show some permeation through policy reforms and practice at the national level, and if fully implemented, have the potential to transform the governance of migration on the continent.

If there is one thing that the recent adoption of the Agreement Establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area and the Protocol to the Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community Relating to Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Right of Establishment by the AU tells us, it is that there is general growing consensus among AU member states that migration is an integral part of the continental integration and development agenda.

Third — and this is despite the existence of myriad migration dialogue and inter-state cooperation mechanisms on the continent — there is not much by way of active, ongoing cooperation and information-sharing between countries on migration. This in turn impedes the collection and collation of meaningful, comparable data that could inform policymakers of continental trends and by so doing, help ensure continued relevance and applicability of policy decisions at continental and regional levels to national realities.

Africa has made tremendous progress since the institution of migration dialogues on the continent starting in 2000. However, there is still need for more effort to ensure that existing migration dialogue platforms bring together African migration policymakers for sustained deliberations resulting in practical cooperation, founded on a culture of information and data-sharing.

An African approach to migration

The data outlined in the report — and this new narrative — has the potential to advance the African migration agenda as articulated in the AU migration policy frameworks and guiding principles. The hope is that it also serves to catalyze a candid conversation and shapes the ongoing discourse on what an African approach to migration might look like, and that this conversation, in turn, begins to intensify the shift in African migration policy and anchor it on transformative actions.

Legitimate concerns about irregular migration from Africa to other world regions, such as security, must be accommodated and taken into account. But doing so need not come at the expense of African interests that are linked to the more than 80 per cent of Africans that are continually on the move within the continent.

Ultimately, an African approach to migration will first and foremost protect African people. It will protect the millions of people who have been forcibly displaced by conflict and disaster and create opportunities for pan-African solidarity rather than constrain them. It will not harden borders before asking the right questions about who will be punished most. It will not pathologize centuries of mobility, solidarity, and connection, but rather incubate and modernize them to respond better to the challenges of the modern world.

An African approach to migration does not look at cross border traders, many of them women, and see a problem to be solved. It sees ingenuity, resilience, sound domestic policymaking, and an approach that promises a way forward for the continent as a whole.

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