Migrating in Africa

[Image credit: South African protester against xenophobia (2015)]

In part, this is a follow-up piece to the gravely, but easily “prescient” posting on Debitores Sumus some weeks ago highlighting the crisis of migration from Africa to Europe. Since then news reports have been riddled with imagery of boat loads of African migrants and even of corpses washed up on the beaches of southern Europe. Additionally, the fates of African migrants outside of the continent also scream for attention and empathy, including hundreds in Israel subject to aggressive detention policies and practices. Whilst these images and stories produce a picture of African migration as a bleeding of it’s young, destitute and desperate, this is not the case. A recent World Bank report characterizes African migration in the following summation:

  • the majority of African migration is intra-continental, but with 90% of North Africans heading into Europe
  • the drivers of migrations are complex and diverse, including colonial connections and contemporary conflict
  • increase in working-age populations across the continent drives migration
  • many migrants are educated and looking for opportunity outside of home (based on empirical survey data in three West African states)

While these simple observations are just the surface, they do reflect an environment of migration that is increasingly driven by opportunity, but still rooted in conflict. The following data, although from 2010, is also instructive. Figure 1.2 shows countries from which migrants are leaving, and figure 1.1 shows destination countries for many migrants. These figures, at first glance offer a revealing picture not only in terms of general destinations (11 out of 20 being intra-continental), but that the leading departure point is Eritrea, and the leading entry point is South Africa.

WBdata 1 WBdata 2

In South Africa xenophobic violence in Durban and Johannesburg against Ethiopian, Somalian, Nigerian and other foreign migrants led to hundreds being displaced into camps and seven deaths. Shadowing an incident in 2008 where many more were killed, this time around the government has responded with perhaps an equally prejudiced, militarized Operation Fiela-Reclaim intended to target a variety of criminal activity, but in reality disproportionately impacting the lives of migrants, and perhaps even formalizing prejudice and violence against migrants as part of the state apparatus.

The violence that migrants find in their varying destinations, may also be not too dissimilar from the violence many leave. Despite the trend of pursuit of opportunity, Africa’s share of the doubling of the global internally displaced populations (6 million in 2010 to 24 million in 2014) and refugees is not diminishing. These populations account for massive number of people on the move intra-continentally, and are largely driven by conflicts within Africa (note here East African conflicts, and even, over 2014-2015, internal displacement throughout West Africa as a result of Islamist violence). The following UNHCR map also indicates the massive presence of these populations particularly in Central and East Africa.


Climate change, broadly speaking, is another driver that seems to be impacting without effective response, and impacting resources and populations movements across the continent. Food production is also deeply tied with migration nad lciamte change, with many making the rural to urban transition in search of food and employment. This dynamic is particularly felt in the Sahel where desertification, decreases in rainfall and falling crop yields continue to push people from the rural to the urban, and not expected to improve over the coming decades.

Despite the promise of migration in Africa being based on the educated seeking opportunity or a increased drive to realize aspirations, many are still driven by conflict (consider the recent out-flow from Burundi where thousands have fled into neighboring Rwanda, Tanzania, and even the DRC). This is where our story comes full circle. As mentioned previously many of the migrants braving the fatal seas of the Mediterranean are Eritreans. Not all Eritreans venture this far, many end up in South Africa, and some not so far away in refugee camps in central Sudan. Here Eritreans form what could be described as the permanently displaced, some having occupied the same camps since the 1950s. Camp inhabitants such as those in Al-Shagarab and Wad Sharife in central Sudan face an uncertain future where the cannot hope to return, but are held back from integrating into Sudanese society, and facing decreases in camp funding from both the UN and the Sudanese government. Many have attempted the smuggling route, some unsuccessful survivors even make it back to the refugee camps.

Uncertain futures and the promise of a better life continues to drive migration within Africa. However, it is this more complex picture that is belied by perceptions of the crisis in the Mediterranean, and which European policy makers fail to understand in the race to securitize and militarize their borders.

Further reading:

Marie-Laurence Flahaux and Hein de Haas, ‘African Migration: Exploring the role of development and states,’ DEMIG (2014)


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