Africa Needs to Focus on Sound Immigration Policies

South Africa

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January 19, 2016 19:20 EDT

Africa is on the fast track of economic growth, but the continent must reform its internal immigration policies.

In 2015, South Africa was shocked by xenophobic attacks, a startling déjà vu of similar attacks in 2008 that led to the killing of over 60 South Africans and was met with worldwide condemnations. Following that, at least five foreigners were killed and thousands forced to seek refuge.

This brings the issue of immigration in South Africa to the forefront, but also provides an opportunity to analyze the current state and future of immigration policy on the African continent in the face of unequal economic growth among nations and changing cross-country immigration dynamics.

Since the continent’s wave of independence, African governments and regional organizations have done very little to address immigration policy within Africa. For many governments, the facts on the nature and consequences of immigration are largely unknown, and the appropriate language and policy frameworks for tackling this inevitable aspect of the economy and society of African countries are largely non-existent. Even with government focus on remittances, other key aspects of immigration policy are severely underdeveloped or are focused more on the diaspora. This is in sharp contrast to the realities of immigration on the continent.

Immigration is an African story. The press around African immigration tends to be focused on immigration of Africans to the Global North. However, according to a World Bank report, the number of African immigrants who move to other African countries are in the majority two-thirds of total immigration in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This intra-Africa immigration is attributed to lower immigration costs and lack of resources and the skills needed to succeed in more competitive labor markets outside of the continent.

Over the last three decades, the most common destinations for African immigrants have been Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria in West Africa, Gabon in Central Africa, Kenya in East Africa, and South Africa in southern Africa. According to the same report, immigrants tend to be mainly young African males (15-40 years), with some level of education beyond the primary level, whose main reasons for migrating are to seek employment, education and for family reasons.

Unequal Growth

Given the challenges with obtaining data on immigration and the proliferation of informal immigration channels, it is very plausible that these numbers only capture part of the story that has and will continue to take on different dimensions in the face of Africa’s other more sensational story: African growth.

African students

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In recent years, the African continent has been described as the next hub of growth and the new frontier market. With a continent-wide average GDP growth rate of 4% in recent years, this notion is empirically supported.

However, a look at country level economic data tells a story of masked unequal growth, high levels of unemployment, and persistent poverty in many African countries. In addition, some African countries are still plagued with political instability and drawn out effects of civil war and terrorism.

Against this backdrop of challenges and inequality, many affected Africans are increasingly drawn to the relative stability of their sister countries with hopes that they can reap the benefits of better job security, education and standard of living. However, inside the borders of prime immigrant destination countries, the hopes of migrants are met with the struggles of locals who are also looking for hope and opportunity. This growing dichotomy has the potential to pose serious economic, policy and social challenges for immigrants and destination countries.

Immigration policies for African immigrants in many African countries has been shaped by reactions and sentiments to mismanaged immigration systems that fail to address the immigration challenges at their core, or fail to proactively nurture the benefits that can accrue to a well-managed immigration system.

A case in point is the mass expulsions of immigrants of African ancestry—from Ghana in 1969, Nigeria in 1983, and Côte d’Ivoire early in the past decade—which resulted in economic and social upheaval. These expulsions were largely motivated by growing impatience with undocumented African immigrants, and failed to fully tackle the problem of border control, unaffordable documentation processes and trafficking.

Creating Change

This poor structuring and management of immigration has a catalytic effect on xenophobic sentiments toward other Africans. As immigrant flows to and from other African countries continue under shaky immigration frameworks, locals more readily cast African immigrants under stereotypes of “illegal,” “criminal” and “free rider.” What this does, in addition to the unacceptable and tragic loss of life, is create a hostile environment among citizens, which can undermine any sort of regional, inter- or intra-country cooperation.

Realizing that immigration is an African story with accompanying policies that are lacking is the first step to creating change. The next step, and where a good number of challenges also lie, is mobilizing a concerted effort among African nations to facilitate better immigration policies for immigration flows across African country borders.

This is where the African Union (AU) and other African regional groups come in. In recent years, there have been working groups on internal immigration policies, and the AU has published some reports. However, action is forthcoming.

The work of other non-African nations who face immigration challenges can serve as a blueprint for these efforts, but ultimately the focus needs to be on creating homegrown continental policies that African countries can use as a benchmark for their own immigration frameworks.

With Africa on the fast track of economic growth, immigration within the African continent is becoming more nuanced. There has never been a better time to take action.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Monkey Business Images / Michael Jung /

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