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Migration is as old as humanity and should be welcomed

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

Written by David Pilling. This article was originally published in The Financial Times on Wednesday, 10 April.

Hear the words 'African migrant' and many Europeans conjure up the image of a boat-full of desperate young men fleeing violence and unspeakable poverty in some benighted part of the continent. Like many stereotypes, that image contains a smidgen of truth. Like many, it is also largely wrong.

According to research on African migration by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which advocates better government on the continent, the picture is more complex. For a start, only 20% of migrants are fleeing insecurity. The remaining 80% are seeking better jobs and prospects. A large proportion are young, well-educated and female. If they were white, they would be called expatriates.

In fact, not that many African migrants come to Europe at all. Only 14% of global migrants are African (24% are European) and 70% of those stay within Africa. In 2017, the top 10 migration flows from Africa added up to less than those migrating from Mexico to the US.

When it comes to African refugees fleeing violence or persecution, some 90% move within the continent. Countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia are among the most generous hosts of displaced populations, taking in people fleeing conflict in South Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere.

It helps to go back to basics. Migration is as old as humanity. If it wasn’t we would all be huddled together in the Rift Valley. Many civilisations, including the Tang dynasty (AD619-907) and the US for much of the 19th century, were at their most inventive and optimistic when most open to migration. Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese businessman behind the foundation, says that migration is “healthy” and “not a disease”.

There are many reasons beyond the narrowly economic to support the free flow of people. One is to see it as an inherent human right. Another is to acknowledge the hypocrisy of previous generations of migrants bolting the door on those yet to arrive. When it comes to Europe’s colonisation of Africa, there is a historic debt. You broke it, you own it.

A recent Pew Research Center survey of public opinion suggests views on immigration are less negative than the headlines. It found the majority of people in top destination countries supported the contention that migration “makes our country stronger” rather than seeing it as a burden. Perhaps surprisingly, US attitudes towards migration became more positive than in the 1990s, while growing majorities in the UK, France and Spain also saw the positive side. Alexander Soros, deputy chair of the Open Society Foundations, goes so far as to say that there is “no migration crisis” outside the manufactured narratives of nationalists.

Yet, whatever research shows, the backlash is palpable from Brexit Britain to Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Nationalist views cannot simply be blamed on bad faith politicians, many of whom tapped into sentiment that was already there. Closer examination of the Pew survey shows a social divide in attitudes. Younger people and those with higher levels of education and income are more likely to see immigration as positive.

Nor is anti-immigrant sentiment exclusively western. In South Africa, immigrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi have suffered discrimination, violence and even death. Though most contribute diligently to society, they are commonly made scapegoats. Even the African National Congress – the original rainbow party – is vowing to cut illegal migration flows.

When it comes to African migration to Europe, more can be done to accentuate the positive and ameliorate the negative. The EU should encourage legal flows from Africa, perhaps through a US-style 'green card' lottery. To the extent that it tries to discourage illegal flows, it should act in accordance with its purported values. Outsourcing border control to the Libyan coast guard and to Libyan camps, where migrants are raped, beaten and extorted, categorically does not qualify.

African governments too must play their part. Why do so many African doctors, academics and scientists come to Europe to find work? Because too many African states scandalously neglect public health and education, while their elites pay privately abroad. Domestic opportunities for all would allow talented and ambitious young Africans to pursue their careers at home.

Whatever the politics, the futures of Africa and Europe are intimately bound up. Proximity is part of the reason. Demographics is just as important. Africa’s population will double in a generation to 2 billion. The median age in Africa is 19; in Europe it is 38. As Europe’s population ages and dwindles, Africa will play an important role in filling the gap. The sooner European governments see that as a potential positive to be managed, not a negative to fear, the better.