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Misconceptions about cross-border mobility and their implications for a sustainable management of African migrations

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.

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. All data in this blog are taken from 2019 Ibrahim Forum Report.

An impromptu class debate with my undergraduate students enlightened me about how young minds from a range of countries and backgrounds conceive the topic of African migration. Images of crowded boats at sea, concerns about the consequences for the global North, or aspirations of the Eldorado-seeking migrants filled the conversation.

There is no such thing as a wrong answer in any class discussion but there are assumptions and misconceptions which need to be addressed. I reflected on the possible origins of the many misunderstandings about African migration and came to a realisation. Finding the sources responsible for these misconceptions becomes void when the subject continues to be politicised in mainstream media and wider society according to what migration represents for the global North or the Western context. In other words, migration is little perceived from an African lens. These preconceived notions have multiple implications for a sustainable management of African migrations.

First, migration is a topic which is essentially absent from everyday conversations in Africa itself. The invisibility is not due to news headlines addressing global North concerns about the subject matter. On the contrary, there are other factors which are culturally driven. In different communities, migration becomes almost taboo, particularly when connected with internal mobility within Africa. While migration to European countries, Canada or Australia is met with optimism, the same cannot be said for Africans wishing to relocate or work in other countries of the continent.

According to the 2019 Ibrahim Forum report, only 22% of African students leaving to study abroad choose an African destination. China has become the second most popular destination for African students, after France. African migration tends to be compared with migration towards other continents where the grass is allegedly greener. The bar of expectations for migration towards non-African countries is set high, whereas towards or across Africa, it is unconsciously low. The result is that African migration suffers from inherently negative connotations which affect professional mobility. As noted in the report: “for many businesses in Africa, it is often easier to employ a skilled non-African expatriate than a skilled African expatriate”.

Second, African citizens are little informed about cross-border mobility and many fail to distinguish between migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Migration policy-making is viewed as a government matter. While global climate change movements led by young activists have gained momentum in the recent months, what will it take to rally young African citizens around discussions of migration? The discourse has yet to strike a chord among them. It will prove difficult to achieve if 66% of African citizens continue to remain offline.

The 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) is upgrading the employability landscape and Africa needs to keep up – only about half of today’s core jobs are expected to remain stable between now and 2022. The 4IR is, however, associated with simple technologies which can improve living standards and mitigate some migration incentives. For these to happen, new technologies must become accessible and affordable.

Third, misconceptions about migration arise because the topic is treated with different degrees of interest and infrastructural capacity across Africa. Some parts of West Africa are treated as poles of attraction; others in the North of Africa are seen as a springboard for entry in Europe; and a third category is little concerned about migration unless economic or political interests are at stake.

Despite the African Union’s (AU) Common Position on African Migration, developed in 2006, the AU’s vision is detached from the actual views of its member states. On the one hand, migration discourses are constructed as a positive phenomenon especially in regions capable of managing migration flows. It shows that a shared intergovernmental attitude on migration reflects positively on policy-making, as is the case in ECOWAS which is the only REC whose citizens can travel visa-free to all countries in the region. On the other hand, another argument frames migration as a threat to national security. The disparity in opinions of African migration affects the adoption of policies. For example, SADC’s 2005 Protocol on Facilitation of the Movement of Persons has yet to enter into force. The inability to reach a synergy on African migration reflects an inherent malaise at the intergovernmental level owing to diverging views. The consequence is a lack of country openness. At the moment, only 11 African countries either request no visa or just a visa on arrival for all African citizens.

This year, the main topic of discussion at the Ibrahim Governance Weekend is African Migrations. What is noteworthy about this year’s theme is the use of the plural for the word migration. Already, it is an invitation to overcome a simplistic view of the subject.

The Now Generation Forum (NGF), which is a youth-led platform, is a significant opportunity for multi-dimensional deliberations. This provides an opportunity to address distorted perceptions about cross-border mobility. It will allow for an enhanced awareness about the South-South nature of migration flows and potentially welcome proposals for transforming the narrative around African migrations. This would appeal to both youth and the wider African society.

It is high time to overcome the sustained passiveness around this pertinent topic and think about how to develop a sustainable management of African migrations. The Forum’s multi-way dialogue with different stakeholders and youth engagement is a start.

The Foundation will hold its flagship annual event, the Ibrahim Governance Weekend (IGW) from 5-7 April 2019, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.

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