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Why we should change the current narrative on 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.

Setting the picture right to better manage mobility and address inequalities was at the forefront of a debate about African migrations hosted by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation during the European Development Days Conference (EDD) in Brussels on 18 June. The session, titled African migrations: changing the narrative, explored ways in which countries, policy makers and citizens can harness the full potential of Africa together.

The panel was composed of Yvonne Apea Mensah, Head of Africa at the Commonwealth Secretariat and a former Ibrahim Fellow; Natasha Kimani, Head of Programmes at Well Told Story and former Ibrahim Fellow; Jason Gagnon, economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Centre; and Judicaelle Irakoze, a young leader from Burundi. The session was moderated by Camilla Rocca, Head of Research at the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

The conversation centred on why the current perceptions about African migrations and African migrants need to be reset. The panellists highlighted that protection of human rights is a key point, as well as the fact that, despite current narratives, migrants contribute economically to their host countries. According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s 2019 Ibrahim Forum Report, migrants’ contribution to nations’ GDP is estimated as being as high as 19% in Côte d’Ivoire, 13% in Rwanda, and 9% in South Africa.

Yvonne Mensah added that changing the mindset is essential for achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and preparing African youth for the future: "If we don’t change the narrative, we will have a mismatch between the policy and the problem."

A highlight from the conversation was the importance of relying on data to show the reality on the ground. The data should also be used to inform policy frameworks, including in Africa, Jason Gagnon argued. "We know that a lot of African migrations are within Africa, yet migrant integration is not on the radar of most African countries. This is going to become an increasingly bigger problem with respect to the youth bulge."

Addressing this youth bulge and the lack of sustainable economic opportunities in Africa, as presented in the 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, is a key challenge. Natasha Kimani added that unemployment, the vulnerability of migrants, and ensuring human rights are respected, especially when it comes to women, are also in the list.

Amongst the solutions suggested by the panellists were opening borders and investing in infrastructure to address the push for mobility, easing possibility to travel, study and do business across the continent. This should come with more participation from local, national and international actors in policy-making. “Who’s actually sitting at the table when migration policies are being made?”, asked Jason Gagnon. This is also a call for Africa’s youth to grab their seats and demand to sit at the table, Judicaelle Irakoze argued.

Judicaelle also called attention to the responsibilities of the youth towards ensuring changes are implemented.

We need to hold our leaders accountable. It is our right. As the African youth, we need to move from the narrative that our future is tomorrow. Our future is now.

The discussion concluded by emphasising the importance of eradicating misperceptions about migrants, to which Natasha replied to with an awareness call about how refer to migrants – if as ‘migrants’ or ‘expats’. She then challenged the audience: "What are we doing to ensure our citizens have the right mindset? Are we creating the right environments for our young people to thrive? Can we change how we think about Africans? Can we change how we think about ourselves?"