The economic power of Africa’s migrants

Fleeing from war zones, migrants are not simply helpless victims adrift in refugee camps. Many are skilled workers who enrich the economies of their host countries, which more often than not are other African nations.

The stereotype of African migrants swarming into Europe for the purpose of leeching off European Union (EU) states for free social services and engaging in criminal activities may be the image cherished by European bigots and xenophobes. However, there is little reality to the scenario, an April 2016 report by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) asserts. Far from seeking European shores to invade and EU countries in which to settle, the majority of African migrants on the move choose as their destinations other African countries. Only a minority of migrants leave the continent.

Somali money exchanger
A money exchanger trades US dollars for Somali shillings in Mogadishu. Photo courtesy AMISOM/Stuart Price/Flickr

The UNECA report, Challenges of International Migration in Africa, was unveiled in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during events coinciding with African Development Week, a time set aside by the African Union (AU) and UN to assess Africa’s economic and social progress and the efficacy of programmes aimed at uplifting African peoples. Perhaps the most succinct summation of the report is that Africa’s gain is Europe’s loss, for hard workers and skilled labour are essential to any economy. African migrants, like any foreigners moving into a new country, unless they are wealthy, tend to take jobs or perform services that are undesirable to the local people, from putting in long hours at small shops in the townships of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa to working as domestic servants in Algiers, Algeria. African professionals like dentists, nurses, engineers and managers forced out of their homes by conflict or in the cases of countries like Zimbabwe, by a collapsing economy, expand the pool of skilled professionals that is the life-blood of any nation’s economic growth.

That Africans prefer to move to other African countries rather than overseas is partly explained by the distance to Europe; never mind to the Americas or Asia, the latter of which is unwelcoming to Africans due to racial bigotry. The perilous journey across the Mediterranean from Libya or Tunisia has claimed hundreds of lives and captured world media coverage but is undertaken by a comparatively small minority of African migrants. Sub-Saharan Africans seek the cultural similarities they find in other regional countries. Languages are often similar, and food and customs are not excessively dissimilar. Sub-Saharan Africans face discrimination when settling in North Africa because they are not Arabs and do not share Arab customs or languages, even though the migrants may be Muslim. However, Morocco is one country that has made an effort to be more welcoming. King Mohammed VI has granted work visas to 20,000 Sub-Saharan Africans, representing of the Arab world’s most liberal immigration policies. As a result, professionals fleeing war-ravaged Central Africa are availing their skills to the Moroccan economy.

African migrants are money generators sending significant remittances to home countries

According to the UNECA report, 3% of Africa’s population, or about 31 million people, are migrants. More than half of migrants crossing borders end up in other African countries and some 28% go to Europe. When all immigrants in Europe are considered, fewer than 12% originated in Africa. With so-called migrant streams within Africa far outnumbering migrant streams out of the continent, any perceived large-scale African immigration into Europe is illusionary.

According to the UNECA report, Takyiwaa Manuh, Director of UNECA’s Social Development Policy Division, was critical of international media coverage on irregular migration, with attention given to the high death toll amongst those crossing the Mediterranean. Such emphasis “falsely reinforces the belief that Africans’ migration is essentially directed towards Europe,” UNESCA said.

The economic output of migrants working abroad is impressive. Remittance inflows into African countries grew four-fold in the 20-year period starting in 1990, and by 2010 had reached US$ 49 billion. Statistically, this figure equalled nearly 2.6% of Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP). In terms of Africans’ lives, the remittance inflows represent survival for the migrants’ families at home, and often go to paying the educational costs of the migrants’ child relatives. Because remittance money is spent locally, commercial activity and job creation in the migrants’ countries of origin result.

A specific breakdown of how remittance inflows are spent by migrants’ recipient relatives shows that education, food and healthcare are the primary uses of the money. Spending on these three categories represents 30% of remittances in Kenya, 37% in Nigeria, 47% in Burkina Faso and 67% in Senegal. As UNECA notes, “Thus, international migration has tremendous potential to improve development and welfare in origin countries.”

Morocco’s welcome shows why Africans prefer to remain on the continent

More than 20,000 Mozambicans have fled across the border to Malawi to escape violence from government and rebel forces that, seemingly unwilling to confront one another, chose instead to brutalise civilians whom they accuse of supporting their enemies. In Maputo, government refuses to acknowledge the scope of the conflict, and prefers to label the immigrants as “economic refugees.” This may be wishful thinking by government for another reason, because economic refugees are sources of remittance inflows sent to family in their home country. Languishing in refugee camps, however, the Mozambicans have no opportunity to earn a living and generate income to repatriate. Malawi is a very poor country that cannot offer livelihoods to the Mozambican newcomers, who are maintained by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is unfortunate, because Malawi’s economy is largely agricultural and the refugees are almost entirely from rural farming areas.

A wealthier country, Morocco is in a better position to absorb immigrants and to harness the newcomers’ talents for national economic gain. Morocco mounted a marketing campaign in April 2016 citing the country’s advantage to investors as North Africa’s most stable and affluent country. For the time being, the claim is accurate. In 2014, the country’s ruler, King Mohammed VI, reacted to a public outcry over the deaths of two Sub-Saharan Africans who were being pursued in a police chase, and decreed a new immigration policy. The men’s deaths were symptomatic of the confusion of police and public officials who had to deal with immigrants under unclear or dated policies. Some 20,000 work permits were issued, many to war refugees from Central Africa. The migrants are now employed or have set up businesses in the country and the immigration policy is regarded as a success. UNECA feels that more can be done on a continent-wide scale.

Regional economic integration is well advanced in East Africa, and is moving forward in Southern Africa. Central, North and West Africa have regional economic blocs and integration plans in place. Regional stability in those conflict-hindered areas must firm up before cross-border travel restrictions can be totally lifted. The goal as reaffirmed by UNECA is unified regional border management to ease migration and ultimately, EU-like visa-free travel for all Africans within the African continent, including the island nations dotted alongside Africa in the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic.

Migrants are a proven economy-building asset for host countries

Transportation links are a major focus of development in African countries, and infrastructure is being developed with a regional approach. For instance, all Southern African rail systems belong to the Southern Africa Railway Association (SARA) so that all infrastructure is uniform and a passenger train can travel from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam without obstacles. Road infrastructure is also a priority, and all African countries take pride in their airports, which are at varying stages of construction or rehabilitation. All this activity will facilitate travel for Africans; as a useful means of escape in conflict emergencies but most likely to be utilised for economic growth. This will mean more economic refugees departing impoverished countries and despotic governance.

The receiving countries will benefit from the new entrepreneurs, particularly as education levels rise and more skilled and ambitious individuals are the first to seek greener pastures denied to them at home.