Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Migration in Africa

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What better ways can African countries benefit from migration on the continent?

Migration is the act or process of moving from one region or country to another usually in search of better human living standards. Migration is chiefly caused by war, natural disasters or economics. Africa is a large continent with a population of more than one billion, reached in 2009. In 2007, the continent had an estimated 936 million people representing 13% of the world’s population. There are various regions of sparse population, notably the Sahara region of North Africa, which has very few permanent dwellers.

Migration is a very common African experience. Fewer Africans live in urban areas than rural areas and due to the better quality of life in the urban areas, many people migrate from the rural to the urban areas in search of better working conditions to sustain families back home. Many different ethnic and civil unrests continent-wide have made for mass movements of populations across national borders. The most recent of these has been the en-masse relocation of 20,000 people of Cote d’Ivoire’s population fleeing to Liberia due to post-election violence. Liberia, in turn, also has its people spread as far as Ghana because of a fourteen-year old civil war that only came to an end in 2003. An estimated one million Liberians fled their country during the civil war. Most importantly, a lot of Africans have moved in search of better working conditions overseas in order to send much-needed financial aid to relations back home, with foreign remittances making huge percentages of national annual incomes.  It should not be missed that educational openings have aided migration as well.

It is worthy of note that migration is of two main considerations, being Internal and External. When thought of in the African concept, internal migration is intra-African migration and External migration is from Africa to the rest of the world.

Opportunities presented by internal African migration

Migration has its benefits for the African continent. The more popular issues that have caused migration in Africa have been wars and conflicts but other unmentioned avenues like trade and education have spurred re-socialisation.  A lot of African universities host large African populations and this helps in assimilating and integrating the continent better.

Africa is an ethnically diverse continent which has suffered from its diversity. But by increasing inter-country migration, cross-border tolerance can be achieved through cultural exchange.

Movement of skilled labour across the continent can help to transfer much-needed expertise, and help to build fragile economies. This is happening in the case of Liberia where expertise from mostly West Africa is helping to put the country’s energy and other critical sectors back in shape after a protracted civil war.

Challenges presented by internal African migration

Migration is arbitrary and uncoordinated in many places and this means that countries get to shoulder the burden of population influx especially when war and conflict bring in refugees. Over a period of one month, the fragile Liberian economy had to deal with over 20,000 refugees coming from the Ivory Coast, with no prior warning. This number had moved from 3,500 at the beginning of the post-election unrest to over 20,000 in three weeks!! Beside these people, the UNHCR was already taking care of 13,000 Ivorian refugees mainly in Liberia (6,000), Guinea (4,000) and Mali (2,000), who fled the civil war that officially ended in 2005.

In places where there has been little control, migrants have contributed to destabilising other African countries. A case in point again is Liberia where armed groups from the Ivory Coast helped to topple a government and set up the civil war from which the country is rebuilding. Many countries in Africa have suffered a similar fate. On 15th February 2011, Liberian refugees in Ghana asked that they be repatriated to their country because they no longer felt safe. This was after 43 of them were hauled before court for clashes with the police that led one person dead. This was not the first instance of clashes with the police.

Governance issue: What can Africa do to gain from migration?

Issues of migration have persisted since man. It is important that countries especially in Africa keep their borders open because of the many positive aspects that migration has.

It is needful that African countries and regional economic blocs like ECOWAS, COMESA and SADC which regulate trade and movement of their peoples among their regions, institute mechanisms that will help weaker nations to manage national budgets. For example, ECOWAS can work hand-in-hand with UNHCR to cater for Ivorian refugees fleeing to Liberia, a country which is also trying to rebuild its economy. In cases where it is established that a country may not be able to host these refugees, the regional bloc can fund an air-lifting of the refugees to another, more stable neighbouring country. This is not difficult to do since in places like Ghana, refugee villages have been built especially for such emergencies. It is noteworthy that ECOWAS already permits a free movement of its people across the borders of member countries. If the issue of migration is tackled as holistically as this, weak countries are freed of the burden to potentially commit scarce funding to managing refugee situations.

Many people migrate due to trade and economic opportunities and this fosters healthy inter-country relationships while boosting the financial well-being of families. In Africa where many of the world’s raw materials are found, encouraging local expertise to move across national borders in search of partnerships which will eventually groom local economies and create jobs is a positive way of dealing with potentially-illegal migration. This particularly must be heeded by countries whose people are noted to flee across the Sahara desert to Europe, in spectacles that see many people die of thirst in the desert and of drowning while crossing the sea off the North African coast.

Education-wise, African countries can partner and build common universities and research institutions where their people will learn about ways to improve their national relations. This will not be a novelty, if the example of the American University in Cairo is to be alluded to. It was built by Americans who had a desire to foster teaching and research in the Middle East, and is today one of the leading universities in Egypt, serving a varied population. Many other African countries can take a cue from this and establish institutions that help them go into research and bring out solutions to their common problems. Already, many African students attend universities in other African countries (Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, in 2010, had an International student population of 30% out of a total population of 25,774). Since a lot of migration already happens for educational reasons, educational institutions can be co-built to serve common needs. This will also help to reduce the cost of attending these institutions since many foreign students pay about five times what local students pay for their education in Ghana, for example.

If the right will is committed to managing the human resource that moves across Africa, more benefits can be harnessed from migration than there currently pertains.

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