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Migration: A constant search for opportunity

Posted on Monday, 21 September 2009 09:03

The numbers of people who travel over their national borders to

seek work, following old networks and forging new ones, are enormous.

And they play a vital economic role.

The tragic stories of Africans who are prepared to risk life and limb to reach European shores by any means possible make occasional, and troubling, headlines in Western newspapers – raising a contradictory mix of sympathy among liberals and anger among conservatives – and yet the numbers involved in such hair-raising adventures, in small boats or locked inside truck containers, are only a tiny fraction of the 17m African migrants who have chosen to leave their home countries to seek opportunities abroad. The vast majority of them, perhaps 12m, have stayed within Africa – often at the same time supporting even larger numbers of people at home.

African migrants are widely distributed across the continent, with the largest numbers drawn to the richest countries. While available statistics tend to be unreliable and patchy, the phenomenon is far more complex than meets the eye. These migrations include all people on the move, whether within or beyond the borders of their own country. Some are short-term migrants, others are permanent settlers, others may migrate seasonally. They may be unskilled or skilled labourers, professionals, students, day traders, asylum-seekers or refugees; and many move between these categories at different times.

Typical of migrant communities all over Africa are those in Cairo. In a crowded outdoor coffee shop, aptly referred to as Khartoum Café, no less than 300 Sudanese men sit in small groups for hours every night drinking tea, playing dominoes and discussing life and politics while occasionally glancing up at a TV high on the wall. Just around the corner is another cafe that caters nearly exclusively for southern Sudanese, and a few streets down is one frequented by both Darfurian Sudanese and Eritreans.

These are only a fraction of the tens of thousands of other Sub-Saharan Africans scattered throughout the poor districts of this teeming city of 18m people. Over the last 15 years, tens of thousands, mainly men, have migrated from the Horn to Egypt, most of them making the difficult journey overland from Khartoum to Cairo. Many of these men are Sudanese, aged 20 to 35, who were displaced by war and/or extreme economic hardship. But an equal number of Sudanese have travelled to Cairo for other reasons: to find work, to study, or to be reunited with family.

While aid agencies work hard to determine who are legitimate refugees versus economic or ‘betterment’ migrants, the Sudanese in Cairo make no distinction among themselves about these categories. “Who’s a refugee and who’s an economic migrant,” laughed one Sudanese community leader, “is for you Westerners to decide. But for us Sudanese in Egypt, we’re all struggling here today and we all struggled back home. Our problems stem from the same source – the Sudanese government. It’s the future we’re looking to, for a sense of a decent, normal life. It’s about living with dignity. It’s not about UN categories.”

Central and West Africa

Immigrants are easy
to blame when things
go wrong

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The evidence shows that there is a hierarchy of destinations among African migrants, and that these destinations are determined by costs, proximity and networks. Given the high costs of travelling, coupled with the fact that many migrants lack adequate travel documentation, it is proximity and networks that play the most important role. Long-standing social networks allow for the movement of West Africans to Morocco, like the networks that have encouraged the Sudanese to go to Egypt, and those that still draw Swazis, Tswanas and Basothos into South Africa.

In West Africa, seasonal migration may be the principal form of labour mobility. Others travel more frequently, sometimes daily or weekly, crossing borders to sell goods in local markets. Traders from Mozambique and other Southern African countries regularly cross into South Africa to hawk merchandise. Similar patterns involving petty trade are found among Angolans crossing into Namibia, and among Congolese crossing into Burundi. Sometimes the smallest wage differential can be enough to encourage cross-border migration.

Drawing in, pushing out

Networks have contributed to transit migration in many parts of Africa as well. A striking example is the large number of medical professionals who migrate to South Africa. This type of migration to South Africa is facilitated by the fact that 30% to 50% of all South African medical school graduates migrate to the West each year. South African doctors make up nearly 10% of foreign trained doctors in Australia and 7% in the UK. While South Africa may be losing skilled medical professionals to the West, thousands of other medical practitioners, mainly from Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Nigeria and Zimbabwe, have taken their place. Some will eventually migrate to the West but some will make South Africa their home.

Over the last decade, flashes of political instability, renewed armed conflict and human rights violations have forced millions of Africans to migrate. And Africa has the largest concentration of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world. Of the 42m IDPs worldwide, about 13m are in Africa. The number of African IDPs more than doubles the number of African cross-border refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that half of the world’s refugees reside in urban areas and one-third in camps. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa, seven out of ten registered refugees shelter in camps.

While these figures tell a bleak story, the total number of refugees has been in decline. In 2008 there were just over 2m refugees compared to approximately 3.5m in 2000. In Tanzania alone, the refugee population decreased by 322,000, or 26%, in recent years thanks to the repatriation of Burundian and Congolese refugees (see Box).

One notable exception is South Africa, which in 2008 received more than 200,000 refugee applications, nearly one quarter of the 850,000 refugee applications lodged worldwide, making it the single largest recipient of global refugee applications last year. The figure more than quadrupled over the previous year, when nearly 45,000 individuals sought international protection in South Africa. Zimbabweans accounted for more than half of all asylum claims there last year. With a cumulative total of more than 450,000 individual asylum applications since 2002, South Africa has rapidly become one of the main destinations of asylum-seekers in the world.

Unintended consequences?

South Africa

Visitors from north of
the Limpopo find a
contradictory welcome

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In Egypt, some aid workers believe that the resettlement programme there has actively encouraged tens of thousands of people – refugees and non-refugees alike – from the Horn and beyond, who would have otherwise not left their countries, to migrate to Cairo in the hopes of being resettled to the West, despite the fact that most will not have the opportunity. With the possibility of resettlement to the West no longer available to Sudanese, some started to migrate illegally to Israel. As remittances and news trickled back to Cairo and elsewhere in the Horn, more tried to make the dangerous journey. In the last three years some 17,000 Sub-Saharans have crossed the Israeli border. In 2008, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert referred to this recent wave of Sub-Saharan migrants into Israel as a ‘human tsunami’.

The ebb and flow of Sub-Saharan migrants in Egypt, coupled with the recent illegal migration to Israel, has caused tension between Sub-Saharans and Egyptians in Cairo. Some Egyptians wonder what exactly these migrants are doing in their country. “I don’t know why they’re here. Really it’s hard enough for us to survive. And now we have to compete for work with migrants who may or may not stay here,” lamented Mohammed, a 35-year-old taxi driver.

But most Sub-Saharan migrants in Cairo are staying put and doing their best to make an honest living. It took a significant amount of financial resources, planning, and sacrifice to get here. The idea of simply packing up and returning home is not a viable option for many. Despite migrants’ many difficulties in a foreign country, including being separated from family, the money that they earn and are able to remit back home is for most people well worth the hardships that they face. “I’ve got a hard life in Cairo, but at least I’m able to help my family. And that’s what counts in life,” said a southern Sudanese man who’s been here for 12 years.

Cash from near and far?

African migration in its many forms has led to more than $23bn in remittances in 2007, with approximately $12bn to Sub-Saharan Africa and $11.5bn to North Africa. Some experts believe the actual number of remittances could be 50% larger because most migrants send money through informal channels. This is because the costs of remitting are high – sometimes as much as 10% of the amount remitted. The formal remittance markets suffer from a lack of financial development and high foreign exchange commissions at both ends of the transaction.

Based on available data, between 2000 and 2005, remittances accounted for 2.5% of GDP in Sub-Saharan countries. Lesotho is an exception, where remittances accounted for nearly 30% of GDP. Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal each received remittances of roughly 5% of GDP. For many countries, remittances represent an important source of foreign exchange, amounting to more than 25% of export earnings for Cape Verde, Comoros, Lesotho and Uganda. In 2007, Egypt received more from remittances (nearly $6bn) than it did from the Suez Canal (just under $5bn).

Despite these substantial numbers, critics argue that, although the remittances can alleviate some poverty symptoms, they do little to change underlying structures that trap millions in poverty. And some economists believe that because remittances are spent on consumption – food, clothing, weddings, etc. – they do not encourage development. Others claim that the focus on the sheer size of remittances overshadows larger concerns about negative elements of migration, such as families being separated or children left behind.

East Africa

Granting rights to
long-term refugees

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Proponents of migration counter that the importance of remittances to individual families exceeds aggregate amounts of money remitted to any given country. Remittances pay for school fees and medical bills, fund small business projects, build houses and, perhaps most importantly, provide a source of pride among migrants’ families and communities back home. Unlike foreign aid, remittances from individuals to their families are less likely to be wasted by government bureaucracies.

Migrants intimately know the people they are sending the money to, the situation on the ground is well-monitored. Consequently, remittances are an important form of goodwill, based on local knowledge, and given with strong advice. Unlike foreign investors, migrants increase their giving during times of social or political unrest and, also, migrants do not pull their money out of the country.

For all of the potential benefits of migration, there are some intractable problems. Given that most migration in Africa is irregular, migrants are open to exploitation with little recourse to legal protection. Migrants can be robbed in transit, or have their pay withheld by employers, and they are often harassed by border security. Part and parcel of irregular migration is the trafficking of persons. UNICEF estimates that as many as 200,000 children are trafficked yearly in West and Central Africa; the same report found that some women abducted from conflict regions in Central Africa are forced into the sex trade.

For many people, migration provides vital opportunities that are essential for their well-being. The most tangible benefit from migration is remittances back home. Although this money is no substitute for foreign aid and direct investment, governments need to consider ways to make sending and receiving remittances easier for migrants and their families. Doing so would increase the productivity of the money they send and it may benefit scores more – as well as make additional small but important differences at the household and community level.

Although there is no way to completely remove all negative elements related to migration, the most important first step is strengthening the human rights of migrants. Beyond the bilateral and regional agreements already in place – namely ECOWAS, the EAC and SADC – policy-makers should push for greater legal protection of migrants. In addition to the free movement of labour, capital, goods and services within their respective regions – most of which already exists on paper – the policy-makers need to ensure the legal rights of migrants to live and work in different countries. Much greater progress is needed here, both to provide additional protection and to allow for the promotion of choices and capabilities of migrants.

Migration : A constant search for opportunity

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