African routes

Back    Forward

Inter-African migration: which regions of the continent do the economic migrants come from, where are they headed and what are they searching for.

According to data provided by the United States Department of Social and Economic Affairs (Population Division), in 2017 there were around 257.7 million international migrants worldwide. Of these, more than 14% (36.3 million people) come from Africa. Those who subscribe to the ideas of the new wave of nationalist and sovereignist movements and political parties that are gaining unprecedented popularity all over Europe, would argue that these migrants are threatening the socio-economic stability and security of our society and that Europe needs protective barriers, walls even, to restrain what would appear to be an invasion by those from the southern part of the planet heading towards the north. The reality, however, is very different and conceals factors and dynamics that are often unknown, or worse, deliberately concealed by those intent on exploiting the issue of migration for propaganda purposes to serve their own electoral aims.

One of the least mentioned aspects, in fact, is intra-African immigration. Of the more than 30 million Africans who do not live in their country of origin, little more than 20% head for Europe, while more than 53% (around 20 million people) have moved to another African country. The percentage becomes even higher if we take into consideration West Africa, the region of the continent with the highest levels of immigration (7 million people). In this case, almost 7 out of 10 immigrants remain in the region. It is therefore very important to examine in depth the dynamics of such a phenomenon as well as its causes. In Africa too, in fact, it is possible to differentiate between so-called economic migrants and refugees, just as some migration trends (forced or otherwise) reflect specific underlying political conditions that encourage or discourage immigration. On one hand, the majority of refugees come from Central and East Africa; on the other, it is no coincidence that West Africa has a higher proportion of internal immigration and migration of an “economic” nature, also, thanks to the liberalisation of visa agreements. Amongst the countries of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), in fact, there is a greater movement of people. The African country that has the highest number of emigrants is South Sudan, with almost 2.5 million people having left the country, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo (one and a half million people), Burkina Faso (1.4 million), Somalia, Sudan (both 1.3 million), Mali (almost a million) and Zimbabwe (800,000 people). Conversely the African countries with higher rates of immigration are South Africa (with more than 4 million people), Ivory Coast (2.2 million people), Uganda (1.8 million people), Nigeria, Ethiopia, (both 1.2 million) and Kenya (just over one million).

Underlying the current phenomenon of migration from Africa and within Africa is the demographic trend that can be described as a fully-fledged population boom. Between now and 2050 the number of the continent’s inhabitants is set to double, from the current 1.2 billion people to more than two and a half billion. During the same period, in order to provide some context to the demographic imbalances that we are heading towards, the European population looks set to fall from around 740 million to a little over 700 million. In West Africa there are countries that attract a large number of economic migrants or so-called “circular” migrants, mainly the Ivory Coast and Nigeria. Poverty, lack of governance and the deterioration in security conditions (including the presence of terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and the Sahel) are among the main causes of emigration towards the Ivory Coast from Mali (around 360,000 migrants) and from Burkina Faso (more than 1.3 million people). The case of Nigeria on the other hand, represents an example of forced migration caused by climate change. Lake Chad, on the border of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad, has lost 90% of its water mass over the last 50 years. More than 25 million people relying on lake-related activities for their livelihoods and to support their families are now are forced to emigrate. In Nigeria, floods forced 6 million people to seek refuge elsewhere in the country or in neighbouring nations. Climate change, in turn, produces a further scourge: food scarcity. According to the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations), countries such as Niger, Chad and South Sudan are in the midst of an unprecedented emergency caused by food insecurity.

South Sudan is, in fact, the country in the African continent most affected by migration flows. The reasons at the heart of the crisis are linked to the conflict that has reignited with a significant intensity in recent years. With its current 2.4 million refugees, the country has the world’s highest rate of growth in refugee numbers (+64% in the last year according to UNHCR estimates). On the other hand, it is also the third in terms of refugee numbers, after Syria and Afghanistan, and the first for the number of refugees in proportion to wealth (90 refugees for every dollar of GDP). There are almost 6 million refugees in Africa, this equates to one sixth of all of the continent’s immigrants. As well as those from South Sudan there are 870,000 from Somalia (in fourth place among the world’s main sources of refugees), around 700,000 from Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (respectively fifth and sixth), 600,000 fleeing the conflict in the Central African Republic (seventh), 430,000 from Eritrea and 410,000 from Burundi (ninth and tenth). The conflicts affecting these countries ensure that they are also amongst the poorest in the world (Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Eritrea and South Sudan are among the ten countries with the lowest GDP per capita in the world), highlighting the vicious circle that forms between conflict, poverty and forced migration. The other hidden aspect of the story is that also the countries that accept these refugees, which are most often the country in question’s geographical neighbours, are among the poorest and worst equipped to manage humanitarian emergencies on such a scale. Worldwide, 9 out of 10 refugees are guests in developing countries. Uganda, for example, is home to more than one million refugees, Ethiopia 800,000, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya harbour 450,000. Such dynamics raise pertinent questions about the sustainability of hosting refugees in contexts that are often affected by internal conflicts and consequently by humanitarian emergencies deriving from the mass flight of people from neighbouring countries.

The case of Libya deserves its own special mention. As the final staging post on the migration route from Sub Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean and on to Europe, the country has always experienced large influxes of immigration. Today there are approximately 800,000 immigrants in the country but at the same time it has become the most important country for the transit of immigrants headed to Europe. European immigration policies, and Italian ones in particular, have focused on the role of Libya and, since the summer of 2017, agreements have been established with the provisional local authorities in order to block the departures. The result, which in numerical terms has been presented as a success by the outgoing Italian government due to the drastic fall in the number of arrivals, has been to produce a situation on the very limits of sustainability for the immigrants that find themselves trapped in the 30 plus detention centres located in Libya. This situation too invites reflection in order to understand which direction to pursue in order to apply a policy that can simultaneously respect human, civil and political rights while being able to provide also local answers to a phenomenon that affects Africa far more than it does the north of the world.

To subscribe to the magazine please access our subscription page here

Continue reading this article and all other Eastwest and content.

Subscribe for 1 year and gain unlimited access to all content on plus both the digital and the hard copy of the geopolitical magazine for € 45, or gain 1 year of unlimited access to only the website and digital magazine for € 20