Changing Configurations of Migration in Africa
By Aderanti Adepoju
September 1, 2004
Migration in Africa is dynamic and extremely complex. This is reflected in the
feminization of migration, diversification of migration destinations,
transformation of labor flows into commercial migration, and brain drain from
the region. Completing this picture are trafficking in human beings, the changing map of refugee flows, and
the increasing role of regional economic organizations in fostering free flows
of labor. What follows is an overview of some of the most
Feminization of migration. The traditional pattern of migration within and from
Africa — male-dominated, long-term, and long-distance — is increasingly
becoming feminized. Anecdotal evidence reveals a striking increase in migration
by women, who had traditionally remained at home while men moved around in
search of paid work. A significant share of these women is made up of migrants who move independently to fulfil their own economic needs;
they are not simply joining a husband or other family members.
The increase in independent female migration is not confined by national
borders: professional women from Nigeria and Ghana now engage in international
migration, often leaving their spouses at home to care for the children. Female
nurses and doctors have been recruited from Nigeria to work in Saudi Arabia,
while their counterparts in Ghana are taking advantage of the better pay
packages in the UK and United States to accumulate enough savings to survive
harsh economic conditions at home.
The relatively new phenomenon of female migration constitutes an important
change in gender roles for Africa, creating new challenges for public policy.
For instance, before the outbreak of civil war, an ongoing economic crisis in
Cote d'Ivoire did not prevent female migration from Burkina Faso. This was
possible because women gradually clustered in the informal commercial sector,
which is less affected by economic crises than the wage sector, where most male
migrants work. This emergence of migrant females as breadwinners puts pressure
on traditional gender roles within the African family.
African men, along with women, increasingly participate in migration as a
family survival strategy. At the same time, an increasing scarcity of
traditional male labor has also promoted new roles for the women they leave
behind. As the job market in destination countries became tighter during the
1980s and 1990s, and remittances thinned out, many families came to rely on
women and their farming activities for day-to-day support. These women became
the de facto resource managers and decision makers, particularly within the
agricultural sector. The gendered division of family labor has also been upset
by the loss of male employment through urban job retrenchment and structural
adjustment, forcing women to seek additional income-generating activities to
support the family.
Commercialization of migration. There is an overall trend away from labor
migrants from Africa, and towards commercial migrants — that is, entrepreneurs
who are self-employed, especially in the informal sector.
The traditional pattern of emigration to France from Africa's Sahel (a region
of drought-prone countries south of the Sahara) in order to engage in menial
wage labor is rapidly changing. A large proportion of these migrants in the
Cote d'Ivoire, France, and Italy can today be classified as commercial
migrants, especially those from Senegal. Sahelians are moving to unconventional
destinations to which they had no prior linguistic, cultural, or colonial ties.
Initially, the emigration focused on Zambia. When Zambia's economy collapsed,
it shifted to South Africa in the wake of the demise of the apartheid regime.
More recently, West African French-speaking migrants have been moving to Italy,
Portugal, Belgium, Germany, and Spain, despite an increasingly hostile
reception involving growing xenophobia, apprehension of foreigners, and
anti-immigrant political mobilizations. As a result, a growing number are
crossing the Atlantic to seek greener pastures as petty traders in the United
Since 1994, South Africa has received an influx of migrants from various parts
of the sub-Saharan region, including Congo, Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal,
Sierra Leone, Zaire, Kenya, and Uganda. Some of these nationals had earlier
entered clandestinely South Africa's then nominally independent homelands,
during the period of apartheid. The numbers were small, but their skill profile
set them apart from traditional migrants from neighboring states, whose
nationals were mostly unskilled mineworkers and farm laborers. Traders and
students from the Congo followed. The post-apartheid wave of immigrants from
Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe are mostly street vendors
and traders seeking to capitalize on the relatively affluent market of South
Africa. These mostly informal-sector entrepreneurs import traditional African clothing and handicrafts, employ and train locals, and generally invigorate the
Diversification of destinations. As West Africa's economic instability deepened
in the period 1980-1990, fewer migrants found stable and remunerative work in
traditional regional destinations. Consequently, circulation and repeat
migration expanded to a wide variety of alternative destinations, often to
places without any historical, political, or economic links to the countries of
emigration. This movement also became more varied and spontaneous, with rising
levels of both temporary and long-term circulation.
There is also some evidence to support a pattern of replacement migration,
whereby migrants of rural origin move to towns to occupy positions vacated by
nationals who emigrate abroad, as seems to be occurring in Mali, Burkina Faso,
Cote d'Ivoire, and Gabon. This also seems to hold true for Senegal (where urban
workers go to France) and Egypt (whose migrants move to the Persian Gulf). In
some instances, immigrants from neighboring countries occupy positions vacated
by nationals have who emigrated, yielding a step-by-step migration pattern,
first from rural areas to cities, and then from cities to foreign destinations.
From brain drain to brain circulation. The migration of skilled Africans has
precedents in the 1960s, when developing countries engaged in an unprecedented
expansion of access to education. The brain drain of the newly educated
generation was later spurred by a combination of economic, social, and
political factors. In the 1970s, highly qualified, experienced workers in
trades and professions, drawn by higher wages, migrated from Zimbabwe, Zambia,
Senegal, Ghana, and Uganda to South Africa and even destinations outside of
Africa. Since the 1980s, emigration to Europe, North America, and the oil-rich
nations of the Middle East has increased uniformly, for similar reasons.
Today, brain drain is being altered by brain circulation within the region.
Skilled professionals, pressured by uncertain economic conditions at home, have
found the booming economies of Gabon, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa to be
convenient alternatives to Europe, the United States, and the Gulf. Their work
in these countries' tertiary institutions, medical establishments, and the
private sector has created a form of brain circulation.
Trafficking and smuggling of human beings. Africa's human trafficking and
smuggling map is complicated, involving diverse origins within and outside the
region. Little was known until recently about the dynamics of this trafficking.
Today, analysts are looking into trafficking in children (mainly for farm labor
and domestic work within and across countries); trafficking in women and young
persons for sexual exploitation mainly outside the region; and trafficking in
women from outside the region for the sex industry of South Africa.
African migrants are adopting more sophisticated, daring, and evasive methods
to elude increasingly tight border controls and enter countries in the
developed North. A growing number of young people are involved in daredevil
ventures to gain entry into Europe. Movements are more clandestine, involving
riskier passages and trafficking via diverse transit points, such as
trafficking through Senegal to Spain by way of the Canary Islands. Individual
stowaways engage in life-threatening trips hidden aboard ships destined for
Southern Europe, and recently they have headed as far as East Asia.
Unscrupulous agents exploit these desperate youths with promises of passages to
Italy, Spain, and France.
Most of these people end up stranded in Dakar and Morocco. In fact, hundreds of
undocumented immigrants and trafficked persons, especially from West African
countries, get stranded in Morocco en route to Spain for upwards of four years.
Most end up living in shacks, and some women give birth under these
poverty-stricken conditions. Many others perish during perilous attempts to
cross the sea to Spain in rickety boats. Others who manage to find their way
into Europe are often apprehended and deported on arrival or soon thereafter.
In West Africa, the main source, transit, and destination countries for
trafficked women and children are Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal. Trafficked
children are recruited through networks of agents to work as domestic servants,
in informal sectors, or on plantations. Parents are often forced by poverty and
ignorance to enlist their children, hoping to benefit from their wages to
sustain the family's deteriorating economic situation. Some of these children
are indentured into "slave" labor, as in Sudan and Mauritania. In East Africa, young girls and women abducted from conflict zones are forced
to become sex-slaves to rebel commanders or affluent men in Sudan and the Gulf
States. South Africa is a destination for regional and extra-regional
trafficking activities. Women are trafficked through the network of refugees
resident in South Africa; children are trafficked from Lesotho's border towns,
as are women and girls from Mozambique. Women are also trafficked from
Thailand, China, and Eastern Europe to South Africa.
Traffickers have recently extended the destinations of children to the EU,
especially the Netherlands, UK, and beyond. Women and children are trafficked
to Europe (Italy, Germany, Spain, France, Sweden, UK, The Netherlands) for
commercial sex. Children are similarly moved in connection with domestic labor,
sexual exploitation, and pornography. Trafficking syndicates obtain travel
documents and visas for women and link them up with brothels abroad.
Increasing xenophobia. African societies and people are noted for their
traditional hospitality to strangers, which involves welcoming and sharing
their limited resources with newcomers. This is no longer the case in many
countries. Increasingly, political leaders have resorted to the use of
ethnicity and religion to reclassify longstanding residents as non-nationals
(as has been the case in Cote d'Ivoire). Many ruling parties are wary of the
presence of large numbers of immigrants during hotly contested elections,
fearing that migrants may swing the vote in favor of an opposition party with
ethnic or religious alliances.
The undocumented are scapegoats in periods of economic recession and are
accused of stealing jobs from nationals. They are also stigmatized as
criminals, and in places like South Africa are blamed for the spread of
diseases such as HIV/AIDS. The press and politicians fan public discontent
among locals with calls for immigrants to be expelled, driving a wedge between
the native population and newer arrivals.
Labor migration in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The high rates of HIV/AIDS infection
in Africa create a nightmare scenario of acute labor shortages in key sectors
of education and health. This is especially true in the major labor-sending
countries (Lesotho, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, and Swaziland) and
labor-receiving countries (Botswana and South Africa) of Southern Africa.
However, it is also increasingly the case elsewhere in the region.
These acute labor shortages are now translating into more migration from
skills-surplus sources, especially Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria, and outside
Africa. South Africa's struggle with the disease, in particular, is taking a
heavy toll on the education sector of the traditional sending countries by
luring away their skilled health professionals. The emigration of
doctors and nurses from South Africa is occurring at a time when their services
are urgently needed in the overstressed health sector.
It is important for policy makers concerned with migration to focus not only on
the demographic, but also on the economic and social consequences of this trend
on the productive sectors, at the micro (household), meso (community), and
macro (national) levels. Furthermore, the role of migration in spreading
HIV/AIDS should be re-examined critically. Immigrants are uniformly blamed, but
the evidence is spurious and untested.
Regional economic organizations. The problems posed by migration, circulation,
permanent residence, and settlement — and the policy responses to them — are quite
different, and seemingly intractable. Many African countries are acting
half-heartedly, and a few decisively, to foster regional integration. Their
belief is that sub-regional and regional economic organizations may facilitate
intra-regional labor mobility and promote self-reliant development.
The free movement of persons has already been institutionalized by the Common
Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, and most notably by the Economic
Community of West African States. In 1993, the Abuja treaty for the
establishment of the African Economic Community came into force, and with it
the promise of helping to facilitate inter-regional mobility. NEPAD (the New
Partnership for African Development) also includes programs to foster labor
mobility within Africa and the sustained development of the region.
This type of integration is likely to accelerate, paving the way for closer
economic cooperation and labor migration in the region.
African policy makers face the urgent task of resolving the unemployment crisis in order to productively engage their teeming educated but
unemployed young people, who fall easy prey to trafficking scams. They are also
confronting the challenge of leaders enhancing the economic, political, and
social environments of their respective countries in order to retain and lure
home the skilled professionals required for national development.
The spirited implementation of various protocols on free movement of people, as
well as efforts to facilitate their establishment and settlement, could
significantly promote intra-regional labor migration. This will not happen,
however, unless all stakeholders make concerted efforts to eliminate a primary
obstacle to sustainable development: political instability stemming from
endemic conflicts. Another looming task is halting the spread of HIV/AIDS,
which is taking a huge toll on the region's prime human resources. All of these
factors will help determine the course of migration in Africa in the years
Aderanti Adepoju is currently Chief Executive, Human Resources Development
Centre, Lagos, Nigeria. His background is in economics and demography.
Adepoju, A., 2004. "Trends in international migration in and from Africa" in
Massey, D. S. and J. E. Taylor (Eds). International Migration Prospects and
Policies in a Global Market. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Adepoju, A., 2004. "Review of research and data on human trafficking in
Sub-Saharan Africa" Paper presented at the IOM International Expert Meeting on
Improving Data and Research on Human Trafficking, Rome 27-28 May.
Adepoju, A., 2003. "Continuity and changing configurations of migration to and
from the Republic of South Africa" International Migration Vol. 41, No. 1.
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