An analysis of international migration in Africa poses a challenge. The continent has 56 countries or areas, 53 of which are independent states. The possibilities of international population exchanges among such a large number of units are ample. Furthermore, the dynamics of international migration movements in Africa continues to be colored by the continent's history of colonization, when colonial powers imposed arbitrary borders that often divided people belonging to the same tribal or ethnic group. In addition, the need for labor to exploit the agricultural and mineral deposits of the colonies led to the forced movement of workers from one corner of a colony to another or even between colonial enclaves governed by different outside powers. These practices were at the root of the migrant worker recruitment programs developed under formal agreements between newly independent countries after the period of colonial rule came to an end.
Nevertheless, as time elapsed and the economic situation of labor-receiving countries deteriorated or as the prices of the commodities they produced fluctuated in the world markets, the labor-receiving countries have often resorted to expulsion measures to reduce their foreign labor force in times of economic stringency. In addition, the process of nation-building has also been accompanied in certain instances by the expulsion of groups considered to be extraneous to the national polity.
By the late 20th century, the fast population growth that most African countries had experienced, together with the protracted stagnation that had characterized most of the African economies, had left few countries in need of foreign labor. Much of international migration in the continent occurred and still occurs outside a regulatory framework, partly because few African countries have a well-articulated policy on international migration and even fewer seem to enforce their laws and regulations on immigration and emigration rigidly.
Furthermore, a very sizeable proportion of international migration in Africa is related to forced migration and particularly to the movement of refugees in search of asylum. These types of flows have been affecting a growing number of countries in the continent. This paper will review the information available on the extent and nature of international migration in the continent and then discuss the main trends in international migration in the continent.
Perhaps the best set of comprehensive information on international migration is that provided by population censuses. Information on the place of birth or the citizenship of the enumerated population can be used to assess the impact of international migration by deriving estimates of the stock of international migrants. Data on place of birth are preferred as the basis for such estimation, since a person born in a country other than the one in which he or she is enumerated must have migrated internationally at least once. That is not the case for foreigners who, under nationality laws based on jus sanguinis (i.e., blood ties), may not have the right to the citizenship of the country in which they are born and reside.
Even with regard to censuses, arguably the most easily available source of demographic information in Africa, coverage is far from ideal. Out of the 56 countries of Africa, 19 have either no information allowing the estimation of the international migrant stock, or at most one census with data that can serve as a basis for assessing the impact of international migration over the second half of the 20th century.
Census data and similar data for other regions of the world have been used to estimate the stock of international migrants at comparable points in time for all countries of the world. For all developing countries, estimates of the international migrant stock derived from censuses were added to estimates of the number of refugees in the countries of asylum as reported to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). That is, refugees are included in the final estimates of the migrant stock and, to the extent that censuses enumerate refugees, some double counting may have taken place. Undocumented, illegal, or otherwise unauthorized migrants are not purposefully excluded from the estimates of the migrant stock, but they are reflected in those estimates only to the extent that they are covered by census enumerations. Given that a significant proportion of international migration in Africa occurs between neighboring countries and appears not to be subject to strict administrative controls, there is no reason to believe that undocumented migrants were systematically excluded from census counts. Migration of short duration, however, is more likely to be missed than that involving a longer change of residence. Bearing these caveats in mind, it is useful to place the international migration experience of Africa in the context of world migration.
Dimensions of International Migration in Africa
According to estimates by the United Nations, the total number of international migrants in Africa rose from nine million in 1960 to 16 million in 2000 (see Table 1). The largest increase occurred between 1960 and 1980, when the number of international migrants in Africa rose from nine million to 14 million.
Since 1980, that number has changed less, reaching 16 million by 1990 and barely changing during 1990-2000. In comparison to the other major areas of the developing world, Africa has had more than double the number of international migrants than Latin America and the Caribbean since 1980 and about one-half to one-third of the number in Asia. However, the share of Africa in terms of the worldwide number of international migrants has been decreasing steadily since 1980, passing from 14 percent to an estimated 11 percent in 1990 to an estimated nine percent in 2000. That is, neither the absolute number of international migrants in Africa nor Africa's share of the world migrant stock has been increasing markedly during the past 20 years, and even over a 40-year horizon the changes in the migrant stock of Africa seem modest, particularly when compared with the near tripling of Africa's population during the same period.
Indeed, the number of international migrants as a share of Africa's population has tended to decrease over time, especially after 1980 (see Table 2). Thus, whereas in 1960 and still in 1980, international migrants constituted over three percent of Africa's population, by 2000 their share had dropped to two percent. In comparison with Asia or Latin America and the Caribbean, however, the number of international migrants in Africa has always constituted a higher share of the population than in other major areas. For example, in Asia in 1960, international migrants accounted for less than two percent of its total population and about one percent in 2000. For Latin America and the Caribbean, international migrants accounted for less than three percent of the total population in 1960 and one percent in 2000.
Also worth noting is that in 1960, when the process of decolonization had just started, the percentage of international migrants in Africa was higher than in Europe (3.4 percent vs. 2.8 percent), but by 2000, the percentage of international migrants among Europe's population was nearly four times that in Africa (7.7 percent vs. 2 percent).
Table 1. Estimated number of international migrants and population for Africa and its regions, 1960-2000
Table 2. International migrants as a percentage of the population of Africa and its regions, 1960-2000
International migrants are not distributed homogeneously among the regions of Africa (see Table 1). Eastern Africa and Western Africa have generally had higher numbers of international migrants than the other regions of the continent (see related articles and data). Western Africa has experienced a fairly important increase in the number of international migrants since 1960, but the increase has not been steady. By 2000 it was hosting 6.8 million international migrants, up from 2.5 million in 1960. In Eastern Africa, the number of international migrants increased steadily until 1990 but has decreased in the last decade, so that by 2000 it stood at 4.5 million, about 10 percent below the level estimated for 1980 (5.1 million). In Southern Africa, a region that has been traditionally considered a major magnet for international migrants, the number remained close to a million from 1960 to 1980 and then increased during the 1980s to 1.5 million, but is estimated to have remained at that level during the 1990s. In Middle Africa, the number of international migrants increased from 1.3 million to 1.9 million between 1960 and 1980, but declined to 1.5 million by 1990 and is estimated to have remained virtually unchanged since then. In Northern Africa, the increasing trend in the number of international migrants that persisted during 1970-1990 was reversed in the 1990s, and by 2000 the region was estimated to host 1.9 million international migrants. As a result of these trends, by 2000, 42 percent of the international migrants in Africa lived in countries of Western Africa; 28 percent in Eastern Africa; a further 12 percent in Northern Africa; and nine percent each in Middle Africa and Southern Africa.
Regional differences in the number of international migrants lead to differences in their proportion of the total population of each region (see Table 2). International migrants have generally constituted a greater share of the populations of Eastern and Western Africa than of those of other regions. In Eastern Africa, international migrants constituted more than three percent of the population from 1960 to 1990, but their share has declined markedly since then to reach 1.8 percent in 2000. In relative terms, therefore, international migrants remain more prominent in Western Africa, where they constituted 2.7 percent of the population in 2000, near the average for the 1960-1990 period. In all other regions of Africa, international migrants were estimated to constitute less than one percent of the population in 2000 and, for most of those regions, the share of international migrants in the whole population had declined by at least half since 1960.
In Africa, males have tended to outnumber females among international migrants. The proportion of females among international migrants in Africa has generally been lower than the average for the world as a whole. However, the proportion female among international migrants in Africa has been increasing steadily and faster than at the world level (see related article). By 2000, it is estimated that 46.7 percent of the 16 million international migrants in Africa were female, up from 42 percent in 1960 when the number of international migrants in the continent stood at nine million. In 1960, Africa had the lowest proportion female among international migrants in comparison to other major areas. For example, in 1960, 45 percent of all international migrants in Latin America and the Caribbean and 46 percent in Asia were female. By 2000, the proportion female among international migrants in Asia (43 percent) was lower than that in Africa (47 percent) but in all other major areas female migrants constituted more than 50 percent of the international migrant population.
At the regional level, Southern Africa has traditionally had the lowest proportion of females among the international migrant stock (42 percent in 2000, up from 30 percent in 1960). During the 1960s, the reliance of the coal and gold mines of the Republic of South Africa on male migrant workers was largely responsible for the strong predominance of men among international migrants. In the 1970s, however, the government of South Africa began to reduce the dependence of the mining sector on foreign labor, with the result that the number of temporary migrant workers employed by the Chamber of Mines declined steadily and the female proportion of the overall international migrant stock increased.
Females were also significantly underrepresented among the international migrant stock of Eastern and Western Africa; they constituted 41 to 42 percent of all international migrants in those regions in 1960. However, the proportion of females in those regions increased steadily after 1960 to reach nearly 48 percent in both regions by 2000, a figure only slightly below the world average of 49 percent. In contrast, the proportion of females declined steadily among the international migrants in Northern Africa, passing from 49.5 percent in 1960 to nearly 43 percent in 2000. Decolonization and the continued dominance of temporary worker migration in that region probably accounts for such a trend. Lastly, in Middle Africa, the proportion of females among international migrants is estimated to have remained nearly unchanged since 1960 at close to 46 percent.
Refugees have been an important component of international migration in Africa. The number of refugees in Africa increased steadily from 1960 to 1995, passing from 79,000 to 6.4 million in that period. However, during the 1990s, the resolution of conflicts, some longstanding, made possible major refugee repatriations, leading to an important reduction of their numbers. In addition, as will be discussed below, the growing reluctance of receiving countries in Africa to grant asylum and refugee status on a prima facie basis has also contributed to the reduction of official numbers of refugees. By 2000, the total number of refugees reported to UNHCR by countries in Africa stood at 3.6 million, a 44 percent reduction with respect to the number in 1995.
Since 1970, refugees in Africa have constituted a substantial proportion of the world's refugees. Whereas in the 1960s, as the process of decolonization continued, Africa accounted for less than one in six of all refugees in the world, by 1970 it was hosting two out of every five. The proportion of refugees in Africa peaked in 1975, when three out of every five of the world's refugees had found asylum in the continent. Since 1985, at least a third of all refugees in the world have been hosted by countries of Africa. Only Asia has surpassed Africa in terms of the number of refugees in its midst.
During 1960-1975, the countries of Middle Africa provided asylum to the largest proportion of refugees in Africa, with Eastern Africa hosting the second-largest group. As of 1980, Eastern Africa became the region with the largest concentration of refugees, accounting for at least half of all refugees in Africa during 1980-1990 and still providing asylum to 46 percent of the refugees in Africa by 2000. Middle Africa and Northern Africa (which includes the Sudan) have also hosted significant proportions of refugees, though there have been fluctuations in their relative positions since 1980. By 2000, they each accounted for about one out of every seven refugees in Africa.
Southern Africa has tended to have the lowest number of refugees in Africa and in 2000 accounted for just one in every 100 refugees in the continent. In contrast, Western Africa, where major refugee movements had occurred in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, accounted for over 20 percent of all refugees in Africa during 1995-2000.
Although refugees in Africa have tended to concentrate in just a few countries of asylum, the list of major countries of asylum in the continent has been expanding steadily. In 1960, a single country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, accounted for 95 percent of the 79,000 refugees in the continent. By 1970, eight countries hosted 95 percent of the refugees in Africa, and by 1980 that list had increased to 11. In 1990, 15 countries were needed to account for the same proportion and by 2000 there were 18 countries hosting the majority of refugees in Africa. Many of the countries involved are classified as least-developed by the United Nations and, as such, face serious constraints in providing assistance to large numbers of refugees.
Forced migration has been a major component of international migration in Africa. To assess its impact, the proportion of refugees among the international migrant stock has been calculated (see Table 3). In 1960, only one percent of all international migrants in Africa were refugees. By 1970, that proportion had risen to 10 percent and in 1980 it had reached 25 percent. The number of refugees as a percentage of the international migrant stock increased further to 33 percent in 1990 and is likely to have kept on rising until 1995 before declining to 22 percent in 2000.
Table 3. Refugees as a percentage of the international migrant stock in the regions of Africa, 1960-2000
At the regional level, refugees constituted a very substantial proportion of all international migrants in Eastern Africa, where in 1990 they accounted for 54 percent of the migrant stock, a proportion that declined to 36 percent in 2000 (see Table 3). Refugees have also made up a major proportion of international migrants in Middle Africa (31 percent in 1990 and 36 percent in 2000) and in Northern Africa (46 percent in 1990 and 30 percent in 2000). In Western Africa, refugees have accounted for at least 10 percent of all international migrants during the 1990s. Only in Southern Africa have refugees remained a very small proportion of the migrant stock (two to three percent in the 1990s).
In sum, although international migration in Africa has not been dominated by refugee movements, over certain periods and in certain parts of the continent, forced migration across international borders has constituted a very substantial component of all international migration. In the major part of the continent, including Eastern, Middle, and Northern Africa, the share of refugees among the international migrant stock has been high since 1980 and currently stands at least 30 percent. During the 1990s, between one in three and one in five international migrants in Africa was a refugee.
Excerpted from: Zlotnik, Hania (2003) Migrants' rights, forced migration and migration policy in Africa, paper presented at the Conference on African Migration and Urbanization in Comparative Perspective held in Johannesburg, South Africa from 4 to 8 June 2003.
The views and opinions expressed in this note are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations.
United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2002 Revision, Vol. I: Comprehensive Tables, E.03.XIII.6, 2003. For more information, see: http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/wpp2000/highlights.pdf and http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/wpp2000/annex-tables.pdf.
United Nations, Trends in Total Migrant Stock: 1960-2000, 2003 Revision, POP/DB/MIG/Rev.2003, 2003. For more information, see: http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/migstock/2003TrendsMigstock.pdf.