Africans on the Move: Impressions versus Facts

A recent piece on African migration by Tanguy Berthemet in Le Figaro, a leading French daily newspaper, confirms that perceptions on the movement of people across borders bear little resemblance to reality. Using data and studies by various organizations (among them the International Migration Institute, the World Economic Forum, and the Sahel Research Group at the University of Florida), Berthemet came to several interesting conclusions.

In the eyes of the outside world, African migration is dominated by thousands of people risking their lives, and often perishing, trying to cross over to Europe in extremely precarious vessels. This issue has been front-page news in Europe for a while, is the matter of bitter political debates, and has fueled the growth of xenophobic movements. And yet migrants moving from one African country to another significantly outnumber those wanting to leave the continent. In 2017, some 19 million Africans left their country for another African country, while 17 million went elsewhere but did so legally. Only a small, undocumented minority tried to migrate to Europe or other parts of the world. Some sources, such as the African Union, go as far as to say that only one in five migrants abandons the African continent.

Economic reasons for migrating are important, but war or violence in general is just as important. Half of the largest refugee camps in the world are in Africa, and for good reason. But, although poverty always plays a part in motivating people to leave their country, it is by no means a principal factor. The poor are too poor to migrate—hence the much more significant presence of low middle-class people seeking opportunity among the migrants. In Niger, one of the poorest countries in Africa, nine in ten citizens say they wish to remain at home, while in Nigeria, which is more developed and has a large, emerging urban community, half the population is tempted to go elsewhere.

Every region of the world has poles that attract migrants. In Latin America it tends to vary according to the fortunes of the different countries, but at one time Argentina and Venezuela were huge magnets for other Latin Americans. In West Africa, the Ivory Coast, a vibrant economy compared to its neighbors, has been attracting migrants for a while. Much further south, it is no surprise that South Africa attracts people from other countries. As in other parts of the world, the presence of communities of foreign origin has given rise to xenophobia. Nigerians, for instance, have been particularly targeted in the case of South Africa. Other countries that receive significant numbers of newcomers are Uganda, Nigeria itself, and Kenya.

This internal migration is in stark contrast with the perception, in countries such as Italy, France, or even Spain, that Africans want to massively move across the Mediterranean and invade the Old World. It is true that northern Africans, who were once under the control of France and other empires, have links (not to mention geographical proximity) to the old colonial powers, where immigration was once encouraged by governments desperate to import labor. But the real story of African migration, apart from the obvious humanitarian tragedy involving the boat people who risk, and sometimes lose, their lives in the Mediterranean trying to make it across, has little to do with the headlines and everything to do with domestic dynamics that the outside world barely understands.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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