Is it time to take free movement of people in Southern Africa seriously?

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By Lorenzo Fioramonti

Neo-liberal scholars and experts of regional integration highlight the alleged common markets, where capital and goods flow freely within economically integrated regions. Yet, they tend to forget that the other key factor of production, labour, is arguably even more important in supporting the creation of sustainable regional economic communities (RECs). Indeed, labour mobility may allow for cultural and social exchanges (which are not produced by mere flows of capital) and further support the diversification of national economies. For example, a country with a surplus of good doctors can assist another in which healthcare systems are inefficient, in exchange for side payments or incoming flows of labour in other areas. German doctors, for instance often migrate to Scandinavian countries, which are in need of qualified health professionals and offer better pays. Similarly, unemployed engineers, architects and builders move to Germany from other countries in the region, as the former seeks this type of qualifications. Labour mobility also helps regulate migration flows, thus guaranteeing the rights of migrants and the needs of both receiving economies and sending countries. Most of the negative side effects of labour migration, which include downward impacts on wages and working conditions in receiving countries, tensions between domestic and foreign workers and brain drain in the sending countries, can be limited by a governance framework allowing for a multilateral approach to regional development as opposed to unilateral approaches sharpening regional inequalities.

Southern Africa needs a radically different approach to migration management, given the imbalances of the past and the debatable outcomes of current policies, with a view to strengthening sustainable development and regional cohesion. Unfortunately, the issue of migration is often talked about in terms that elicit negative reactions, xenophobic fears and security concerns. At the SADC level, a draft protocol on free movement was prepared in the mid-1990s, but never materialized. It was then superseded by a protocol on ‘facilitation of movement,’ which is not yet operational because of ratification issues among member states. As recent research has shown, no formal regional labour migration governance system currently exists within SADC, although there is a South African unilateral approach that translates into bilateral agreements with most countries in the region. By contrast, other African regions such as ECOWAS, for instance, enforced an ambitious protocol on free movement, residence and establishment as early as 1980 that was then fully implemented, in three phases, by 1995. In addition, a policy paper on migration – the ECOWAS Common Approach on Migration – indicates further commitment and political will to achieving regional free movement. Currently, ECOWAS grants citizens with valid travel documents and international health certificates the right to entry, residence and establishment in any other country of the region. Citizens can choose from one of three documents when travelling in ECOWAS: the Travel Certificate, the common passport or the national identity cards. In East Africa, regional cooperation has resulted in a common East African passport and freely exchangeable currencies throughout the East African Community (EAC). EAC States also have a general consensus to ensure EAC citizens enjoy the rights of establishment and residence.

Outside of Africa, regional migration policies are also progressing. In Southeast Asia, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is preparing to launch a managed migration regime in 2015. ASEAN will allow free movement for skilled labour. Traders, professionals and specialists in accounting, architecture, nursing, medicine, dentistry and natural resources, among others, will participate in a pilot free regional labour market. Migrant workers will be issued with visas and employment passes. In South America, the organization UNASUR (which represents members of both Mercosur and the Andean Community) has also launched a common passport for all citizens of the member states.

The European Union (EU) is notorious for having realized the most ambitious free movement area in the world. Although the current economic crisis has fuelled inward looking debates within some member states, the free movement of people is considered a fundamental pillar of the integration process. Moreover, countries like Ireland, which have been severely affected by the crisis, have decided to open their borders even further with a view to jump-starting their economies out of the recession. In particular, the Irish government allowed labour immigration from Romania and Bulgaria two years ahead of schedule. Throughout the European common market, the amount of people who have decided to move their physical and fiscal residence to another country of the Union is less than 5% of the entire population. In Africa, both Kenya and Rwanda have abolished work permit requirements. Yet, neither country has been inundated by immigrants from other EAC states. These examples show that freedom of movement need not result in an apocalyptic exodus of migrants from low-income to high-income countries: it rather allows for crossborder cooperation of business and labour, with many workers returning home regularly. 

Recent studies confirm that regional migration in Southern Africa is currently dominated by informality and bilateralism. The region is characterized by a de facto laissez-faire regime, as borders remain porous and there are not enough resources to enforce a comprehensive system of control, with recurrent deportations and forced displacement (mainly out of South Africa). South Africa has established bilateral agreements with most countries in the region, but implementing them is revealing very costly. For each sector, data on the country’s actual needs is of poor quality, which partly explains why key sectors such as healthcare and education show systematic shortages, even though the region could provide a wealth of qualified doctors and teachers. Irregularity in migration flows also generates evident paradoxes, whereby highly skilled professionals end up operating in labour intensive sectors such as agriculture, security or construction, instead of supporting the South African economy in areas for which they could really add value.

Evidence from other areas of the world shows that a clear regional framework for labour migration is less destabilizing than many in Southern African would have us believe. Much to the contrary, clear governance systems guarantee migrant workers, their countries and the economies that receive them. Turning a blind eye to this means supporting informal migration channels, which strengthen criminality and reinforce prejudice and xenophobia. Has time come for a constructive debate on free movement in Southern Africa?

*This article draws on research conducted in the Migrating for Work Research Consortium (MiWORC), a multi-partner, policy-oriented research initiative focusing on “Regional international migration and its impact on the South African labour market: Data, policies, and livelihoods” (EU grant contract DCI-AFS-283-476).

Lorenzo Fioramonti is Associate Professor and Jean Monnet Chair in Regional Integration and Governance Studies, as well as Director of the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn), University of Pretoria


Steven A. Aloni - Namibia 09/01/2014 07:15
Your article on the free movement of people is very appropraite. Issue of free movement common market and currency all seem to be verbal amusement by the SADC leaders, likein other areas, these claims are not brought to fruition or realisation.
Maria Antonietta Casella - Italy 21/06/2013 15:40
Yes, it is the time!