We have all seen the news reports about unskilled African workers and economic migrants desperately attempting to make their way to Europe, in overcrowded and unsafe vessels, risking their lives in the quest for a better life. We have also read about the significant streams of irregular migration (including traders and highly skilled professionals) across the African continent, at a great human and social cost. The reasons for illicit and widespread migration are not new. Political instability and the deteriorating economic and social situations have fueled the urge for many African workers and youths to aspire to better earnings or decent living conditions across borders or overseas. But could regional integration be a strategy to address persistent and growing migration issues? We believe that enhanced integration and coherent regional migration strategies can help facilitate the free movement of labour within Africa and address the challenges of unemployment and skills shortages, especially among youth.
The figures for African emigrants, whether skilled or unskilled, within Africa or to OECD countries, are quite striking. It was estimated by the International Labor Organization (ILO) that close to three percent of Africa’s men and women are migrant workers. About 50 to 80 percent of rural households in Africa have at least one migrant member. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR), out of the 15,000 migrants and asylum-seekers who landed on the coasts of Italy and Malta in 2012, the majority came from African countries. The OECD discovered that out of the 40 countries with the most acute brain drain problems, 21 are African. Although only about 10 percent of highly educated immigrants in OECD countries are Africans; this number is significant: African countries have relatively small numbers of highly educated people (including doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers). And it is worth noting that those migration figures do not include the growing number of irregular or undocumented migrants crossing borders within Africa.
The lack of decent employment opportunities, deteriorating economic conditions and shaky political situations have fuelled the increase in migration flows within Africa. Yet many African countries are struggling to enhance their economic growth, stabilize their political situation, or address their development challenges. Efforts to integrate regionally aim to help African countries overcome some of the economic and development challenges they face (e.g. small domestic markets, weak productive structures, slow progress on reforms, slow economic growth and widespread conflict and political instability) by allowing countries to reap the benefits of economies of scale, stronger competition, and more domestic and foreign investment. However, regional integration through the free movement of capital, intra-regional trade and development strategies cannot be achieved successfully without the free movement of people and labour.
Since their establishment, most African Regional Economic Communities (RECs) have set objectives and enacted protocols to facilitate the free movement of people across national boundaries. Significant progress has been made among some RECs such as the Economic Commission of West Africa States (ECOWAS) and the East African Community (EAC). For instance, ECOWAS passports have replaced national passports and the citizens of the community have the right to entry, residence and settlement in all Member States. Other RECs such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) have not been able to fully implement their regional migration policies, with some members refusing to abolish visa requirements. In fact, some member states have been reluctant to embrace open border policies within their communities because of the risks associated with the increased freedom of mobility, such as human trafficking, organized crime, and terrorism, and increases in the unskilled labour force, which could negatively impact security, stability and the economy of the receiving country. Another reason for restrictions on the free movement of people is the costs associated with the implementation of the migration policies, e.g. high costs to reform border management and protocols, and loss of revenue generated by visa and customs fees.
If African countries are to transform structurally and integrate regionally, African workers and talents must be able to explore job opportunities and skills transfer across industries and across borders. The free movement of labour within economic communities and between regional groupings will not only facilitate the mobility of people regionally, it will also encourage trading, new business, and job creation. The brain drain many African countries experience could become rather the transfer of talents across borders. An unemployed nurse from Ghana could earn a decent living in Liberia while contributing to better health services in the host country. A young graduate from Tunisia’s technical schools could find a decent job in the plumbing industry in South Africa and help meet the labour needs in that country. In a sense, the free movement of people and labour also creates windows of opportunities for Africa’s youth, who have become central to recent development and policy dialogues on Africa.