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Visas represent high cost in terms of money and time for the individual applying for visas, as well as missed opportunities for the local service economy and for trade. However, despite several improvements to visa legislations in Africa countries (such as in Djibouti, Mozambique and Rwanda), many immigration policies no longer respond to the present-day needs of African businesses and citizens.
African countries remain closed off to each other, making travel within the continent difficult. Africa is one of the regions in the world with the highest visa requirements. This situation is even more restricted for Africans traveling within Africa, as compared to Europeans and North Americans. This is despite the fact that the number of arrivals to the continent’s destinations (and especially intra-African flights) has showed the highest growth globally over the years (IATA, 2010). One should add that business visas are often more difficult to obtain than tourist visas. Only five African countries (Seychelles, Mozambique, Rwanda, Comoros and Madagascar) offer visa-free access or visas on arrival to citizens of all African countries. On the other hand, DRC, Equatorial Guinea, São Tomé, and Sudan require citizens from every single African country to apply for a visa. On average, African citizens require visas to visit 60 per cent of African countries – ranging from a high of 84 per cent for Somalia to a low of 41 per cent for The Gambia.
The majority of Africans migrate within Africa. Eighty per cent of South-South migration takes place between border countries. Sub-Saharan Africa displays 63 per cent of intra-regional flows and the numbers are even higher when looking at sub-regions (World Bank, 2011). Nonetheless, the free and regulated movement of people has remained one of the least elaborated policy areas of regional integration. Regional Economic Communities (RECs), namely, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), East African Community (EAC), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Southern African Development Community (SADC) and West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) have developed protocols and other mechanisms aimed at achieving regional free movement of persons, the right of residence and establishment. The EAC and ECOWAS have made notable progress to date.
There are substantial differences between the African regions. Central Africa is the least connected, and the use of traditional visas is the highest of all Africa’s sub-regions. Comparatively, East Africa is the second most open sub-region in the world, with high numbers of visas on arrival. East Africans, on the other hand, require the most visas to travel within Africa, while countries in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have the most access, requiring a visa to visit under 50 per cent of the African countries. This is mainly due to the visa-free movement within the ECOWAS sub-region, implemented under the 1979 Protocol of Free Movement. Free Movement is also in place in the East African Community (EAC).
Today, Rwanda has the continent’s most liberal migration policy. In an attempt to consolidate regional integration and trade as well as boost business and tourism, Rwanda has, as of January 1, 2013, allowed entry-visas for all African citizens arriving at its borders. Furthermore, Rwanda offers online visa requests and biometric border management through registration of facial image and finger prints. This has led to a 24 per cent rise in tourism from African countries since the beginning of this year, a 50 per cent increase in trade with neighbouring countries last year, and a 73 per cent increase in trade with the Democratic Republic of Congo. For example, between Rwanda and DRC – on the border points of La Corniche and Poids Lourds – approximately 25,000 people cross each border point every day, some crossing more than four times per day. The average time of crossing is 15 seconds/30 seconds respectively for citizens and foreigners.
Visa restrictions have broad economic consequences, notably for the tourism sector. Prior to 2013, Mauritius required visitors to apply for visas before arriving, while Seychelles does not require entry visas at all – this has led to a high gap in tourist growth. The number of tourists to Seychelles has grown by 7 per cent per annum in the last five years while Mauritius has remained almost stagnant. As a result, the Mauritian Government are trying to boost tourism by relaxing visa regimes for 30 African countries and 75 countries overall.
Beyond tourism, visa requirements imply missed economic opportunities for intra-regional trade, and the local service economy (such as cross-country medical services or education). Improving visa facilitation could generate an additional US $206 billion for the tourism sector alone, and create as many as 5.1 million new jobs by 2015 in the G20 countries (WEF, 2013). Tourist arrivals to Africa will grow at double the pace compared to advanced-economy destinations. The tourism industry represents three per cent of global employment, with indirect employment included it contributes to around one in every 11 jobs worldwide. The industry is expected to grow with a pace of 3.3 per cent per year. By 2015, destinations in the global South would have surpassed those in the global North. Visa policies are among the most important governmental formalities negatively influencing international tourism.
In the short term, one can underline five key solutions to improve mobility across Africa: (1) scaling up visa on arrival programs; (2) simplifying the visa application process (offering e-visas); (3) offering long-dated visas (e.g. 10 years); (4) ensuring positive reciprocity between countries; and (5) encouraging more visa-free regional blocks.
In the long-term, policy-makers have to address restrictions to the mobility of various groups such as professional service providers, seasonal workers and cross-border traders – which are impeding competitiveness in African countries and affecting the private sector’s ability to quickly source skills. Other challenges include lacking regional harmonization of frameworks and mutual recognition of qualifications. Many African migrants face systemic disadvantages, often due to the irregular status, such as lack of access to basic services, especially, education, health, housing and formal financial services. This has broad regional consequences for human capital development.
There is a pressing need to train, retain and attract skilled professionals within the continent. Beyond trade and investments for job creation, African countries require high-skilled innovative entrepreneurial forces for economic transformation in order to profit from emerging industries such as banking, extractive industries and ICT. Restrictive immigration laws limits regional skills pooling throughout Africa, and currently the private sector is not able to quickly acquire, move and retain skills. The restricted mobility of professional services is therefore impeding growth in African countries.