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The bittersweet reality of intra-African migration

December 17, 2021

Africans are getting around their continent in ever greater numbers these days. But the poor treatment many receive in some countries casts a shadow over the prospects for integration.

Local bus in Dar es Salaam
More Africans than ever are migrating within their continentImage: DW

African Union figures show that the level of intra-African migration rose from 13.3 million to 25.4 million between 2008 and 2017. But, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), that's only half the story.

"We really have a very incomplete picture of the most recent trends and mainly also the number of people moving across countries," Rango Marzia of the IOM's Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) told DW.

A 2020 IOM report confirms that 80% of Africans responding to a 2017 survey said they had no interest in leaving the continent.

"There's a whole story of migration within Africa and across Africa, particularly across countries in the same regions such as West Africa, where interregional mobility is high, which we don't really see in mainstream media," Marzia said.

The causes for such massive movement of people across African countries range from economic reasons to the need for security. And there is a huge prospect that intra-African migration will continue to increase, according to Marzia. Long before the creation of colonial borders, Africans moved within the continent and beyond. 

A flag bearing the shape of Africa
The African Union plans to introduce a common passport for people in its 55 member statesImage: Klaus Steinkamp/McPHOTO/imago images

Not always welcome

DW asked Christian Kobla Kekeli Zilevu, an immigration official in northern Ghana, about the picture within the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

"People move from one country to the other for survival. Some also travel because they feel their homes are not okay, and they want to try another place," he said.

One man who left Cameroon because of the insecurity in the English-speaking regions, who declined to be named, told DW that his life in Equatorial Guinea now was plagued by challenges.

"They don't welcome strangers, but we have no choice but to live with it. They have this hate speech they use all the time and maltreat strangers," he said.

People holding a banner that reads #PutSoutAfricaFirst
In 2020, there was an anti-immigration protest at the Nigerian Embassy in JohannesburgImage: Milton Maluleque/DW

The IOM's Rango Marzia acknowledges that the negative perceptions associated with migration are largely linked to political instability, conflicts and climate change. However, she argues that it is not these problems that make migration bad but rather the manner in which it is managed.

"So it's more of the policies that are in place or are not in place to manage migration, and this is also true for migration from Africa to Europe," said Marzia.

Not all gloom

The impact of poorly implemented migration policies affects people like the Cameroonian man in Equatorial Guinea, who said his biggest problem is how he and other foreigners are treated by host countries.

"Even if you have all the documents, they will still maltreat you," he said, adding that there was constant harassment, both from citizens and authorities in Equatorial Guinea.

However, the experiences of Africans who move between African countries vary. One of them is Okwele Joy Nduli, who left Nigeria and moved to Ghana.

"Some of my colleagues came here before me, and they were getting good results. That was the main reason why I left Nigeria to build my business, and there was tremendous change," Nduli told DW.

Another man who fled conflict in Cameroon's English-speaking regions to seek better prospects in Equatorial Guinea told DW about the advantages he found. "I make more money here than in Cameroon," he said.

Xenophobia in South Africa

Is there a solution?

Integration within the ECOWAS zone is still in its infancy, but there is growing hope that it is on the path to success.

"We are starting from a point, but I can say categorically that the ECOWAS sub-region is more integrated than previously," Christian Kobla Kekeli Zilevu, the Ghanaian immigration official, said.

The Cameroonian man who feels unwelcome in Equatorial Guinea wants this to become a reality within the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC). Equatorial Guinea is one of the bloc's six member states.

"We are in the CEMAC region. They should respect the laws of CEMAC. We are one people, and we should always respect the color we have as Africans," he said.

Zilevu notes challenges, but shows a tinge of optimism, saying that it will take time but that successful integration is a possibility. "There will be challenges. So, for the blocs CEMAC and ECOWAS, it's a gradual process," he said.

A row of IOM cars
The IOM has said that policies must change to uphold human rightsImage: DW

The way forward

The public debate that fuels anti-migrant sentiments is not often backed by evidence. But efforts are being made to reverse that.

"The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration which was adopted in December 2018 by most UN member states, has 23 objectives. The first is improving data for evidence-based policies and for informed public debate about migration," said the IOM's Marzia.

Accurate data can help significantly in overcoming  anti-immigration sentiments so that better cooperation can be established.

"The importance is ensuring safe migration, and so protecting migrants at every step of the journey, protecting human rights," Marzia explained.

Zilevu said that Ghana is meeting these standards, especially when it concerns those who follow the required procedures.

"Ghana is a place where we are very peaceful, very accommodating. But we still work with our laws ... that is why [in matters of immigration] we say friendship with vigilance,” he said.

Shattered dreams of migrants

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen