At least 80% of African migrants never leave the continent, but the focus is on Europe

Most migrants don’t aim for the shore.
Most migrants don’t aim for the shore.
Image: Reuters/Giulia Paravicini
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It is well known that thousands of African migrants risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe, but even more stay within Africa to survive.

“If there is a crisis in terms of migration, that crisis is in Africa,” says Peter Mudungwe, a migration advisor with the African Union who is part of team trying to change the global perspective on African migration. The continental body is setting up its own research and data collection centers to properly track migration in Africa. 

Only 20% of migrants actually leave the African continent, according to the AU. More people move from the Horn of Africa to southern Africa than those crossing the Sahara to north Africa to reach Europe. There is even more movement within West Africa, a region that historically had porous borders. There is also increasing activity from East Africa across the Gulf of Aden, with migrants fleeing conflict or in search of better economic opportunities.

In the case of refugees, of the 10 countries who host more than half of the world refugees, five of those are in Africa. Despite all of this movement, little is known about the people embarking on these journeys, just how many there are and whether they survive. Instead, research and subsequent funding have focused on stemming migration from areas where routes to Europe and the United States begin.

The so-called migrant crisis has occupied headline writers and policymakers for the last several years, as thousands of people make their way from the developing to the developed world, in what is often a perilous journey. In Africa, the crisis has focused on the young people trying to make it to Europe, but the numbers are beginning to reveal that this focus is misplaced. The AU concedes that its own policies are out of date, which has allowed external influence to skew the response.

“It’s been damaging in the way Europe views migration,” Mudungwe says. “The idea that they are being swamped plays into the rhetoric of the right wing.”

This year, the African Union’s focus will be on refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons, but that is just part of trying to understand a complex and very human phenomenon. To do so, it’s overhauled its 2006 policy to help states better understand why and how people migrate and how to manage it, all within the AU’s goal for continental free trade and movement by 2063.

The new framework treats migration as an inevitability, and looks at ways to take advantage of diaspora engagement and remittances. It also tries to standardize governance, like managing borders, and the protection of the rights of refugees.

Data is crucial to getting a handle on migration so the AU is setting up an observatory in Morocco to collect primary data along with a migration research center in Mali, said Mudungwe. Sudan will also host a continental operations center to monitor and manage the new policies. The AU and its member states are adamant that they will fund these projects independently to ensure that the focus remains on the African reality. If partners, like the EU for example, sign on, they would have to stay within the AU’s research mandate.

“These are African institutions, funded by Africans,” Mudungwe said.

Thinking of migration as a crisis ignores that fact that humans have always moved around, says Maureen Achieng, Ethiopia head of the United Nations migration body, the IOM.

The AU’s initiative could still benefit from cooperation from the European Union, whose efforts focus on capacity building. The EU is also increasingly aware of migration patterns from and around the continent, even if politicians within Europe who try to steer the narrative toward that of crisis, she explains. 

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