African migration: from tensions to solutions

Migrants who leave their countries in search of work are currently not adequately protected by international law
From Africa Renewal: 
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African migration: from tensions to solutions
Photograph: Associated Press / Jasper Juinen

Sometimes, for months on end, young African men and women risk everything, including their lives, to take on the perilous trip across dozens of borders and the treacherous waves of the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life in the North. Some die along the way, some are turned back and some who finish the journey realize that life may not be easier across the frontier. But with few jobs and dim prospects at home, millions of youths and young adults in Africa still choose to migrate, often clandestinely.

Such movements of people pose difficult questions for many governments and for the international community. One of the most pressing concerns of governments and citizens in industrialized countries is irregular migration: illegal entry, bogus marriages, overstaying temporary admissions, abuse of asylum systems and the difficulty of removing unsuccessful applicants.

Migration is currently at the centre of disagreements between the mainly poor sending countries and the richer receiving nations. Today the world is more connected than ever. Information, commodities and money flow rapidly across national boundaries, a phenomenon often referred to as globalization. But while industrial countries are promoting easier flows of capital, goods and services (which they mainly supply), they are at the same time restricting the movement of labour, which comes mainly from developing countries. Developing countries view this as a double standard, especially since labour is an important factor in the production of goods and services.

An aspiring African migrant on the road in Morocco An aspiring African migrant on the road in Morocco, a common departure point for migrants seeking to reach Europe.
Photograph: Reuters / Andrea Comasi

Between 1960 and 2000, the share of merchandise exports and trade in services has roughly doubled, owing to new global trade policies negotiated at the World Trade Organization (WTO). But during the same period the share of international migrants in relation to the world’s population has increased only slightly, from 2.5 to 3 per cent. This is due to increasing restrictions on official migration, which are also partly to blame for the rise in illegal migration.

By 2000 there were an estimated 175 million migrants worldwide, most moving from low- to higher-income nations. About 9 per cent — 16.3 million — were African, down from 12 per cent in 1960. Between 5 and 12 per cent of the population of 30 industrialized nations are migrants, notes the Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM).

Complex issues

Migration brings with it “many complex challenges,” says UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The issues include human rights, economic opportunity, labour shortages and unemployment, the brain drain, multiculturalism and integration, and flows of refugees and asylum seekers. Policy makers also must grapple with issues of law enforcement. Especially in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the US in 2001, many are focusing on human and national security.

“We cannot ignore the real policy difficulties posed by migration,” says Mr. Annan. “But neither should we lose sight of its immense potential to benefit migrants, the countries they leave and those to which they migrate.”

Owing in part to labour shortages in certain sectors, an expanding global economy and the long-term trend of ageing populations, many industrial countries need migrants. They face shortages in highly skilled areas such as information technology and health services, as well as in manual jobs in agriculture, manufacturing and construction. Many turn a blind eye to irregular migration to fill jobs locals do not want to take on.

But there are limits to the number of migrants they can take, for a number of reasons, including rising national unemployment. Some countries of the European Union, for example, have a growing number of “underutilized” workers, who are either unemployed or forced to work part-time. In France and Italy, the rate of underutilized labour reached 21 per cent in 2004, up from 17 per cent in 1994. As a result, more receiving countries are becoming more selective about the migrants they are willing to take in, opting mainly for those with skills or capital to invest.

In contrast, developing countries are demanding more open policies. They view migration as offering an opportunity to reduce the ranks of the unemployed, earn revenue through the remittance of workers’ earnings, and import skills, knowledge and technology via returning residents. Yet they are also concerned about losing skilled workers to richer countries, a process referred to as the brain drain. Aware of the detrimental effect of such migration, some have introduced measures to reduce the departure of people whose skills are needed, such as doctors and nurses.

How to develop comprehensive policies to manage all these issues is daunting. Migration is today at the point where international trade was 50 years ago, says Mr. Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah of the Institute for Public Policy Research in the US. For many at that time, the current governance system for international trade was unimaginable, he says.

“Those thinking about a new international framework for managing migration face remarkably similar challenges,” he says. “How to design a system that leads to freer and fairer flows of people, skills and remittances?”

Creating jobs

Most people who seek to migrate are pushed by circumstances in their home countries. War, poverty and persecution prompt people to become refugees, asylum seekers and labour migrants. In most emigrant-producing countries, jobs are scarce or salaries are too low, obliging people to seek opportunities elsewhere. Therefore, in times of peace, governments can stem the flow of citizens seeking to leave by creating jobs.

“We cannot ignore the real policy difficulties posed by migration, but neither should we lose sight of its immense potential to benefit migrants, the countries they leave and those to which they migrate.”

— Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General

“Globalization has so far not led to the creation of sufficient and sustainable decent work opportunities around the world,” says ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. So far, he says, “better jobs and income for the world’s workers has not been a priority in policy-making.”

Over the last few decades many African countries have failed to create jobs, despite pursuing structural adjustment policies recommended by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Instead, in many countries there has been a decline in job opportunities and real incomes. Between 1994 and 2004, the number of workers living on less than a dollar a day increased by 28 million in sub-Saharan Africa.

“I dread to think of the scenes we may be contemplating in, say, 20 years if we do not make a massive consolidated effort to create jobs and opportunities in West Africa,” says UN Special Representative for West Africa Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah. “What is happening now is only a tip of the iceberg, compared to what will occur if urgent solutions are not found.”

The Addis Ababa-based UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) proposes that job-creation policies on the continent focus on labour-intensive sectors such as agriculture. Governments should work to minimize regulations to private, domestic and foreign investment, provide infrastructure and promote political systems that allow the majority of citizens to become involved, ECA notes in its Economic Report on Africa 2005. Currently, jobs being created in agriculture are in the informal economy, at low levels of productivity, the ECA notes. These cannot provide workers with enough income to pull themselves or their families out of poverty.

International trade policies make the situation worse for many African countries. For example, most migrant-receiving countries protect their farm sectors through subsidies, guaranteeing their farmers prices higher than on world markets and leaving poor farmers in sending countries unable to compete.

Even investment policies in industrial nations, which could be used to manage the flow of migrants, are falling short. “The incentive to invest in developing countries is driven by expected profits, not the need for jobs to reduce emigration,” says Mr. Philip Martin, a professor at the University of California in the US.

“We don’t need more diagnosing or one-size-fits-all solutions,” says Mr. Somavia. “It’s time for the international financial institutions, the entire UN system and bilateral cooperation to focus energies on job creation in Africa, which we know is so fundamental to peace, security and unity.”

Toward fairer policies

Many developing countries maintain that freer migration would be a quick means of increasing their benefits from globalization. The challenge is to develop policies that are acceptable to both industrial and developing nations and that will spur global economic growth.

“Together, Africans and Europeans, we have a duty to dismantle the illegal immigration networks, behind which hides an appalling and mafia-like traffic,” French President Jacques Chirac told the France-Africa Summit in Mali in December. “Together, we must encourage co-development and enable Africans to enjoy decent conditions for living and working in their own countries.”

But successful international cooperation to spur Africa’s economies will depend on adequate financing for the continental development strategy, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), including increases in aid and a lasting solution to Africa’s debt burden.

African countries are also pushing industrial nations to drop barriers to the free movement of labour through ongoing negotiations at the WTO. African and other developing countries are arguing that just as trade in goods, services and information have been opened up, so should the flow of labour, a sector in which developing countries hold an advantage and from which they could earn substantial revenue. Led by India, developing nations are using the liberalization of labour as one of the markers for measuring the success of the current round of WTO negotiations, due for completion in 2006.

International conventions

The GCIM, a body established at the urging of the UN Secretary-General in 2003, proposes that the UN set up an Interagency Global Migration Facility. The agency would bring together more than a dozen UN and other international agencies and would be the primary forum for migration.

Migrants who leave their countries in search of work are currently not adequately protected by international law. Two conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) are the main instruments safeguarding their rights. The conventions emphasize equality, stating that the wages of migrants should be the same as those of other workers doing the same jobs in host countries. They also recommend that sending and receiving nations adopt bilateral agreements to protect the rights of foreign workers.

The UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which came into force in 2003, goes a little further. It covers all economic migrants, including seafarers and the self-employed. The law lays out the powers and responsibilities of states to manage movements of people across their borders and spells out the rights of international migrants.

“Nevertheless, the gaps in international law and norms remain, particularly related to migration for family and economic reasons,” notes Ms. Susan Martin of the Institute of International Migration at Georgetown University in the US. The ILO conventions entered into force with relatively few signatories and the UN convention has been ratified by only 27 states — all of them source countries for migration.

The international conventions are unpopular among receiving countries partly because they cost money, for example, to provide services for migrants. Some developed countries argue that these laws impinge on their right to determine their own laws.

Africans held by Spanish immigration authorities Africans held by Spanish immigration authorities: Northern countries are increasingly concerned by growing flows of undocumented migrants.
Photograph: Associated Press / Jasper Juinen

“The US believes that the International Organization of Migration, while not within the UN system, is the appropriate body to centre discussions on migration,” says Ambassador Sichan Siv, a US representative to the UN, reacting to the GCIM’s proposal for an international agency on migration. While coordination is important, he says, “such an effort must have at its core that migration law and policies are the sovereign rights of states.”

Temporary migration

In the US, where there are about 34 million foreign-born workers (11 million illegal), President Bush is pushing for new domestic legislation to allow temporary migration for workers for up to three years. Those who participate would not, however, be able to apply for permanent legal status once their time in the programme expires. With more than 1 million immigrants caught trying to enter the US from Mexico in 2005 alone, Mr. Bush’s plan recommends increased border patrols.

The proposals have generated heated debate, with some opposed to giving any concessions to people living in the country illegally. Such concessions, they argue, would reward “wrongdoers.” But there is growing pressure from US businesses for comprehensive immigration reform, including guest-worker programmes, to provide legal ways for those who have entered the country illegally to continue working.

Because of the need to fill jobs in many developed countries, there has been a trend toward relaxing entry conditions for certain categories of workers, particularly in agriculture on a seasonal basis. The agricultural sector of the European Union employs almost 500,000 seasonal workers from outside the 15 long-time EU members each year, notes the World Economic and Social Survey 2004, a report produced by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Migration on the rise

Despite attempts to limit the number of people moving across borders, especially between rich and poor countries, experts forecast that international migration is going to rise. One reason is demographic. While populations in developing countries are growing rapidly, those in high-income nations are not. To keep their economies running, developed countries need manpower. Europe’s largest employer, the UK’s National Health Service, is highly dependent on migrants to work as nurses and doctors, while the high technology sector in the US uses thousands of young migrants to fill many vacant posts.

Also, migration is good for economic growth. The World Bank estimates that if the labour force in high-income countries were to grow by 3 per cent, even if the additional workers were all migrants, there would be $356 bn in annual global economic gains. “That would be larger than gains from trade, for example,” says Mr. Dilip Ratha, senior economist at the World Bank.

The benefits of migration go not only to industrial nations, he says, but also to developing countries, which now receive more than $165 bn annually in remittances, money sent home by workers abroad. “Remittances reduce poverty because they generate direct income transfers to the households,” says Mr. Ratha. Household surveys in Uganda show that remittances to that country may have reduced poverty by 11 per cent.

The question is whether it is better to promote or restrict the mobility of people seeking to migrate. Simply closing the door could have deeply troubling implications for the human rights of the people involved, might not be effective and would limit the benefits migration delivers for both receiving and sending countries, says Mr. Sriskandarajah of the US-based Institute for Public Policy Research.

A better response, he suggests, is to start by recognizing that migration can be positive for those who move, for the societies they move to and for the societies they leave behind.