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Migration amid COVID-19: Young Africans weigh their options

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Migration amid COVID-19: Young Africans weigh their options

New challenges and opportunities as the world marks the International Migrants Day (Dec 18).
From Africa Renewal: 
18 December 2020
Relocation by boat, which is the only means of transport from the Tergol/Akobo entry point...
Relocation by boat, which is the only means of transport from the Tergol/Akobo entry point, began on 18 February, in Ethiopia. IOM operates five 200-seater boats and one luggage boat.
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Despite increased investment in education, today’s African youth face uncertainties associated with transitions from childhood to adulthood, including finding a job after school.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), even before the COVID-19 pandemic, young people were around three times more likely to be unemployed. The pandemic has further exacerbated those challenges, including disruptions in education, training, employment, while some have endured income losses due to lay-offs and reduced working hours.

For some young people, the inability to find employment opportunities at home means migrating to other countries within Africa or outside the continent.

Increasingly, migration for work or education has become a common phenomenon in Africa. Data from the International Migrant Stock 2019 report, prepared by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), shows that international migrants in 2019 numbered an estimated 272 million, an increase of 51 million since 2010.

About 20 per cent of all international migrants in the South, mostly from Africa, were under the age of 20, making Africa the youngest region of international migrants

Within the past two decades, policy discussions of migration have been dominated by images of young Africans taking rickety boats to Europe due to poverty and lack of opportunities including jobs.

The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on travel and the closure of borders by some countries have disrupted or delayed migration within Africa and outside Africa. However, for young Africans experiencing multiple shocks with little or no social protection, the prospects of migrating may increase, especially for families seeking to mitigate socioeconomic challenges.

While the African migration narrative may be dominated by desperate youth involved in irregular migration, the near-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on them has also increased the migration of certain groups, especially those with skills useful in the health sector of destination countries.

For instance, between March and April 2020, some countries in the West offered work or exchange visitor visas to encourage people with medical training and expertise to migrate.

“After completing my nursing training in Ghana, I came across this government scheme looking for health workers to go work in the UK. On top of offering us a job, they provided us with the necessary support, including accommodation in the UK. Since I arrived in the UK everyone has been supportive, including my family and friends,” says 29-year-old Ghanaian David Kwesi.

Mr. Kwesi’s experience mirrors that of many other young Africans migrating to the West to work in the health sector. Once employed, these migrants play a key role in supporting their families back home through remittances.

Yet, the migration process is not that easy for many others. Many young African migrants have been forced to return to their countries of origin amid precarious job conditions and lack of access to a safety net, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Reports have emerged of poor access to healthcare, as well as abuse and scapegoating of African migrants in some countries in Middle East and Asia.    Migrants employed as domestic workers in those regions face an increased risk of abuse, with some stranded in destination countries while others seek the fastest way out.

IOM has commenced operations to assist crisis-affected populations in Northern Ethiopia.
IOM has commenced operations to assist crisis-affected populations in Northern Ethiopia. Photo: IOM

Ana Abebe, 27, just returned home to Ethiopia after losing her job in Lebanon. “I lost my job and had no money. I could not afford food or even accommodation. If you don’t eat well you can easily die if you contract COVID-19. I decided to return home to my family and spend time with my child,” says Ms. Abebe.

Way forward

Contemporary African youth migration is shaped by structural factors, including inequalities, a growing youth population, labour market imbalances and unemployment, as well as underemployment. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced some of the inequalities in African societies, points out Ismael Mohammed, a Tunisian.

“Initially, it was easy to get a short-term visa to travel abroad, but I have applied for visa to USA and UK several times in the past five years, either to visit, school or even for holiday-worker programmes, but I was denied. Probably it is because I did not graduate from school,” says Mr. Mohammed.

While migration opportunities may not be easily available for some people, the fact that selective and skilled labour migration, especially for healthcare workers, is available shows the limited migration pathways for low-skilled African youth migrants.

Despite the demand for their low-skilled labour in many wealthy countries, many of them tend to work in informal jobs that have inadequate protection and benefits.

The condition of most young African migrants, including domestic workers, who often become jobless, homeless, stranded or deported, has been exacerbated by gender inequalities.

“Inclusive social protection policies, including financial support, to help everyday needs of migrants in destination countries, as well as a small cash grant for destitute returnees, can go a long way in supporting young migrants’ economic empowerment, reintegration and inclusion,” says George Ekow, a 35-year-old Ghanaian migrant in South Africa.

Amid COVID-19 responses, some countries have turned inward while restricting mobility, but others recognise the need for the world to work together in addressing the globalised nature of the pandemic.

Migration is only one facet of globalisation. Since globalisation involves the flow of goods, services, capital, and information, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) remains a plausible development.

AfCFTA is envisaged to increase intra-continental exports to 50 per cent by 2030, while raising both skilled and unskilled worker wages to 9.8 and 10.3 per cent respectively.

Moving forward, a gender, human rights and youth-sensitive implementation of the AfCFTA should ensure that, as per the African Union youth employment strategy and the Agenda 2063, young people are granted access to education, employment and freedom of mobility within Africa to achieve their aspirations and to contribute to the continent’s demographic dividend.

Dr Michael Boampong is a lecturer at The Open University, while Mr. Daniel Assamah is a Graduate Student at Rutgers University

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