President Geoge W. Bush’s trip to Africa last week (he visited Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, and Liberia) also stimulated some media attention on African migration to Europe. (At left, a 2007 photo of Bush with Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.)
African and European policymakers came together at an international conference in Accra, Ghana, to strategize on ways to prevent thousands of deaths and human rights abuses involved in irregular migration flows between the continents. (It's a problem about which IntLawGrrls previously posted here and here; also see report of a similar meeting held in Accra in 2005.)
Migration is not new, nor is it necessarily a “problem.” (See, e.g., a 2007 OECD Report arguing that migration can help improve economic standards in host countries as well as in countries of origin.) Scientists and historians attribute our ancestors' early migrations across Africa and beyond to survival strategies (in response to climate change, hunting patterns, or agricultural needs) and to the desire for conquest, trade, or exploration.
The reasons for contemporary African migrations are familiar: nomadic migrations to follow natural agricultural patterns or trading opportunities, displacement resulting from political persecution or instability, war, famine, or natural disaster.
The Accra conference also focuses on “irregular” economic migration to Europe and the loss of life and human rights abuses that accompany it. Intermittent news stories recount stories of overcrowded and rickety boats going down with dozens of African migrants; estimates put the number of such deaths at more than 1000 per year. Many migrants who arrive by boat come from North Africa. However, due in part to a previously liberal Libyan immigration policy and other recent events, migration from from sub-Saharan Africa is on the increase. Some make dangerous journeys across the Sahara in search of work in North Africa or to boat smugglers who will take them to islands off the mainland of Spain or Italy. More than 20,000 Africans made the boat passage to Italy in 2006 alone. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 7 to 8 million African irregular migrants now live and work in Europe. No one really knows how many have died in the Sahara or on the seas.
Some migrants came from educational and economic backgrounds that allowed them (or their families) to save enough money for the trip. Others simply made their way the best they could.
Migration flows are often gendered in nature—based on the “push” from the home country and the “pull” from the host country. Women and children, for example, make up a large percentage of refugees escaping armed conflict. Male migration seems to predominate in the boat migration to Europe through North Africa.
The complexity of irregular migration status is often ignored by officials in host countries. “Economic migrants,” no matter how difficult their circumstances, are often disparaged and their economic and social rights marginalized. And many such “economic migrants” might also be political asylum seekers who have been persecuted in their home countries. According to the Oxford-based migration researcher Hein de Haas, human rights NGOs have criticized European and Libyan governments for violating the international legal principle of non-refoulement by returning asylum seekers to countries in which they might be tortured or persecuted.
Those who do make it become substantial economic supports for their own families and for home country economies. The World Bank estimates that remittances from African migrants (not all of whom leave the continent) can constitute a significant portion of a home country's GDP. (See World Bank Remittances Factbook 2008 and an AllAfrica.com article discussing the possibility of a World Bank sponsored Diaspora Remittance Investment Fund.
According to the BBC, the Accra conference prioritized two strategies:
1st, the policymakers plan to publicize the life-threatening risks of the migration itself as well as the alienating or abusive conditions many African migrants with irregular status experience while living and working abroad.
2d, conference delegates discussed proposals to increase legally authorized migration targets for African workers with specified skills. Instead of promoting the well-known “brain drain” in which the Global South exports nurses, doctors, and teachers to Europe and North America, some argued for ways to enhance “brain circulation” or “circular migration”—temporary labor migration of skilled workers. The latter approach is not based in altruism; some European countries face labor shortages in certain fields.
Publicizing the dangers is an important start. On the other hand, large-scale temporary work programs may be as controversial in Europe and Africa as they are in the United States. (See 2007 Council on Foreign Relations report on “circular migration.”) But such measures would not address the root causes of large-scale African migrations—the yawning economic and social development gap between Europe and Africa, political instability and the trade in small arms, as well as the human will to risk everything to ensure the survival of those we love.
(photo above right courtesy of Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees)