No African should be treated like a foreigner in any African country. People migrate within Africa due to a multiplicity of factors that include the need for improved socio-economic conditions through employment, environmental factors, as well as respite from political instability, conflict and civil strife. Labour migration, and especially migration of low-skilled workers, is the most consistent source of movement within the continent. Yet most immigration regimes in Africa don’t have visa provisions for such workers and economic refugees, so many desperate immigrants seek help from human smugglers to reach countries they perceive as having better employment opportunities.
After shouldering enormous personal risks to emigrate, undocumented migrants are confronted with a new set of threats and dangers once they reach their destinations. These migrants are facing senseless acts of hostility despite Africa’s leading thinkers and prominent politicians repeatedly calling for no African to be regarded as a foreigner anywhere on the continent. Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters party, for example, has frequently expressed this sentiment and called on the continent to collapse its colonial borders. Similarly, PLO Lumumba, the popular Kenyan public intellectual, has said, “No African country should declare any African persona non grata, it defeats the spirit of African unity.”
Such enlightened and inclusive thinking is admirable, but unfortunately, the political determination to fulfil the widely shared aspiration for a borderless Africa is still inadequate. In January 2018, the African Union assembly adopted the Protocol to the Treaty establishing the African Economic Community relating to the free movement of people and rights of residence and establishment. If ratified by every member state, this protocol would allow Africans to work and live in any African country without needing a work permit.
Rather disappointingly, however, only 32 out of 55 countries in Africa have signed it to date, and just four – Rwanda, Niger, São Tomé and Principe, and Mali – have ratified it. The insistent resistance of many African governments to continent-wide free movement, coupled with their impractical, inefficient and at times inhumane attempts to police irregular migration point to a lack of understanding and appreciation of the considerable benefits of migration.
Indeed, migration – irregular or not – is beneficial not only to migrants and their kin but also to the communities hosting them. Every year across Africa, tens of thousands of honest, hard-working people are forced to leave their home country to escape war, political instability, climate change, bad governance or poverty and build themselves a new life in another African country. Due to circumstances outside their control, many of these people are undocumented. They face hostility from authorities and struggle to live their lives with dignity, let alone contribute to their new communities.
This is a massive, unnecessary loss not only for these migrants and their families but also their adopted countries and the wider continent. For the benefit of Africa and Africans, so-called “illegal” immigrants must be swiftly recognised, documented and protected from the immeasurable dangers of economic and sexual exploitation, discrimination and organised xenophobia. Only 3 percent of the African population live outside their home countries, so this is not an impossible task.
Last year, despite investing billions of dollars in high-tech surveillance technology, border infrastructure, and land and sea patrols, the United States and European Union both experienced exponential increases in irregular migration. Africa’s leaders should learn from these failures and accept that in the absence of legal migration pathways accessible to all vulnerable people, including economic migrants, irregular migration cannot be regulated or expunged successfully.
They must avoid politicising irregular migration and instead implement policies that recognise and render useful African predisposition to migrate in both fair and hard times. In 1963, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s founding president, said, “The forces that unite us are intrinsic and greater than the superimposed influences that keep us apart.”
Sadly, it will take time to unite Africa in practice and establish a visa-free continent. In the meantime, the African Union must move to protect lives and take steps to enable unrestrained migration on a provisional basis. With adequate political will, Africa is well positioned to manage migration in a secure, orderly and humane manner. It is high time Africa demolishes its colonial borders.