E.g., 11/28/2023
E.g., 11/28/2023
Africa Deepens its Approach to Migration Governance, But Are Policies Translating to Action?

Africa Deepens its Approach to Migration Governance, But Are Policies Translating to Action?


The African Union Ministerial Conference on Migration in 2018. (Photo: South African government/DIRCO)

While the topic of migration once was a low priority for African governments, it has gained traction as a strategic policy area for the continent over the past decade. Part of this interest stems from a growing acknowledgment that migration is a main driver of development and must be addressed more comprehensively. But it also derives from an increase in European Union (EU) migration-related investments in the region, especially since 2015, and the establishment of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF). As a result, many African states have now integrated migration as a main dimension in their national development strategies and mainstreamed it across policy domains such as health and education. Perhaps more importantly, in countries such as Mali and Morocco, immigration has moved into the public sphere and is now a topic that can influence electoral outcomes.

In recent years, much of the conversation around Africa and migration, particularly from a European perspective, has been on curbing flows from Africa, based on the widespread sense that demographic growth in the continent will inevitably lead to an exodus towards EU countries. But a closer look at the reality of migration flows from and within Africa points to a different picture. Projections by the United Nations and research institutes indicate that migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are likely to represent at most 3 percent to 4 percent of the population in the global North. By contrast, 71 percent of the migrants born in sub-Saharan Africa remain there. Therefore, the common perception that Africa is mainly a migrant-sending continent is misleading and underestimates how critical intracontinental migration flows are to African countries, in terms of economic development, social dynamics, and security trends.

As with other places around the globe, African initiatives aimed at enhancing migration’s potential to aid economic development and that recognize it as a cross-cutting phenomenon that must be addressed across policy portfolios are increasingly common at national, regional, and continental levels. The African Union (AU) in 2018 updated its Migration Policy Framework for Africa and Plan of Action (2018-30) to cover areas including labor migration, migrants’ rights, internal migration, and migration data management. And in December 2018, all but two African countries (Algeria and Libya) joined 152 other UN Member States in endorsing the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, which sets out the first international policy framework on migration and calls for a multisectoral approach to migration management.

While these actions are promising on paper, questions remain about the extent to which they will translate to more effective migration management. A number of challenges have made it difficult to move from policy design to implementation, including lack of migration data, capacity, and resources. Moreover, as these policy changes bring about a reorganization of how African states manage migration, with an increasing number of actors involved in migration governance, more efforts are needed to coordinate with stakeholders at all levels, in and out of government.

This article analyzes the most significant changes in migration governance emerging from recent experiences. It also sheds light on promising practices and how development actors can best support this evolution.

Pushing Migration Policymaking into a Broader Set of Portfolios

African governments (as others elsewhere) have often pursued a fragmented approach to migration, with a resulting lack of policy coherence at times. Some states long neglected important migration dynamics and did not integrate the need to better capitalize on migration as a tool for development, or to respond to human trafficking and migrant protection issues. But in the past decade, increasing awareness that migration relates to every part of government and society has led to a better understanding that a whole-of-government approach to migration is necessary.

This development can be observed at continental and national levels, with migration policies that increasingly link to other policy areas. The African Union’s 2018 Migration Policy Framework illustrates this holistic approach, as it recommends that migration be governed in an integrated manner through “comprehensive, human-rights based and gender-responsive national migration strategies and policies.” Accordingly, the strategy recommends governments incorporate migration policies and considerations into portfolios including education, labor markets, and health. At the regional level, countries belonging to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have moved towards the implementation, as yet not fully realized, of freedom of movement arrangements (starting with a protocol adopted in 1979); this has required the harmonization of legislation in various domains, from labor laws to social protection for migrants. Several national migration strategies adopted in recent years also reflect a change in approach to migration issues. For example, Cape Verde’s 2012 national immigration strategy focuses on themes beyond immigration management and border control, including protection of migrants at risk, relationships with the diaspora, assistance to migrants and returnees, and the protection of migrants abroad.

Another evolution concerns the broadening of the migration agenda to issues that have recently gained in prominence on the global stage, particularly climate change. This has led several African countries to integrate into their migration policymaking (albeit with limited concrete actions) the fact that Africa will be disproportionately affected by climate change. Nigeria’s 2015 national migration policy alludes to the disruptive effects of climate change on local communities and commits to increased action. Ghana’s national migration strategy likewise proposes a focus on “the migration, environment, and climate change nexus and resulting impacts.” In their draft national migration strategies, Botswana and Uganda also identify migration as a potential adaptation strategy to climate change and warn against the dangers of political inaction.

Finally, African governments have increasingly acknowledged migration as a strategic pillar in national development plans. As of 2015, all but two ECOWAS members—Benin and Guinea—cited migration in their national development strategies. Senegal’s 2014 development policy seeks to engage the diaspora in supporting national development. Mali’s Strategic Framework for Economic Growth and Sustainable Development (CREDD) 2019-2023 goes even further and commits to turning migration into “an opportunity for development in Mali” by creating avenues for legal migration and sustainable reintegration, improving migrants’ social protection, and setting up a national agency to protect Malians abroad.

New Actors and Models of Migration Governance Emerge

As African governments pursue more comprehensive migration policies, they have also tested new models of migration governance. As elsewhere, the traditional assumption that migration could be split between its internal and external components, with the resulting clear division of competences between ministries of labor and ministries of interior and foreign affairs, has given way to a new approach. The resulting whole-of-government policies call for the involvement of more and new actors, both horizontally (across ministries) and vertically (across administrative levels and including actors such as civil society and research institutions).

The African Union’s 2018 Migration Policy Framework advocates for this inclusive approach and explicitly recommends that governments engage all relevant ministries in the formulation of migration policy. Among the newcomers to the discussion in a number of countries: ministries of development and planning, employment, gender and family, and finance. Many African states have also set up dedicated agencies or offices to manage specific migration issues. Ivory Coast, for example, in 2011 established a joint ministerial committee focused on human trafficking and child labor, while The Gambia and Niger set up national anti-trafficking agencies respectively in 2007 and 2010. By definition, the inclusion of these actors should enrich how migration policies are designed and implemented and ensure better buy-in of all government stakeholders. Most of these initiatives are, however, still at an early stage and more evidence is needed to assess their effectiveness.

As the number of involved ministries and agencies increases, so does the need for strengthened coordination. More than a dozen African governments have set up interministerial committees on migration to share information and better align their activities. Their nature and function vary from country to country. In some cases, they are placed under the Ministry of Interior—as is the case in Ghana and Niger—maintaining migration within the realm of home affairs. In others, they come under the prime minister’s office, as in the case of Mauritius’ National Steering Committee on Migration and Development, granting them a position at the crossroad of sectoral policies. 

Tackling Challenges at National and Other Levels

Despite efforts to better liaise between migration stakeholders, governments continue to face difficulty rolling out their migration policies, mainly due to three factors: remaining challenges to coordination within and beyond central government circles on migration, the overall lack of capacity of migration stakeholders, and competing interests among them.

Coordination with a Wide Range of Migration Actors

Beyond encouraging multisectoral approaches, improving migration governance implies strengthening the role of stakeholders at regional and subnational levels, in civil society, and in other nonstate bodies. While these actors all have meaningful roles to play, they also bring new challenges in terms of aligning regional, national, and local policies.

First, while regional cooperation is making progress, it still needs to be strengthened with more regular information-sharing mechanisms and better policy coherence. For instance, the potential of ECOWAS has been hampered by the lack of integrated policy frameworks to support migrants’ mobility and integration. Still, initiatives such as the EU- and ECOWAS Commission-funded project Support to Free Movement of Persons and Migration in West Africa (2013-2018) point to new efforts to harmonize regional and national laws in several Member States. For example, the project supported Sierra Leone in aligning its labor migration policy with international protocols.

Linkages between central and subnational authorities represent a second challenge for this coordination, in particular in the fields of protection and integration. Provinces and cities are usually at the forefront of answering the immediate needs of migrants and refugees, especially during crises, while they may not share the policy agenda of their central government (particularly when political tensions exist between the capital and border areas). In recent years, more efforts have been deployed to better integrate migration policies into local development plans, including through projects funded by the European Union and European bilateral development agencies in countries such as Morocco.

Finally, civil-society organizations (CSOs) often step in to assist or complement the role of governments on issues related to protection, integration, research, and advocacy for migrants’ rights. Cooperation between CSOs and authorities usually results in progress in terms of delivering services to vulnerable migrants and better information on what works on the ground. However, these organizations sometimes advocate for priorities different from the ones supported by host governments. In Morocco, for example, some advocacy organizations have repeatedly stood for migrants’ rights, and while they have influenced the government’s decision to regularize unauthorized migrants in 2014 and 2017, they continue to make their case that authorities still do not adequately address migrants’ pressing needs.

Lack of Capacity

The mainstreaming of migration also requires building the capacity of actors new to migration-related issues. Ministries such as the ministries of education or health were not used to integrating migrants into their policies, and they have needed a new range of resources, skills, and systems—from migration trends data to trainings for public officials on how to address migrants’ vulnerabilities. The issue of migration data remains particularly salient, and many countries still lack the data systems they need to inform migration policymaking. Thus, in Tunisia, one of the starting points to operationalize the 2017 migration strategy will be to conduct a nationwide qualitative survey on migration, in order to assess the vulnerabilities of migrants and relations with host communities.

These new responsibilities can also be challenging for local authorities that usually have small budgets and may have limited knowledge of migration and refugee policies. For example, after the onset of Libya’s civil war in 2011, cities in Eastern Tunisia had to manage the spontaneous arrivals of thousands of Libyans and other migrants fleeing the violence and many were taken aback. In normal times, cities often lack a clear blueprint to address the needs of newcomers and mitigate the potential negative effects of their presence on local residents. In the past years, several initiatives, including under the EUTF and bilateral development programs, have aimed to strengthen the capacity of relevant migration actors at central and local levels, along with civil society, through training on migration policy frameworks.

Competing Interests and Sustainability to Be Tested

But even when all relevant actors have access to adequate resources and capacity, they may have diverging priorities and competing views of how to integrate migration objectives into their agenda. For example, in Senegal, it took about three years to adopt the national migration policy, with hurdles partly stemming from the difficulty of drawing a common vision between all the stakeholders, including the ministries of finance, foreign affairs, and justice. The willingness of African countries to provide necessary funds and to invest in migration policies over other policy areas also represents a hurdle. Nigeria adopted its national migration policy and a related migration policy framework in 2015, yet it is still lacking a dedicated budget for migration activities. The outcome? Limited results on the ground.

As mentioned earlier, international donors, especially the European Union and its Member States, have stepped up their support and provide support for the implementation of some of these strategies. For these initiatives to be sustainable, however, implementing partners need to secure the commitment of African governments that they will themselves invest in migration policies once the externally funded projects come to an end. Niger’s Interministerial Committee on Migration (CIM) reflects well this dynamic: while the committee was envisioned as the main body in charge of drafting a national migration strategy as far back as 2007 and did produce a draft policy in 2014, its activities gradually stalled until it was reactivated in 2017. The committee gained new life as a result of funding from the German Development Agency (GIZ). As the GIZ project comes to a close later this year, whether the Nigerian government takes over CIM funding will be a test for the committee’s sustainability. 

Lessons Learned and Growing Policy Ties with Europe

While Africa’s migration policies were long perceived mainly through the prism of diaspora engagement and facilitating mobility towards other continents, African governments are increasingly adopting more comprehensive migration strategies and integrating the issue into broader portfolios. As a result of these approaches, African states have revised their migration governance models, involving more actors in the design and implementation of migration objectives. Challenges remain, however, in rolling out these strategies and governments must further invest in building the capacity of all migration stakeholders, liaising between actors that may have diverging priorities, and ensuring long-term funding for these initiatives.

While African-European relations over migration have often been dominated by priorities related to border control and the return of African migrants from Europe, this deepening of migration governance constitutes an important development. European diplomats should integrate this evolution while they negotiate with their African counterparts. Their traditional contacts may indeed not be the only relevant entry point when talking about migration. Second, Europeans could further capitalize on their experience with setting up migration data-management systems or strengthening policy coherence across the Schengen area to promote peer learning and thus, strengthen effective collaboration with African countries. Such investments should ultimately help achieve common goals and pave the way for discussions on more sensitive issues.


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