E.g., 06/25/2024
E.g., 06/25/2024
Changing Configurations of Migration in Africa

Changing Configurations of Migration in Africa

Migration in Africa is dynamic and extremely complex. This is reflected in the feminization of migration, diversification of migration destinations, transformation of labor flows into commercial migration, and brain drain from the region. Completing this picture are trafficking in human beings, the changing map of refugee flows, and the increasing role of regional economic organizations in fostering free flows of labor. What follows is an overview of some of the most important trends.

Feminization of migration. The traditional pattern of migration within and from Africa — male-dominated, long-term, and long-distance — is increasingly becoming feminized. Anecdotal evidence reveals a striking increase in migration by women, who had traditionally remained at home while men moved around in search of paid work. A significant share of these women is made up of migrants who move independently to fulfil their own economic needs; they are not simply joining a husband or other family members.

The increase in independent female migration is not confined by national borders: professional women from Nigeria and Ghana now engage in international migration, often leaving their spouses at home to care for the children. Female nurses and doctors have been recruited from Nigeria to work in Saudi Arabia, while their counterparts in Ghana are taking advantage of the better pay packages in the UK and United States to accumulate enough savings to survive harsh economic conditions at home.

The relatively new phenomenon of female migration constitutes an important change in gender roles for Africa, creating new challenges for public policy. For instance, before the outbreak of civil war, an ongoing economic crisis in Cote d'Ivoire did not prevent female migration from Burkina Faso. This was possible because women gradually clustered in the informal commercial sector, which is less affected by economic crises than the wage sector, where most male migrants work. This emergence of migrant females as breadwinners puts pressure on traditional gender roles within the African family.

African men, along with women, increasingly participate in migration as a family survival strategy. At the same time, an increasing scarcity of traditional male labor has also promoted new roles for the women they leave behind. As the job market in destination countries became tighter during the 1980s and 1990s, and remittances thinned out, many families came to rely on women and their farming activities for day-to-day support. These women became the de facto resource managers and decision makers, particularly within the agricultural sector. The gendered division of family labor has also been upset by the loss of male employment through urban job retrenchment and structural adjustment, forcing women to seek additional income-generating activities to support the family.

Commercialization of migration. There is an overall trend away from labor migrants from Africa, and towards commercial migrants — that is, entrepreneurs who are self-employed, especially in the informal sector.

The traditional pattern of emigration to France from Africa's Sahel (a region of drought-prone countries south of the Sahara) in order to engage in menial wage labor is rapidly changing. A large proportion of these migrants in the Cote d'Ivoire, France, and Italy can today be classified as commercial migrants, especially those from Senegal. Sahelians are moving to unconventional destinations to which they had no prior linguistic, cultural, or colonial ties. Initially, the emigration focused on Zambia. When Zambia's economy collapsed, it shifted to South Africa in the wake of the demise of the apartheid regime.

More recently, West African French-speaking migrants have been moving to Italy, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, and Spain, despite an increasingly hostile reception involving growing xenophobia, apprehension of foreigners, and anti-immigrant political mobilizations. As a result, a growing number are crossing the Atlantic to seek greener pastures as petty traders in the United States.

Since 1994, South Africa has received an influx of migrants from various parts of the sub-Saharan region, including Congo, Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Zaire, Kenya, and Uganda. Some of these nationals had earlier entered clandestinely South Africa's then nominally independent homelands, during the period of apartheid. The numbers were small, but their skill profile set them apart from traditional migrants from neighboring states, whose nationals were mostly unskilled mineworkers and farm laborers. Traders and students from the Congo followed. The post-apartheid wave of immigrants from Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe are mostly street vendors and traders seeking to capitalize on the relatively affluent market of South Africa. These mostly informal-sector entrepreneurs import traditional African clothing and handicrafts, employ and train locals, and generally invigorate the informal sector.

Diversification of destinations. As West Africa's economic instability deepened in the period 1980-1990, fewer migrants found stable and remunerative work in traditional regional destinations. Consequently, circulation and repeat migration expanded to a wide variety of alternative destinations, often to places without any historical, political, or economic links to the countries of emigration. This movement also became more varied and spontaneous, with rising levels of both temporary and long-term circulation.

There is also some evidence to support a pattern of replacement migration, whereby migrants of rural origin move to towns to occupy positions vacated by nationals who emigrate abroad, as seems to be occurring in Mali, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, and Gabon. This also seems to hold true for Senegal (where urban workers go to France) and Egypt (whose migrants move to the Persian Gulf). In some instances, immigrants from neighboring countries occupy positions vacated by nationals have who emigrated, yielding a step-by-step migration pattern, first from rural areas to cities, and then from cities to foreign destinations.

From brain drain to brain circulation. The migration of skilled Africans has precedents in the 1960s, when developing countries engaged in an unprecedented expansion of access to education. The brain drain of the newly educated generation was later spurred by a combination of economic, social, and political factors. In the 1970s, highly qualified, experienced workers in trades and professions, drawn by higher wages, migrated from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Senegal, Ghana, and Uganda to South Africa and even destinations outside of Africa. Since the 1980s, emigration to Europe, North America, and the oil-rich nations of the Middle East has increased uniformly, for similar reasons.

Today, brain drain is being altered by brain circulation within the region. Skilled professionals, pressured by uncertain economic conditions at home, have found the booming economies of Gabon, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa to be convenient alternatives to Europe, the United States, and the Gulf. Their work in these countries' tertiary institutions, medical establishments, and the private sector has created a form of brain circulation.

Trafficking and smuggling of human beings. Africa's human trafficking and smuggling map is complicated, involving diverse origins within and outside the region. Little was known until recently about the dynamics of this trafficking. Today, analysts are looking into trafficking in children (mainly for farm labor and domestic work within and across countries); trafficking in women and young persons for sexual exploitation mainly outside the region; and trafficking in women from outside the region for the sex industry of South Africa.

African migrants are adopting more sophisticated, daring, and evasive methods to elude increasingly tight border controls and enter countries in the developed North. A growing number of young people are involved in daredevil ventures to gain entry into Europe. Movements are more clandestine, involving riskier passages and trafficking via diverse transit points, such as trafficking through Senegal to Spain by way of the Canary Islands. Individual stowaways engage in life-threatening trips hidden aboard ships destined for Southern Europe, and recently they have headed as far as East Asia. Unscrupulous agents exploit these desperate youths with promises of passages to Italy, Spain, and France.

Most of these people end up stranded in Dakar and Morocco. In fact, hundreds of undocumented immigrants and trafficked persons, especially from West African countries, get stranded in Morocco en route to Spain for upwards of four years. Most end up living in shacks, and some women give birth under these poverty-stricken conditions. Many others perish during perilous attempts to cross the sea to Spain in rickety boats. Others who manage to find their way into Europe are often apprehended and deported on arrival or soon thereafter.

In West Africa, the main source, transit, and destination countries for trafficked women and children are Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal. Trafficked children are recruited through networks of agents to work as domestic servants, in informal sectors, or on plantations. Parents are often forced by poverty and ignorance to enlist their children, hoping to benefit from their wages to sustain the family's deteriorating economic situation. Some of these children are indentured into "slave" labor, as in Sudan and Mauritania. In East Africa, young girls and women abducted from conflict zones are forced to become sex-slaves to rebel commanders or affluent men in Sudan and the Gulf States. South Africa is a destination for regional and extra-regional trafficking activities. Women are trafficked through the network of refugees resident in South Africa; children are trafficked from Lesotho's border towns, as are women and girls from Mozambique. Women are also trafficked from Thailand, China, and Eastern Europe to South Africa.

Traffickers have recently extended the destinations of children to the EU, especially the Netherlands, UK, and beyond. Women and children are trafficked to Europe (Italy, Germany, Spain, France, Sweden, UK, The Netherlands) for commercial sex. Children are similarly moved in connection with domestic labor, sexual exploitation, and pornography. Trafficking syndicates obtain travel documents and visas for women and link them up with brothels abroad.

Increasing xenophobia. African societies and people are noted for their traditional hospitality to strangers, which involves welcoming and sharing their limited resources with newcomers. This is no longer the case in many countries. Increasingly, political leaders have resorted to the use of ethnicity and religion to reclassify longstanding residents as non-nationals (as has been the case in Cote d'Ivoire). Many ruling parties are wary of the presence of large numbers of immigrants during hotly contested elections, fearing that migrants may swing the vote in favor of an opposition party with ethnic or religious alliances.

The undocumented are scapegoats in periods of economic recession and are accused of stealing jobs from nationals. They are also stigmatized as criminals, and in places like South Africa are blamed for the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS. The press and politicians fan public discontent among locals with calls for immigrants to be expelled, driving a wedge between the native population and newer arrivals.

Labor migration in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The high rates of HIV/AIDS infection in Africa create a nightmare scenario of acute labor shortages in key sectors of education and health. This is especially true in the major labor-sending countries (Lesotho, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, and Swaziland) and labor-receiving countries (Botswana and South Africa) of Southern Africa. However, it is also increasingly the case elsewhere in the region.

These acute labor shortages are now translating into more migration from skills-surplus sources, especially Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria, and outside Africa. South Africa's struggle with the disease, in particular, is taking a heavy toll on the education sector of the traditional sending countries by luring away their skilled health professionals. The emigration of doctors and nurses from South Africa is occurring at a time when their services are urgently needed in the overstressed health sector.

It is important for policy makers concerned with migration to focus not only on the demographic, but also on the economic and social consequences of this trend on the productive sectors, at the micro (household), meso (community), and macro (national) levels. Furthermore, the role of migration in spreading HIV/AIDS should be re-examined critically. Immigrants are uniformly blamed, but the evidence is spurious and untested.

Regional economic organizations. The problems posed by migration, circulation, permanent residence, and settlement — and the policy responses to them — are quite different, and seemingly intractable. Many African countries are acting half-heartedly, and a few decisively, to foster regional integration. Their belief is that sub-regional and regional economic organizations may facilitate intra-regional labor mobility and promote self-reliant development.

The free movement of persons has already been institutionalized by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, and most notably by the Economic Community of West African States. In 1993, the Abuja treaty for the establishment of the African Economic Community came into force, and with it the promise of helping to facilitate inter-regional mobility. NEPAD (the New Partnership for African Development) also includes programs to foster labor mobility within Africa and the sustained development of the region. This type of integration is likely to accelerate, paving the way for closer economic cooperation and labor migration in the region.

Challenges Ahead

African policy makers face the urgent task of resolving the unemployment crisis in order to productively engage their teeming educated but unemployed young people, who fall easy prey to trafficking scams. They are also confronting the challenge of leaders enhancing the economic, political, and social environments of their respective countries in order to retain and lure home the skilled professionals required for national development.

The spirited implementation of various protocols on free movement of people, as well as efforts to facilitate their establishment and settlement, could significantly promote intra-regional labor migration. This will not happen, however, unless all stakeholders make concerted efforts to eliminate a primary obstacle to sustainable development: political instability stemming from endemic conflicts. Another looming task is halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, which is taking a huge toll on the region's prime human resources. All of these factors will help determine the course of migration in Africa in the years ahead.


Adepoju, A., 2004. "Trends in international migration in and from Africa" in Massey, D. S. and J. E. Taylor (Eds). International Migration Prospects and Policies in a Global Market. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Adepoju, A., 2004. "Review of research and data on human trafficking in Sub-Saharan Africa" Paper presented at the IOM International Expert Meeting on Improving Data and Research on Human Trafficking, Rome 27-28 May.

Adepoju, A., 2003. "Continuity and changing configurations of migration to and from the Republic of South Africa" International Migration Vol. 41, No. 1.