Intra-continental migration, a windfall for Africa

Could it be that we have missed a fundamental phenomenon structuring the African economies? By focusing the debate on extra-continental migration and its impact on relations between African countries and their partners, we have forgotten that most of the migration from Africa is intra-continental migration. According to a recent UNCTAD report, 19 million people migrate across Africa each year, compared with 17 million to other continents, and 5.5 million migrating from the rest of the world to Africa.

The results of this study go against the current of a pessimistic view of the phenomenon of migration, a vision that usually emphasises imagined problems of assimilation, loss of jobs, the struggle between immigrant populations and locals for public resources, imbalances in the health and welfare systems, cultural friction, etc. There is another picture that emerges here: intra-African migration is an engine of productivity and growth, the transfer of skills, an intensification of trade, industrialisation and investment in the countries of origin.

Countering the argument that immigration leads to competition for jobs, the study highlights the fact that some migrants are answering the call of the leading economic sectors of certain countries where the labour force is drying up. This is the case for education and engineering (Rwanda), financial services (South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda), telecommunications (South Africa, Rwanda), construction (South Africa, Ivory Coast) and mining (South Africa, Gabon), as well as for agriculture (South Africa again, Ivory Coast). These sectors display a demand for all levels of skills and demonstrate that migration largely responds to a demand from the host countries whose supply of labour sometimes struggles to adjust to growth, or to a rapid transformation of their economic structure.

As for integration through work, this is accelerated for migrants in a market that allows them to develop skills that they would not have had access to in their countries of origin. Farmers with low skills in Burkina Faso have been able to gain new ones and thus gain access to better paid jobs than would have been the case had they stayed at home. It is also thanks to this increase in skills that the macroeconomic equilibriums, far from being destabilised by the arrival of new populations, are reinforced in the host country, as well as in the countries of origin. This is an incentive and a message for some African countries that are still too cautious in their management of African migration.

In the host country, better pay results in increased consumption of local products, or of products imported from the country of origin (“the nostalgia trade”). Migrants from the DRC and Zimbabwe in the period 2000-2013 generated growth in food imports from these two countries, from 100,000 to 650,000 dollars for the DRC and from 100,000 to one million dollars for Zimbabwe. In this respect, migrants constitute an economic link between the countries of origin and the host countries, and a singularly effective engine of growth in exports from their country of origin.

The increase in their pay means they also contribute to an increase in local consumption and to the tax revenues (taxes and duties) of the national economy. The idea that the arrival of new populations would destabilise the social equilibrium is also invalidated by this observation. And, thanks to the money sent back from the diasporas to their countries of origin, a transfer of capital between countries is taking place, and there is also a contribution to the social systems of the countries of origin.

All the benefits of this phenomenon of intra-African migration no longer need proving. The challenge to be faced is now in the hands of the African countries, some of which have already started to adapt their legislation to support this movement, even if others have not yet understood the benefits they could derive from it. But migrations, which are a component of our continent, will see their positive effects increased thanks to the establishment of the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) and a pan-African passport. The harmonisation of standards, the disappearance of customs barriers, the free movement of people and capital are all mechanisms that can boost migration in a unified market across the whole continent.

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