Migration is natural and something historical in Africa and worldwide. There are various reasons why people migrate, including for employment, trade, to escape war, conflict or violence, to seek a better life, for medical care and for relationships.
Too often, migration in Africa is negatively association with “illegals”. But there is a different and positive side to migration if countries establish a forward-looking policy environment for it to promote development. In this context, migration can positively help transfer goods, finances, skills and technical know-how while strengthening economic ties among countries that participate in African regional integration schemes.
Various continental and regional instruments exist to regulate and guide the use of migration for development in Africa. One is the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which the African Union (AU) launched in January 2021. Though it is too early to see its benefits, studies project upwards of US 35 billion dollars in intra-continental trade by the end of 2022.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) says this about the expected economic benefits of the AfCFTA: [It] will cover a market of 1.2 billion people and a gross domestic product (GDP) of $2.5 trillion, across all 55 member States of the African Union. In terms of numbers of participating countries, AfCFTA will be the world’s largest free trade area since the formation of the World Trade Organisation.
Better to allow free movement than restrictions
However, the AU instrument that specifically deals with migration governance and that should be implemented alongside the AfCFTA agreement is not in force because member states have not ratified it.
The free movement of goods, services and finances should be extended to include the free movement of people throughout Africa, where the people would still use national identity documents as proof of identity and for administrative purposes.
Free and safe migration pathways are far better than restricting people’s movements. Restrictions force people to resort to unlawful ways as the imperative to move always exists. Free movement would also encourage the cross-pollination of know-how. People could take up jobs anywhere on the continent and be productively engaged in countries that need their labour, knowledge and skills. It doesn’t make sense that governments are encouraging the free movement of goods, but the moment people are brought into the equation, it evokes prejudice and fear.
One of the arguments is that free movement might promote human trafficking or drug trafficking. Another fear in relatively developed African countries is that they would be overwhelmed with migrants if migration was promoted. This is why they oppose the free movement of Africans within the continent.
The counter-argument is that people who want to migrate will use unlawful channels and become vulnerable to being trafficked or abused. AU states could gain better development and regional integration outcomes if they cooperated on the movement of people, goods and services and collaborated on strengthening laws to collectively combat organised crime, clamp down on lawlessness and track down lawbreakers.
Two international organisations for regional law enforcement already exist in regions like southern Africa: the International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL) and the Southern African Regional Police Chiefs Cooperation Organisation (SARPCCO). SADC recognises SARPCCO as its regional law enforcement agency.
The opposition to free movement of people by politicians and senior bureaucrats in some SADC member states, however, shows that they have no confidence in and fail to use regional security instruments like the SADC Protocol on Defence and Security to ensure law and order in the region.
Deal with problems when they arise
African regional blocs like SADC should not shy away from opportunities to progressively govern the region because of problems that might arise if regional migration policies were implemented; they should rather deal with the problems if and when they arise to strengthen integration and achieve development. Governing migration at the regional level in Africa has a distinct advantage because most cross-border movements occur within regions.
Member states of the East African Community (EAC) provide some encouraging examples in this regard. They, for example, cooperate to ensure citizens have the right of establishment and residence within the region. Besides harmonising labour and employment legislation, they also agree to exchange information on employment availability among themselves. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has a regional passport, which citizens of member states use for travel within and outside the region.
SADC lags behind other African regional economic communities in enacting migration legislation. To date, the SADC Protocol on the Facilitation of Movement of Persons remains unenforced because of fear and the apathy of member states towards migration.
Yet this has not stopped people from moving across southern Africa. It has not even stopped people from entering countries that are most strongly opposed to the regional free movement of people. This once again underscores the need for policy that fully understands the migration dynamics on the ground, the positive and negative aspects of migration, and seeks solutions to promote free and safe migration that is beneficial to all.
– Professor Christopher Changwe Nshimbi, DST/NRF SARChI Chair: The Political Economy of Migration in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region and Director of the Institute for Strategic and Political Affairs (ISPA) at the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria.