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African Migration, Global Inequalities, and Human Rights:
Connecting the Dots

William Minter

Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala, 2011

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People have been on the move throughout human history. The ancestors of all of us adapted to changing climate and diverse conditions within Africa, our common continent of origin. Wars, famine, and other hardships have impelled countless migrations over land and sea. From the 16th through the 19th century, the transatlantic slave trade caused the most brutal of displacements. Today, as the global economy drives global inequality, movement across borders, as well as within countries, has reached unprecedented levels.

Africa is no exception to this trend. Migration intersects with almost every other issue affecting the continent, both creating opportunities and contributing to crises. Highly skilled African professionals are now part of global job markets, notably in health, education, the creative arts, and the staffing of multilateral institutions. Both political refugees and economic migrants go south to South Africa, north to Europe, across the Atlantic, and increasingly to Asia as well. Immigration issues, often with sharply racial overtones, are hotly debated in every part of the world, with African immigrants prominently featured particularly in Europe and in South Africa.

The debate on international migration has traditionally focused on the economic and social issues it poses for destination countries. But, as migration scholar Khalid Koser notes, "there has probably been too much attention paid to the challenges posed by migration for destination countries ... and not enough to those that arise for the migrants themselves, their families, [and] the people and societies they leave behind" (Koser 2007: 12).

Increasingly for Africa, as well as for international migration more generally, attention has focused on topics such as remittances and related links between migration and development, as well as on the traditional issues posed for destination countries. But this new perspective goes only so far. The narrowly focused policy debates rarely address the links between migration and widening inequalities, both between and within nations, as well as the policies that increase these inequalities. Most discussions of migration take national and international inequalities as given, rather than seeing tensions over migration as signals that those inequalities have reached unacceptable levels.

Societies are just beginning to grapple with the biases and fears underlying anti-immigrant actions in places as diverse as Arizona, Italy, or South Africa. Nor has there yet been wide public debate on the changing conceptions of citizenship in a transnational economy or the fundamental concept of human rights due to migrants regardless of their legal status. Only 44 countries have ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, and those that have signed do not include South Africa or any major destination country in Europe or North America.


Resolving the immediate issues of migration policy will require new thinking that can reach beyond specialist discussions to change the framework of public policy debate. The aim of this essay is not to present original research on specific migration topics, but rather to connect the dots. It highlights emerging advocacy efforts among African migrant groups and civil society both in Africa and outside the continent, as well as new critical thinking by scholars and policy analysts. While the essay contains references to the research and policy literature,1 the primary emphasis will be on raising fundamental questions, particularly those related to unequal life chances and unequal rights.

There is inequality within every country. But today's inequalities are overwhelmingly determined by national divisions.2 In such a world, it should be no surprise that people try to move to get a better deal. The phenomenon is worldwide, and especially pronounced wherever wealth and poverty coexist in close proximity: Africans from around the continent find their way to South Africa, South Asians and Africans find work in the Middle East, Mexicans and Central Americans cross the border to the U.S. Southwest. People risk their lives on small boats from Africa to Europe, or from the Caribbean to Florida.

In South Africa, under apartheid, the authorities tried to confine blacks to their "homelands," except when their labour was needed elsewhere. The system of migrant labour set up to serve the diamond and gold mines of the late 19th century became a comprehensive system for allocating differential political and economic rights. The economy of white South Africa relied on black labour from South Africa's rural areas and surrounding countries, denying political rights and calibrating movement of people to the demands of employers. But even the massive apparatus of the apartheid state failed to stop "excess" population movement, despite repeated deportations of "surplus people" without proper passes.

The systematic inequality in today's world, which condemns millions of people to grinding poverty and untimely death, should be as unacceptable as slavery, colonialism, and apartheid. There are complex policy issues involved, and many obstacles to fundamental change. In this essay I will argue that addressing specific issues, such as xenophobic violence, "brain drain," or the contribution of remittances to development, is insufficient without also rethinking assumptions about the relationship of life chances and rights to nationality as an accident of birth, which, like race, gender, or ethnic group, should not serve as justification for differential treatment.

1. See Adepoju (2008) for a comprehensive survey and extensive bibliography on sub-Saharan Africa by a leading expert. For additional references consulted for this essay, most published since 2008, see the list of books, articles, and reports at the end of the paper.

2. See Korzeniewicz and Moran (2009) and Milanovic (2011).