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

William Minter

Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala, 2011

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Public debate on international migration, and to a lesser extent policy analysis and scholarly research, tends to be dominated by the concerns of destination countries and by the framing of migration as a problem. Anti-migrant sentiment, leading to restrictive legislation, to official abuses against immigrants, and in extreme cases to xenophobic violence, is widespread in countries as diverse as South Africa, Libya, Italy, Switzerland, and the United States. Migrants are widely blamed for crime, for "taking our jobs," or for threatening national identity—with empirical evidence to the contrary having relatively little impact on public opinion.

Note on Terminology

The term "migrant" is sometimes used to refer only to "migrant workers" and their families, thus excluding those with the international legal status of "refugee" or "asylum seeker." However, it is also, and more commonly, used to refer to all those living outside their country of birth for a sustained period of time, thus including both refugees and others. In this paper, migrant is used in the more general sense.

A refugee is defined for the UN High Commission on Refugees as "someone who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." An asylum seeker is a person seeking refugee status.

Tose migrants having documented status in their country of residence are referred to as "regular" or "documented" migrants, while those lacking such status are referred to as "irregular" or "undocumented." The terms "legal" and "illegal" are also in common use, but are generally regarded as pejorative.

Te term "forced migrant" is sometimes used as synonymous with "refugee," but not in this paper. As will be noted later in the paper, the conceptual distinction between "forced migration" and "voluntary migration" is inherently ambiguous and hard to define.

Opinion polls show that the most extreme anti-migrant views are rarely in the majority, yet they often set the terms of debate. The World Values Survey, for example, covering more than 50 countries (, shows 11% of respondents calling for prohibiting any immigrants from coming, 38% for setting strict limits on immigration, 39% for allowing immigration as long as jobs are available, and 13% for letting anyone come who wants to.

The World Values Survey also showed wide variations among countries in openness to immigrants. In South Africa, for example, only 16% favoured let-


ting immigrants in if jobs were available, and 6% were for letting anyone come, while 78% supported stricter limits. In Mali, by contrast, 46% favoured letting immigrants in if jobs were available, and 34% supported letting anyone come, with only 20% supporting stricter limits. In the United States, the comparable figures were 37% for admitting immigrants if jobs were available, 7% for letting anyone come, and 57% for stricter limits. In Germany, 43% favoured allowing immigrants in if jobs were available, 7% were for letting anyone come, and 50% were for stricter limits. (For additional data and analysis see Kleemans and Klugman 2009; UNDP 2009: 89-92; and Transatlantic Trends 2010).3

The dominant policy response to such attitudes has been to propose better management of immigration by destination countries. This includes, on the one hand, measures to secure borders and expel undocumented or irregular immigrants, and on the other hand, programs to match legal immigration to job needs. Most countries encourage immigration of skilled professionals and provide procedures for assimilation of a manageable fraction of immigrants as citizens. Increasingly these measures have been combined with efforts to engage sending countries in enforcement campaigns and to promote development that might reduce the "push" for emigration.

Countries of origin have also long identified emigration as a problem, especially in terms of the much-discussed "brain drain" of skilled professionals. In recent years, however, there has been a strong push by international agencies and sending countries to stress the benefits of emigration, notably the inflows of financial remittances and the engagement of diaspora professionals and organizations in their home country's development. Unlike the debate on immigration in destination countries, the growing discussion of migration and development in the sending countries has largely been confined to policy analysts and scholars, with only limited impact in the arena of public debate. Only a few countries, notably Cape Verde, Mali, and Morocco in Africa and the Philippines in Asia, have made policies regarding emigrants major components of their development strategies.

In all countries, however—both sending and receiving—the focus is much more on what's good for the country and its native-born residents than on the rights and interests of the migrants themselves. Migrants tend to be framed either as victims or as villains, a story apparently more enticing than the mun-

3. A survey by Transatlantic Trends (2010) compared the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain, showing significant variations on different questions related to immigration. In one question, the survey asked whether there are "too many" immigrants, "a lot but not too many," or "not many." When given no information on the actual percentage, those saying "too many" ranged with 59% in the UK to 17% in Canada. However, when estimates of the actual percentage were provided before asking the question, those saying "too many" dropped to under 50% in every case (from 46% in the UK to 13% in Canada).


dane but realistic narrative in which migrants make rational decisions, migrate without incident, and succeed in improving conditions for themselves and their families. Many migrants are indeed desperate, fleeing political violence or economic destitution in their countries of origin. That desperation is reflected in the deaths at sea in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and the Gulf of Aden, and in the burning desert along the U.S.-Mexican border. And some migrants are involved in criminal activity, including human trafficking and drug smuggling. But these non- representative images, which dominate the policy debate, are not the norm. They reinforce scare scenarios of migrant "invasions" and disregard the agency and initiative of migrants themselves.

They also reinforce what scholars de Haas (2009) and Bakewell (2009) have recently termed the "sedentarist" bias, namely the assumption that human mobility is somehow unnatural rather a normal feature of human development, and that people in general would be better off "staying in their place" (Bakewell 2008). Such a bias prevails despite contrary trends such as, for example, the more frequent celebration of immigration and multiculturalism in immigrant destinations such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, in "world cities" such as London, and in many European countries as well. African diaspora professionals are increasingly prominent in the leadership of international organizations, in world music and sports, and in the medical profession, as well as in a wide variety of other contexts in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. But their prominence co-exists with stereotypes still widely applied to others of the same national origins.

In this paper I argue, following the lead of the UNDP's 2009 Human Development Report, that it is essential to find a new frame for thinking about migration, one that takes mobility as normal. Such a framework should prioritize the agency and rights of migrants themselves while also paying attention to the interests of destination and origin countries. But migration should not be considered in isolation. The "win-win- win" scenario envisaged by the Human Development Report will have little chance of success unless steps are taken to address fundamental issues of global inequality, so that both those who stay and those who move have access to fundamental human rights. The scale of irregular migration, and more generally of "problem" migration that leads to conflict, does not result only from specific national policies. It also derives from rising inequality within and between nations, combined with the technological changes that make migration a conceivable option for larger and larger numbers. Thus trends in migration do not only point to problems or opportunities for development; they also signal fundamental issues facing both those who move and those who do not.


Previewing the Argument

1. Migration, both inside a country and internationally, has long been among the normal options for human beings who seek to achieve a better life or escape unacceptable hardships. While most people prefer to stay close to their place of birth, others are willing or feel compelled to leave. As the globalization of ideas, trade, finance, and communications continues to grow, the proportion of people who want to move, including across national boundaries, is likely to continue to grow as well.

2. It is impossible to say exactly how much of this migration should be regarded as "forced." Some people clearly are forced to flee by violence or persecution. In other cases, desperate economic conditions allow people no effective choice but to leave their places of birth for other regions or cities in their home countries or in other countries.

3. The extraordinarily high and growing inequality between countries, reproduced by an increasingly integrated global economy, results in levels of international migration that are unsustainable for destination countries, conducive to human rights abuses against migrants, and potentially damaging to countries of origin, which lose valuable human resources.

4. In Africa, as is well known, various conflicts have produced refugees and internally displaced persons. At the same time, it should be recognized that there are structurally embedded migration systems driven by economic disparities between African countries and between Africa and the rest of the world. These migration pathways have drawn people from Africa to Europe, North America, and the Middle East; from West, Central, and East Africa to North and South Africa; and from one locale to another within African regions.

5. Despite anti-immigrant sentiment and a push to restrict immigration in destination countries, stopping or significantly slowing migration is not a realistic option. Nor would that be consistent with the rights of human beings to seek better lives for themselves regardless of national boundaries.

6. The UNDP has outlined "win-win-win" options for migration policies that might simultaneously benefit destination countries, origin countries, and migrants themselves. These offer significant potential for reducing the negative effects of migration and enhancing its benefits for all concerned. But vested interests, prejudice, and imbalances of power stand as formidable obstacles to the enactment and implementation of such policies.

7. Enhancing the contribution of migration to development in countries of origin requires attention not only to the familiar topic of brain drain, but also to inequality between countries involved in a migration system and to the need for ensuring mutually beneficial ties between countries of origin and their diasporas. (continued)


8. Protecting the interests of migrants requires a rights-based approach that defends the applicability of fundamental human rights to migrants and also protects and expands the right to migrate. This in turn requires both initiative from migrant organizations and alliances with other forces seeking social justice in the countries of destination.

9. Such efforts will be insufficient, however, unless steps are taken to address the fundamental transnational inequalities that underlie the pressure for large-scale migration. A sustainable solution for migration is only possible in a world in which people have effective rights and real choices, whether they stay within their country of birth or decide to move to another country.

Before sketching the possible shape of such a framework and its relevance to Africa, it is important to summarize the empirical diversity of African migration. Migrants from African countries are diverse in terms of their origins, their destinations, their legal status, and their education and skills.