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

William Minter

Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala, 2011

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Although it is now less prominent in migration scholarship, the classic "push-pull" concept of the causes of migration continues to dominate popular discussion of international migration. This view separates the factors promoting migration into two sets: the negative "push" factors impelling migrants to leave their countries of origin, and the positive "pull" factors attracting them to destination countries. Although the distinction has a common-sense plausibility, it has at least two significant limitations. As a metaphor it promotes a physics-based image of migrants as passive objects moved by opposing forces rather than as active decision-making agents. Second, it compartmentalizes the analysis of origin and destination countries, seeing them as separate and opposed rather than looking at the social, political, and economic relationships between them as key to the development of migratory networks.

With international migration a growing issue on all continents, and current scholars stressing the impact of globalisation, it is time to explore alternative frameworks that go beyond push-pull. In the process, we need to examine other traditional dichotomies in the study of migration. Distinctions such as "voluntary" and "forced" migration, "political" and "economic" migration, "legal" and "illegal" migration, and even "internal" and "international" migration do call attention to diversities in migration. But they may also obscure commonalities in the forces at work, and they create artificially distinct categories where the reality is fuzzy at best.17

This essay does not attempt to present a full-fledged alternative framework, a task best pursued by scholars specializing in migration studies.18 However, it is possible to call attention to several general assumptions and more specific themes that should be integrated into any such framework.

In contrast to seeing migration as something exceptional or abnormal, it should be seen as a normal part of human existence, as something people consider among various options for improving their current situation and future opportunities. Decisions about whether to move, how far, when, under what circumstances, and at what costs depend on a multitude of factors, from individual preferences to local, national, and international contexts. But people who migrate (and those who don't) consider the options they are aware of, weigh them against each other, and make their choices. Any viable framework for understanding migration must take into account not only external contexts but also human choice.

17. For a summary description of theoretical frameworks on migration, with additional references, see Castles and Miller (2009: 20-49).

18. The publication of the 2009 Human Development Report (UNDP 2009) and associated research papers is a landmark in this process.


This section considers the growing recognition of commonalities between internal and international migration. Subsequent sections consider several other themes, namely the relationships between migration and global inequalities, migration and development, and migration and human rights.

While the international legal framework for refugees has been well defined for over half a century, it is only in the last two decades that international attention has extended the focus to the new related category of "internally displaced persons" (IDPs). Primary responsibility for care of such persons displaced within borders remains with their state of residence, and their situation is not clearly delineated in international law. But both institutional and conceptual assumptions have changed significantly. The UNHCR has assumed responsibility for IDPs in many although not all cases, particularly those due to internal violence. Although they are not legally binding, a set of Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement was adopted by UN agencies in 1998. And the African Union, in October 2009, adopted the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (the "Kampala Convention"), which is still in the early stages of ratification by member countries.19

These standards, which are still evolving, are part of a trend toward acceptance of greater international responsibility for human rights violations within countries under the rubric of "responsibility to protect" (R2P)20. They also mark wide recognition that the situation of IDPs and that of refugees pose many of the same issues, whether in terms of the causes of displacement or the measures needed to cope with its effects.

Nevertheless, both practice and debate still feature many gaps. The debate on R2P has been overwhelmingly dominated by the option of international military intervention, on which it is particularly difficult to reach consensus, as well as by the practical issues of delivering humanitarian assistance. Largely neglected, and in need of systematic attention, are the issues of preventive action and of sustainable solutions following displacement (Cohen 2010; Barbour and Gorlick 2008). This major fault, it is worth noting, applies both to IDPs and to refugees. Similarly, the issue of sustainable funding for both refugees and internally displaced persons has not been addressed. Financing depends on voluntary financing from governments and from nongovernmental organizations, which varies strongly in proportion to the international media attention attracted by a particular crisis.

19. For these and other related documents, see

20. This concept, introduced by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001, has greatly expanded the acceptance of shared international responsibility to respond to gross human rights abuses, despite state sovereignty. The concept was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005. See for additional background and documentation.


Additional limitations on international agendas come from the fact that the refugee regime and international responsibility for internal displacement are generally taken as limited to cases of political violence. Even natural disasters are not generally considered in this context, although voluntary international contributions for highly publicized disasters are common. While the 1998 UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement include natural disasters, the UN General Assembly's adoption of the Responsibility to Protect in 2005 excluded those displaced by such disasters. And despite the growing international discussion of the impact of climate change and the concept of "climate refugees" (see, in particular, Gemenne, 2011, and additional sources cited there), this discourse has not yet been integrated into the consideration of responsibility for refugees and internally displaced people.

This reflects a general unwillingness to expand the borders of "forced migration," as well as the persistence of the dichotomy between "forced migration" and "economic migration." Faced with limitations on legal immigration opportunities, international migrants increasingly seek entry under the rubric of "asylum-seekers." In response, countries of destination are keen to distinguish between "genuine" refugees and "economic migrants," and highly reluctant to expand the possible grounds for seeking asylum as refugees.

Yet while such distinctions continue to be made on bureaucratic and legal grounds, in conceptual terms the definition of "forced" migration, and consequently the responsibility to protect, cannot possibly be limited to displacement due to violence or even to displacement due to violence and natural disasters. The forces giving rise to migration, it is becoming more and more apparent, are global as well as local. Farmers may be driven ofF their land by competition from subsidized crops imported from industrialized countries. Or their harvests may fail because of floods or drought, possibly linked to climate change. In either case, they may move to cities and become low-wage labourers, informal peddlers, or unemployed slum residents. It is not at all clear at what point a subsequent decision to cross a border in search of better alternatives stops being voluntary and becomes "forced." And even in cases which are clearly voluntary, surely it is time to begin to question the denial of people's right to move in a world in which movements of goods, money, and ideas face fewer and fewer impediments.

The desire to migrate, indeed, is so pervasive that calling it all "forced" would not be meaningful. Gallup surveys in more than 100 countries since 2008, for example, show that some 700 million people say they would "like to move permanently to another country."21 Those saying they would want to do so include both rich and poor in countries at all levels of development, and dis-

21. Periodic reports on these polls are available on The one with the 700 million figure is dated Febuary 18, 2010 and entitled "What Makes 700 Million Adults Want to Migrate."


proportionately the young and better educated in each country. Of respondents who have household family members in another country, fully a third say they would want to move.

Gallup reports only provide limited data on the reasons given for potential migrants, and of course only a fraction of those saying they would like to move actually report plans to do so. But Gallup's "potential net migration index," comparing the likely population changes should everyone who wants to move do so, gives an idea of the disparities between countries of destination and countries of origin. Developed countries have positive net migration indexes, such as 160% for Canada, 60% for the United States, and 39% for Western and Southern EU countries (Esipova et al. 2010). Developing regions have negative net migration indexes, with African regions ranging from -8% (Southern Africa) to -38% (West Africa).22 Within Southern Africa, Botswana (39%) and South Africa (13%) have positive net migration indexes, and Namibia and Zambia marginally positive indexes. But countries like Zimbabwe (-47%), Malawi (-42%), and Mozambique (-26%) have strongly negative indexes.

Even with more finely grained data on the reasons for wishing to migrate, or for actually doing so, which might be forthcoming from Gallup in the future, it would be difficult to draw a precise line between migration decisions that are "forced" or "voluntary." But countries with very high negative indexes certainly indicate conditions that make economic survival and opportunities in the countries themselves extraordinarily difficult. And this means that many of those who do decide to migrate have indeed faced choices that can be fairly described as forced.

22. The index is -17% for North Africa, -33% for East Africa, and -36% for Central Africa.