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

William Minter

Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala, 2011

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For states, the distinction between internal and international migration is fundamental. For migrants themselves, however, it is only one of many factors to take into account when deciding whether to move or stay, and where to move if the decision is made to move.

The basic dynamics of international migration involve the same elements as internal migration: the different opportunities that are available and known to potential migrants, whether the migration channel is one that is familiar and well trodden, what networks of contacts are available to assist, the costs and risks, and the anticipated gains. Whether migration is internal or international, individuals, household, or extended families do not make one single choice, but often employ mixed strategies, including migration at different stages of life and by different members of a household or family.

Despite the diversity of factors involved and the geographic dispersion of migration streams, structural inequalities play a large role in shaping the scale and the direction of migration everywhere. Internally displaced people and asylum seekers move toward zones of greater physical security. More generally, migrants move away from regions with fewer opportunities toward regions with more. Urbanization proceeds apace on all continents. Within countries, zones where economic activity is waning lose population. Across borders, the increase in migration, although it still accounts for only 3 percent of world population, is linked to forces that are unlikely to be reversed.

Economist Lant Pritchett (2006: 57) summarizes this convergence in what he terms "five irresistible forces":

 Gaps in unskilled wages, often of ratios as high as 10 to 1, between receiving and sending countries. This compares with gaps between 2 to 1 and 4 to 1 in the 19th century, which were themselves sufficient to induce massive migration flows.

 Differing demographic futures, with declining working-age populations in receiving regions such as Europe.

 Globalization of everything except labour, as flows of goods, capital, ideas, and communication increase far faster than flows of people.

 Rise in employment in low-skill "non-tradable" service jobs, which cannot be outsourced (think, for example, of trash collection), with consequent demand for unskilled labour even in the most advanced "world cities."

 Lagging growth in countries particularly disadvantaged by environmental and economic shocks.


Scholars dispute whether or not global inequality has increased in recent decades.23 However, there is no dispute that the levels of global inequality are extremely high, whether measured by income, wealth, or more comprehensive indexes such as the Human Development Index. Several scholars, particularly Branko Milanovic, Roberto Korzeniewicz, and Timothy Moran, have explored the changes in global inequality over a longer period, and noted the implications for migration. Like class, one's location is determined at birth. Together, notes Milanovic (2009b: 24), class and location explain some 80 percent of income variability; other less quantifiable factors determined at birth, such as gender, race, and ethnicity, likely account for additional differences. Personal effort and luck, therefore, are likely to account for less than one-fifth of the differences in people's incomes.

Comparing the relative contribution of class and location, Milanovic estimates that in the early 19th century, roughly 35 percent of differences in income was due to differences between countries, while some 65 percent was due to within-country differences. In the early 21st century, the proportions were more than reversed, with 85 to 90 percent due to differences between countries and 10 to 15 percent due to within-country differences. Over the same period, the overall level of global inequality grew from a Gini index of 43 (slightly more equal than the 45 Gini index for the United States) to a Gini index of 70, This is a higher level of inequality than the 65 Gini index for South Africa, which is among the highest in the world.

Scholars will continue to debate the precise numbers in such estimates, which are at best rough approximations. However, the importance of place of birth as a determinant of one's life chances is an unavoidable conclusion once one begins to consider global stratification rather than only stratification within countries. The difference in wages and other opportunities between countries holds not only for unskilled labour but at almost all levels of the occupational and social ladder, with the exception of the "super-rich" (many of whom have residences and other assets spread among multiple countries). The result, note Korzeniewicz and Moran (2009: 101) is that:

From a global perspective, there are three main paths to social mobility: (1) a change (up or down) in the relative position of individuals or groups within national income distributions; (2) a change in the relative position of nations within the international income distribution; or (3) a shift in the relative location of individuals or groups within the global distribution of income attained through categorical mobility [i.e. moving from one country to another].

23. See Milanovic (2005) for a review of the issues, which include measurement questions, as well as the specific role of large countries such as India and China.


But the third option should be considered not as movement from one closed box to another, but as part of a continuum. Table 7, adapted from Korzeniewicz and Moran, is helpful in envisaging a more nuanced set of alternatives, arranging income deciles from 85 countries on one global scale.24 Looking at the table, one can see how industrialized countries are concentrated in the upper deciles and African countries in particular concentrated in the lower deciles. The highest (10th) decile for Nigeria, Kenya, and Burkina Faso, for example, is located in the 7th global decile. It is below the lowest (1st) decile in the United States, Italy, Australia, and many other industrialized countries, which are located globally in the 9th global decile.

pdf of Table 7.

A simplistic "push-pull" model might lead one to think that the poorest people would be the most likely to migrate from one country to another. But in fact migration, whether internal and international, requires resources; witness those left behind in New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. The sharp inequality between countries makes moving internationally an attractive alternative particularly for those who are already mobile geographically and economically within their countries. Their contacts and other resources make such a choice feasible.

For African migrants, as for migrants in most cases around the world, those who migrate are predominantly not the poorest but those who are well enough off to afford the costs of moving, but who find themselves unemployed, underemployed, or lacking opportunities to improve their living conditions. And most take the initiative themselves, rather than being recruited by smugglers. While they may make use of agents to pass particularly difficult borders, migrants themselves are the ones who put the pieces together for complex and often multi-stage migration journeys. International migration, just as internal migration from countryside to city or from poorer areas to richer ones, is one of the repertoire of options that people use to improve their opportunities and the opportunities of their families.

The parallel between the forces at work in internal and international migration can also be seen by analysing systems in which states have attempted to control internal migration by imposing internal borders and restrictions of movement. The most notorious example, of course, is the South African apartheid system. That system is often envisaged merely as a system of racial separation. But it was also an elaborately constructed system of labour control, as "pass laws" defined the rights of Africans to live and work in specific areas. Workers on temporary contracts but without rights were channelled to places where labour was needed, to be used and then returned to "homelands" and neighbour-

24. For comparison, average income has been added in brackets for a number of countries for which decile data is not available.



ing countries. Workers with special skills were given more permanent rights to reside in urban areas, albeit without political rights. But even the force of the apartheid state at its height and regular removals of "surplus people" were insufficient to stop migration.

The less well known "hukou" system in China, intended to limit rural to urban migration, also illustrates how geographic inequality drives migration even when restrictions on movement are enforced by legal barriers (UNDP 2009: 52; Chan and Buckingham 2008; Amnesty International 2007). Although the system, which allocates rights to employment, housing, and social services, has become more flexible in recent decades, and additional reforms are being discussed, it is still the case that almost all internal migrants lack full rights in urban areas. A significant proportion of migrants lack proper documentation for temporary residence, risking arrest, imprisonment, or deportation to their home areas.

In Africa and around the world, use of coercion to control internal population movement and settlement has proved ineffective, even when it includes such drastic measures as slum clearance and forced evictions. Instead, it has heightened vulnerability of migrants and reinforced inequalities both within and between geographic areas. For international migration, likewise, despite the political appeal of more restrictive measures in many receiving countries, the promise of "control" is likely to be elusive. Such measures may well raise the cost and risk of migration, shift migration from regular to irregular channels, or divert migrants from one destination country to another. They certainly tend to increase the scale of human rights abuses against migrants. What they will not do is to stop the trend of increasing migration in an unequal world, any more than internal controls have stopped rural to urban migration within countries.

The option of reducing migration by promoting development in countries of origin may be more sensitive to human rights concerns and may bring benefits to developing countries. But it is unlikely to succeed on a sufficient scale to reduce migration. It may even increase it, by increasing the proportion of persons in developing countries with sufficient assets to move. This option also fails to question the assumption that migration in itself is a problem. While it may provide an attractive option for receiving and sending countries, it fails to address the rights of migrants and potential migrants.

Seeking "win-win-win" alternatives, as suggested by the 2009 Human Development Report, is by no means an easy quest. But one prerequisite is to shift the focus away from seeing migration itself as the problem. By recognizing migration as an indispensable component of human freedom and human development, one can reduce the chances that migration, whether internal or international, will be accompanied by human rights abuses, conflicts of interest, and reinforcement of hostile stereotypes.


If migration itself is seen as the problem, migrants will inevitably be the victims of policies to reduce migration, as successive control measures fail. "Win-win-win" migration, on the other hand, implies goals that may be difficult but are not inherently impossible. Potential migrants should not be forced to remain in an area, nor be compelled by unbearable circumstances to leave, but should be able to make real choices to go or to stay. Emigration should not drain the sending country of human resources, and immigration should not increase inequality and social conflict within the receiving country. Reducing migration that has such negative effects is no less complicated a goal than reducing migration as such. But it is one which does not deny the reality that migration will continue.

The problem is not migration as such, but inequalities in human development and in access to fundamental human rights, both within and between societies. The following sections explore issues that arise from such an alternative framework. In considering the relationship between migration and development, for example, the issue is not only the development of the societies of origin, but the human development of migrants themselves and equitable relationships between societies of origin and destination. Understanding the nexus between migration and human rights requires addressing not only the rights of migrants but also universal human rights, which apply to all persons regardless of their location, citizenship, or legal status. And the topic of advocacy agendas addresses the extraordinarily difficult question of how to increase the chances that "win-win-win" migration agendas can gain traction within highly unfavourable political and public opinion climates in countries of destination.