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

William Minter

Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala, 2011

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Like all immigrants, African immigrants in different countries have established a wide array of informal and formal organizations and networks for mutual assistance with practical issues, preservation of their culture, and advocacy for their interests. In many cases, human rights and other civil society groups in destination countries have also focused on these issues. Surveying these groups would be far beyond the scope of this essay, even if sufficient systematic data were available. Nevertheless, a few examples can illustrate some of the varieties of organizing efforts in particular.

Beginning with the classic manifesto of the Sans-Papiers of France, this section also presents brief descriptions of an activist non-governmental organization in California, of the response of the South African Congress of Trade Unions to the outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa in 2008, and of a report by the Migrants' Rights Network on local immigration policies in London, England.

Manifesto of the Sans-Papiers

In August of 1996, the "Sans-Papiers" ("Undocumented") of France gained international recognition when some 300 undocumented African women, children, and men were evicted by police from St. Bernard Church in Paris, where they had taken sanctuary to demand the regularization of their status. Since then the "Sans-Papiers" have become a movement with a presence around the country, winning some partial victories although their full objectives remain unrealized. The manifesto from 1997 is an eloquent statement of their case.

We Sans-Papiers of France, have decided, in signing this call, to come out of the shadows. Now, despite the risks involved, it is not only our faces but our names that are known. We proclaim:

As all undocumented immigrants, we are people like everyone else. We live among you, most of us for years. We came to France with the will to work and because we were told it was the "homeland of human rights." We could no longer endure the misery and oppression that was rampant in our countries, we wanted our children to have full stomachs and we dreamed of freedom. Most of us entered French territory through regular procedures. We have been arbitrarily thrown into illegality by the tightening of laws that allowed authorities not to renew our residence permits and by restrictions on the right of asylum, which has been reduced to a trickle. We pay our taxes, our rent, our living expenses ... and our social security contributions when we can work regularly! When we are not subjected to unemployment and insecurity, we work hard in the garment, leather, construction, catering, and cleaning industries ...


We experience the working conditions imposed on us by businesses and that you can reject more easily than we, as being undocumented makes us without rights. We know that this suits many people. We produce the wealth of France and we enrich France with our diversity. Sometimes we are single people who support our families at home. But we are also often here with our spouses and our children born in France or here from toddlers. We have given many of these children French names, we send them to school in the Republic. We have opened the path that should lead to the acquisition of French nationality, just as many French citizens, among the most proud to hold it, whose parents or grandparents were born abroad. In France we have our families, but also our friends.

We ask for papers to avoid being victims of arbitrary action by government, employers, and landlords. We call for papers so that we are no longer exposed to blackmail and betrayal. We call for papers to no longer suffer the humiliation of racial profiling, detention, deportations, the breakup of our families, and the perpetual fear. The Prime Minister of France promised that families would not be separated: we demand that this promise be finally met and that the repeated expression of the principles of humanity by the government be implemented. We ask for compliance with European and international conventions subscribed to by the French Republic. We count on the support of many French citizens, whose liberties could be threatened if our rights continue to be ignored. Since examples from Italy, Spain, Portugal, and on several occasions, France itself, demonstrate that general regularization of status is possible, we demand our regularization. We are not clandestine. We are here in the light of day. "

Source: Published in the supplement "55,000 names against the Debrι law," Liberation, February 25, 1997; translated from the French text at html)

For more information:;; Raissiguier 2010.

Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI)

Among immigrants to the United States, those born in Africa are a relatively small but rapidly growing portion. At some 1.4 million in 2007 (3.7% of the foreign-born population), most African immigrants have arrived since 1990, when there were only 364,000. The top five countries of origin were Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Kenya (Terrazas 2009). The majority of Immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa (some 1.1 million) find themselves both part of and distinct from native- born black Americans, while it is Hispanics who are the predominant immigrant group. Among the groups building progressive coalitions on this complex social terrain is the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, founded in 2006.


The mission of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration is to engage African Americans and other communities in a dialogue that leads to actions that challenge U.S. immigration policy and the underlying issues of race, racism and economic inequity that frame it.

BAJI's goal is to develop a core group of African Americans who are prepared to actively support immigrant rights and to build coalitions with immigrant communities and immigrant rights organizations to further the mutual cause of economic and social justice for all.

BAJI members are united on four principles:

• All people, regardless of immigration status, country of origin, race, colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation or HIV status deserve human rights as well as social and economic justice.

• Historically and currently, U.S. immigration policy has been infused with racism, enforcing unequal and punitive standards for immigrants of colour.

• Immigration to the United States is driven by an unjust international economic system that deprives people of the ability to earn a living and raise their families in their home countries. Through international trade, lending, aid and investment policies, the United States government and corporations are the main promoters and beneficiaries of this unjust economic system.

• African Americans, with our history of being economically exploited, marginalized and discriminated against, have much in common with people of colour who migrate to the United States, documented and undocumented.

BAJI supports an immigration policy with the following features:

• A fair path to legalization and citizenship for undocumented immigrants;

• No criminalization of undocumented workers immigrants or their families, friends and service providers;

• Due process, access to the courts and meaningful judicial review for immigrants;

• No mass deportations, indefinite detentions or expansion of mandatory detentions of undocumented immigrants;

• The strengthening and enforcement of labour law protections for all workers, native and foreign born;

• Reunification of families;

• No use of local or state government agencies in the enforcement of immigration laws.

BAJI is an education and advocacy group comprised of African Americans and black immigrants from Africa, Latin American and the Caribbean. It


was founded in April 2006 in response to the massive outpouring of opposition of immigrants and their supporters to the repressive immigration bills then under consideration by the U.S. Congress.

Black activists in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area were called to action by Rev. Kelvin Sauls,a South African immigrant and Rev. Phillip Law-son, a long time Civil Rights leader and co-founder/co-chair of the California Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights. BAJI also grew out of the efforts of the Priority Africa Network. PAN organizes Africa Diaspora Dialogues which have brought African Americans and black immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America together to dialogue about the myths and stereotypes as well as the cultural, social and political issues that divide our communities.


Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)

Given the perception that immigrants compete for jobs with South African workers, the role of South Africa's strong trade union movement is particularly important. In a 2009 report on the response of South African civil society response to xenophobia, Strategy and Tactics researchers found a mixed response among unions.

COSATU has a long history of organising workers, including migrant workers, particularly in the mining sector. The global recession resulted in job losses and worsening conditions of work leaving a large section of its constituency vulnerable and under the impression that migrants are responsible for low wages. COSATU played a more active and activist role than the ANC and the SACP in response to the xenophobic outbreak [in 2008]. COSATU was present and active in the civil society responses in Cape Town, Durban, East London and Johannesburg. It did not play a prominent activist role, but various affiliates undertook important interventions. COSATU officials attributed the low levels of violence in the workplace to their intervention.

Until September 2009 COSATU did not have a strategy for organising migrant workers. The 2009 September Congress resolution represented a departure from past COSATU positions on migrant workers. It identifies capitalist globalisation as the systemic root of xenophobia. It commits COSATU to organise migrant workers and calls for migrant workers to be covered by labour law. Prior to the xenophobic attacks and the September 2009 resolution, COSATU did not see migrants as an important component of the working class struggle that need to be organised in their own right.

Source: Strategy & Tactics 2009, Summary, 20-21


The detailed study, by Mondli Hlatshwayo, was based on 44 interviews with trade union leaders and migrant group representatives. During the 2008 outbreak of xenophobic violence, Hlatshwayo reports, COSATU unions participated in humanitarian relief efforts for displaced migrants and helped to avoid anti-migrant violence in workplaces. The National Union of Mine Workers (NUM), whose members and leadership include many workers born outside South Africa, convened meetings and successfully prevented the spread of violence to the mines. Other unions indicating that they included migrants among their members and spoke out against the violence included the South African Transport and Allied Workers' Union (SATAWU) and the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers' Union (SACCAWU).

In May 2008 the COSATU central executive committee issued a statement opposing the violence, saying that:

COSATU is disgusted and ashamed at the small minority amongst us who have brought the country's good name into disrepute, by attacking, raping, robbing and murdering fellow Africans. Accordingly COSATU is totally opposed to xenophobia, racism, tribalism, sexism, regionalism and chauvinism. The most potent weapon is our unity — the unity of the working class.

Nevertheless, Hlatshwayo concluded from the interviews, COSATU's participation in civil society and community organizing against xenophobia was weak, and there was almost no commitment by COSATU member unions to organizing migrants or educating their membership against xenophobia.

Source: Hlatshwayo 2009.

Principles for London's progressive stance on immigration

In a 2010 report, the Migrants' Rights Network (MRN) in the United Kingdom, a wide coalition of migrant community organizations, non-governmental organizations, trade unions, and statutory organizations, focused on the strategic importance of London, a "global city" in which fully a third of the population was born outside the United Kingdom. Noting that migration flows have diversified significantly beyond the Commonwealth and European Union, with some 23% coming from Africa, the MRN report cites more positive attitudes towards immigration and diversity than elsewhere in the country, and suggests that the city must take the lead in pushing for more progressive national policies.

Tis report would like to propose four principles to policy makers and advocates which should underpin the development of strategy around immigration in London.


1. London should lead the way on making a case for progressive policies on immigration in the UK

London is well-placed to make a strong case for more progressive policies towards migrants because it is disproportionately affected by the consequences of restrictive policies. We have seen how London is home to the majority of the irregular population in the UK. ... The wider acceptance of diversity and the relatively more positive attitude to immigration that is evident in London compared to the UK means that representative London voices should be leading the debate on progressive immigration policy and not just dealing with the consequences of restrictions. Some leading London figures have already spoken in support of more progressive policies. For example, the mayor of London and several London boroughs already support the Strangers into Citizens Campaign on regularisation of irregular migrants — in contrast with national Labour and Conservative party policies. However, more can be done. ...

2. Problems in London's labour and housing markets cannot be solved through immigration restrictions

Some of the issues that affect migrants most adversely are common to all of London's residents, especially wages, working conditions and access to affordable housing. Restrictions on migrants have only made the situation worse. Tackling low wages, poor working conditions and unemployment require labour market regulation. The shortage of affordable housing should be addressed through a housing strategy. Restricting migrants' access to welfare and social housing has only compounded the deficiencies in the labour market by forcing migrants to work under poor conditions. Labour market regulations that create better job security and ensure a London living wage would benefit both migrant workers, settled residents and, potentially, those outside the labour market or unemployed.

3. Development of local immigration enforcement in London should be scrutinised

The establishment of local enforcement teams within the UK Border Agency (UKBA) presents new challenges to a wide range of people within London. By developing partnerships with local service providers, the UKBA is hoping to extend the reach of immigration enforcement. Employers have already been brought into enforcing immigration rules by being required to check the entitlement to work of employees. There are plans to give service providers, including local authorities, housing providers and health services, a much more active role in immigration enforcement.


Overall, it is a bad idea to ask actors beyond the UKBA to have a role in immigration enforcement. This results in a lack of clarity about the rules and entitlements afforded to different groups, potentially leading to disproportionate effects on sectors of the regular migrant and settled population, especially on members of ethnic minority groups. Furthermore, immigration enforcement can jeopardise the work of service providers. ...

4. London's migrant strategy should be informed by migrants

Finally, migrants and immigration should be a central part of the policies that are decided at the London level, and especially the strategic plans which are responsibility of the GLA. It is critical to involve migrants themselves in developing the city's policies on immigration. The LSMP has already set out an integration strategy for refugees in London and is working towards widening its strategy to include all migrants — a project under development during 2010. The structure of the LSMP provides an arena in which migrant organisations can have a role in influencing the policies that affect them. It also creates the possibility of a constructive dialogue between migrant organisations and service providers. To make the most of these opportunities migrant organisations in London will need to articulate and put forward their views in an effective manner. ...

Source: Migrants' Rights Network 2010.

For more information: