news analysis advocacy
tips on searching
   the web  



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

William Minter

Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, Uppsala, 2011

Full PDF available for download at

previous section | next section | Table of Contents


This brief review of the wide range of issues connected with African migration is hardly sufficient for formulating comprehensive "conclusions." What this final section does is rather to lay out summary observations on framing advocacy agendas, as food for thought and debate. There is also an annex exploring implications of migration issues for rethinking broader development goals and measures of progress, stressing the necessity to consider transnational as well as national units for measuring the goals of human development.

Migrants' Rights in Destination and Transit Countries

• Te prerequisite for strong advocacy on migrants' rights is leadership from migrants' groups themselves. Among the most impressive examples, now sustained for more than 15 years, is that of the "Sans- Papiers" ("Undocumented") in France, whose leadership and support have featured immigrants from many African countries.

• While most migrants' self-help groups organize in groups defined by national or sub-national identities, or by occupation, political impact depends on the capacity to build networks bringing together immigrants from multiple national origins, including both regular and irregular immigrants and skilled as well as unskilled.

• Political impact also requires alliances with non- migrant groups, including not only human rights groups and allied disadvantaged minority groups, but also trade unions, churches, service agencies, and political parties.

• Given the widespread perception (and occasional reality) of conflicts of interests with native-born unskilled workers, critical variables include the strength of trade unions and whether unions seek to organize and support migrants' rights or reinforce anti-migrant public opinion.

• Te Global Campaign for Ratification of the Rights of Migrants (see the guide to ratification on deserves support. But in most destination and transit countries, campaigns for publicizing and implementing rights already established by international human rights treaties, as well as those practical implementation of protections available under national law, should take priority.

• In actions to protect individual migrants, it makes sense to take advantage of whatever legal remedies might apply, including eligibility for refugee status or other grounds for legal residency. However, migrants' rights campaigns should avoid the danger of reinforcing distinctions or promoting stereotypes of irregular migrants, and should stress that basic human rights are due to all migrants, without distinction.


Immigration "Reform" and "Managed Migration"

• Well-organized large-scale regularization programs, providing clear paths to regular status for irregular migrants, can have significant advantages not only for migrants but also for destination states, by moving sectors of the immigrant community out of the shadows. Notable examples include several waves of regularization in Spain (Arango and Jachimowicz 2005). In many cases, however, political opposition is very substantial. Note, for example, the 2010 defeat of the U.S. Dream Act to provide regularization for irregular migrants brought to the U.S. as children, despite majority popular support for its passage.

• In achieving reform measures including such positive elements as regulari-zation, political compromises are no doubt inevitable. However, the most common trade-off, of simultaneously stepping up enforcement and deportation measures against the remaining irregular migrant population, is both inconsistent with protection of migrants' rights and unsustainable, recreating in a relatively short time the situation reform was presumably intended to resolve.

• Far more promising as trade-offs to satisfy at least some opponents of regular-ization would be compensatory mechanisms to protect sectors and communities which might be disproportionate losers from migration. As compared to simply "education" about human rights and the generally positive impact of migration, such measures could establish procedures to aid vulnerable native-born workers in sectors affected by migrant competition and to provide subsidies for communities having particularly high burden of social services or other adjustments to large migrant inflows.

• One "solution" that should definitely be rejected as illusory is new programs of "temporary migration" on the model of the earlier bracero or guest workers programs in the United States and Europe, respectively, or the current programs in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Even when accompanied by nominal protection for workers' rights, these are an open invitation to abuses of migrants through increasing their vulnerability to pressures from employers and their identification as a class of migrants with fewer rights to protect themselves.

• Given that "reform" proposals or systems of "managed migration" have a systematic tendency to include a mixture of policy measures, some of which may increase the likelihood of abuses of migrants' rights, there is also a need for legislative measures, independent administrative and judicial procedures, and civil society monitoring efforts specifically designed to protect the human rights of migrants.


• Reforms must take into account not only the regularization and protection of rights of existing migrant populations, but also provide for adequate regular channels for new migrants. They must provide not only flexibility for "circular migration" between origin and destination countries and for temporary migration for study or work but also paths for establishing permanent residency and citizenship.

• Continuing large flows of irregular migration are likely signals not only that reforms are still needed in migration policy but also that the levels of inequality between origin and destination countries are unacceptably high and need to be addressed by bilateral and multilateral inequality-reducing measures that include but also go beyond migration policy.

Migration and Global Human Development

• The impact of migration on human development should be gauged not only by the positive or negative impacts on countries of origin, as is the most conventional practice, but also by impacts on migrants themselves, on the set of all those born in countries of origin (whether they move or stay), on destination countries, and on the progress of human development and the extent of inequality in its distribution for the entire human family.

• Human development outcomes should be measured not only by changes in the levels of desired resources (income, health, education) but also by their impact in reducing inequalities, both within and between countries. A migration pattern biased towards higher-skilled migrants coming from the privileged sector of a country of origin, for example, would likely increase inequality both within the country of origin and within the larger group of those born in the country of origin, thus negating much of the positive impact of migration.

• For countries of origin, the value of policies in specific areas discussed above (such as remittances, brain drain, and diaspora contributions through investment or co-development) should be evaluated taking the effects on inequality into account. Remittances from unskilled workers to their families may thus have greater value than similar sums to more privileged families. The impact of measures to address brain drain in health, education, and other fields will depend primarily on the impact of the policies being implemented to advance health and education. And the net impact of investment or co-development projects by diaspora groups can only be evaluated within the context of wider development strategies led by developmental (or not so developmental) states.

• In destination countries, the movement to defend and extend migrants' rights is inextricably linked to the fate of broader movements to extend social justice, reduce internal inequality, and build inclusive concepts of national identity. As with these broader movements, this requires not only combating right-


wing attitudes and campaigns but also building positive visions of change and progressive political coalitions with the capacity to implement them.

• In the context of an unequal world, increased opportunities for migration, i.e., increasing the extent of the right to move, provide one path for reducing inequality between countries and greater global inequality. However, the right to move should also be matched by the right to stay, i.e., it should be possible for people to obtain their universal human rights, including economic and social opportunities, without being forced to leave their place of birth. That implies that migrants' rights must be accompanied by other measures to advance equality of human development between migrant-sending and migrant-receiving countries, including changes in the global economic order and in global responsibility for provision of basic human development needs.

• Migrant populations can play strategic roles in building links between their countries of destination and countries of origin, and in constructing networks for global community across national boundaries. Their capacity to do so, however, depends on the extent to which they maintain strong ties to both destination and origin countries, are linked to other progressive forces in both destination and origin countries, and pursue agendas benefiting not only themselves but also wider objectives of social justice.

In short, the quest for full rights for migrants—itself a goal to which global society has no far made only nominal commitments—must also be part of multi-faceted efforts to establish new global as well as national social contracts for the 21st century. African migrants, coming from the region still most disadvantaged by the present world order, have strategic roles to play in establishing such contracts. They are simultaneously involved on multiple fronts: in their countries of origin, at the level of African unity, and in the relationships of Africa with the increasingly wide array of other societies in which the African diaspora has established its presence.