French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a news conference in Paris, France, June 10 2021. Picture: REUTERS/PASCAL ROSSIGNOL
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a news conference in Paris, France, June 10 2021. Picture: REUTERS/PASCAL ROSSIGNOL

French president Emmanuel Macron recently manifested the global north’s outsized fear of movement from the global south, warning that if Africa’s development falters Europe “will pay dearly in terms of migration”. Data shows only a sliver of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from the developing world actually breach modern-day Fortress Europe or enter North America, much less Australia, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand and other countries. Rather, the vast majority move or get displaced within their home country or surrounding region — something of key significance for Africa.

Combined with the continent’s ongoing population boom, how migration and displacement are handled could either bolster or derail the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), especially given the economic fallout of the pandemic and emergent risks of worsening climate change.

More than 16-million people in Sub-Saharan Africa have emigrated from their country of origin. Despite being the poorest part of the world, the region also hosts more than a quarter of the world’s refugee population. Uganda alone hosts 1.4-million refugees and Sudan more than 1-million. Meanwhile, a new report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre notes that almost 7-million people in Sub-Saharan Africa were newly displaced last year due to conflict and violence, and another 4-million from natural disasters. The number of total displacements from conflict has tripled in 10 years to almost 22-million people — many of whom may not return home for years.

Climate breakdown and consequent economic shocks will further force migration and aggravate displacement across Africa. More people will traverse porous borders seeking economic opportunity and safety from extreme weather, while others will be fleeing new armed conflicts over dwindling resources — both between states and within them. The World Bank has forecast that at present levels of warming there may be 86-million climate refugees within the region by 2050.

Without proper migration policies in place, social instability, political tensions and intercommunal violence will escalate. Business activity, investment, development initiatives and foreign relations will be greatly hindered in the process, undermining the trust and solidarity necessary to achieve the true potential of AfCFTA, which explicitly calls for increasing economic integration by enhancing people’s freedom of movement.

This grim ritual plays out every few years in SA as deprived townships throughout the Rainbow Nation — failed by government policies and robbed by endemic corruption — convulse in a fit of xenophobic cruelty. Most recently, attacks against foreign nationals and the looting and destruction of foreign-owned shops in September 2019 prompted a mass cancellation of booked tourism to SA and the temporary shuttering of SA’s embassy in Nigeria and Nigerian branches of SA telecommunications company MTN as precautions over reciprocal violence.

Refugees languishing in camps can also be weaponised in service of a host country’s foreign policy goals. Kenya’s latest effort to close its two largest refugee camps — which host more than 200,000 Somali refugees — resembles a thinly-veiled attempt to gain leverage in its diplomatic disputes with Somalia. After Burundi was plunged into a bloody political crisis in 2015, the regime of Rwandan President Paul Kagame recruited, armed and trained Burundian rebels plucked from Rwandan refugee camps with the goal of dislodging Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, from power.    

Those attempting to escape despotism, persecution and poverty in eastern and western Africa bankroll organised crime throughout the Sahel, paying $5,000 or more to smugglers to take them north to Libya, the primary Mediterranean gateway for migrants attempting to reach Europe. Using ancient routes criss-crossing the ungovernable Sahara desert, migrants are trafficked alongside drugs, weapons and other contraband that end up financing insurgents and jihadists aligned with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, the rapid growth in social media usage across the continent is exacerbating ethnic and religious hatred in mixed populations. Toxic online spheres are sparking lynchings, mob violence and other atrocities between Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic, Anglophones and Francophones in Cameroon and rival ethnic groups in Ethiopia, Nigeria and the DRC. Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Centre for Humane Technology, has said Facebook’s lack of content moderators in local dialects throughout Africa makes it impossible to police extremist content and disinformation, even if governments genuinely wanted to.

Outside assistance has, unfortunately, often made things worse. Europe has in recent years provided hundreds of millions of dollars and surveillance equipment to Sudanese paramilitaries and Libya’s coast guard to intercept migrants and suppress movement, fully aware doing so would lead to an uptick in human rights abuses. An EU-funded crackdown on migrants passing through Niger — the world’s poorest nation — destroyed the local economy in Agadez, one of the country’s most vital trading hubs. Such strong-arm tactics ultimately spur migrant outflows rather than prevent them.

Better approaches come in the form of the AU’s landmark 2018 Migration Policy Framework, the International Organisation for Migration’s continental strategy for Africa released last October, and the UN’s 2016 Global Compact on Migration, to which Libya is Africa’s lone nonsignatory. All three emphasise how well-regulated, more holistic immigration systems can be a catalyst for national development. Greater intergovernmental co-operation on migration and displacement issues is also necessary, and already mandated through AfCFTA.

Handled properly, migration can build economic and social resilience in Africa by plugging labour gaps, mending social divisions, mitigating political instability, reducing criminal profits and limiting the number of humanitarian crises across the continent. But implementation will be difficult. The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown 30-million additional Africans into extreme poverty according to the African Development Bank, which says that number could double by 2022 if vaccine rollouts continue to lag the rest of the world. As of early June barely more than 1% of the over 1.3-billion vaccines administered globally had been in Africa.

Africa’s slower economic recovery — likely to take years — means greater poverty and desperation among citizens, and reduced revenue for cash-strapped governments to implement long-term migration policies. And such policies will only take hold if delivered alongside stronger climate adaptation strategies and skills development programmes, improved conflict resolution mechanisms, and real progress on stamping out pervasive corruption that continues to bleed African institutions dry. Doing all of this will require the type of selfless, co-operative and visionary leadership that is presently absent among Africa’s many retrograde autocracies.

Macron got it somewhat backwards — if Africa falters in dealing with its migration woes, it will pay dearly in terms of development.

Hiebert, former deputy editor of the Africa Conflict Monitor, is a researcher and analyst based in Winnipeg, Canada.

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