5 November 2015
The migration summit in Malta on 11-12 November must bring nuance to the debate and consider constructive responses to a long-term challenge.
Gita Honwana Welch

Dr Gita Honwana Welch

Associate Fellow, Africa Programme


A man sits on a bus as migrants and asylum seekers mostly from Sudan leave the 'Jungle' camp in Calais on 27 October 2015. Photo by Getty Images.
A man sits on a bus as migrants and asylum seekers mostly from Sudan leave the 'Jungle' camp in Calais on 27 October 2015. Photo by Getty Images.


2015 has seen an unprecedented amount of attention paid to what has been termed ‘the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War’. According to the EU border agency (Frontex) nearly 500,000 refugees entered Europe in the year to September 2015. The European Council has organized an International Summit on Migration, taking place in Malta on 11-12 November.

Though recent coverage has centred on the plight of Syrian migrants, migration from Africa remains significant – and is perhaps a more complex policy challenge to the EU and its partners.

The helpless continent?

Shaping effective policy will demand a move beyond the easy clichés that dominate discourse about African migration. There are long-established patterns of migration between African states. Within southern Africa it was practised long before the drawing of colonial boundaries, dating back at least 150 years. By 1970 there were over 260,000 migrants working in the South African mines. Coastal West Africa is also home to massive numbers of internal economic migrants; the oil economies of Central Africa and Libya have more recently been major African migration destinations. There are vastly more African migrants within Africa than ever attempt to reach Europe.

Africa is often perceived as a source of mass migration to Europe as a result of poverty, violent conflict and underdevelopment. In recent years, conflicts in countries such as Central African Republic and Mali have driven migration. In the first nine months of 2015, 128,619 migrants – the largest numbers from Eritrea and Nigeria – travelled to Europe.

But this does not tell the whole story. African migrants to Europe represent a mixture of economic migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, who are bundled together through the operation of traffickers and the use of common migration routes into Europe.

In fact, empirical evidence suggests that increasing migration out of Africa is being driven as much by processes of development which have increased Africans’ capabilities and aspirations as by flight from suffering. This trend is likely to continue in the future.

Recent reports on the causes for Senegalese migration, for example, challenge the assumption that migration is about destitution and extreme poverty. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, people do not migrate because they have nothing, but because ‘they want better and more’. It is Senegal’s steady economic growth and stable democracy that have sent many of Senegal’s best and brightest to Europe and North America.

Africa’s brain drain

Of course, poverty remains an important ‘push’ factor for migration from Africa. In spite of Africa’s improved economic performance − it is now the second-most attractive investment destination in the world – benefits have not reached the majority of the African population. Inequality and unemployment remain high and economic transformation a distant dream. Some 63 per cent of the total labour force engages in some form ‘vulnerable’ employment, such as subsistence farming or urban street hawking.

Globalization and technology expose Africans, including the poorest, to the consumption patterns of the West and emerging economies, leading to increased aspirations - including the aspiration to leave.

And, of course, the migration of the better-educated and highly-skilled threatens development, with the poorest countries suffering disproportionately. Recent research shows that one in every nine Africans with a university degree is a migrant in a developed country. For the countries of destination, highly-skilled migrants are extremely valuable. For African countries the impact is disastrous.

There is a partial trade off, however, in the economic contribution migrant communities make to their state of origin through remittances. Senegalese migrants send home $1.37 billion each year. Remittances sent by 31 million international African migrants reached nearly $40 billion in 2010, equivalent to 2.6 per cent of Africa’s gross domestic product. But structural economic transformation is necessary to make Africa appealing to Africans – Africa boasts incredible growth rates, but what it really needs is inclusive growth. In its absence, European authorities cannot hope to control illegal migration.

Do better, do more?

Finding a solution to migration from Africa cannot be reduced to coercive measures such as cracking down on smuggling networks or the intensification of border controls.

A marked improvement in governance is necessary across the continent, notably the adoption of pro-poor development policies by African governments. They must provide better and more, better education and health, more access to public goods, more jobs, prosperity and freedom. Europe must stand ready to assist.

Donors have also recognised the importance of inclusive growth and job creation, most recently in the Sustainable Development Goals. Conflict resolution in Africa is already a high priority.

But the developed world must also recognize that while peace and sustainable development might de-escalate the current crisis, they will not resolve the challenge of migration in the long term – and in fact may allow more to choose to move to other countries, to help their families, for employment and a better life.

So it is incumbent on delegates to the Malta summit to bring nuance to the migration debate, and move beyond the easy stereotypes of eternally suffering Africans. As Africa rises, the European perspective on migration must be reframed, away from suspicion and xenophobia, towards a recognition that a mutually beneficial partnership is not just possible, but essential.

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