Gazing Northward: African Impacts of European Immigration Policy and Practice

The Italian coastguard rescuing two refugees from Africa in Lampedusa
Teaser Bild Untertitel
The Italian coastguard rescuing two refugees from Africa in Lampedusa


by Loren Landau

This short essay makes two sets of arguments. The first should make progressive Europeans feel better about themselves and their countries’ approach to governing migration.  While there are abuses and atrocities in and around Europe, the treatment of migrants within Africa by African states and citizens remains a far more critical issue in terms of the number of people affected and the impacts on human rights and development. The second point undermines whatever relief the first provides. Although the vast majority of African migrants remain within Africa, European policy priorities and practices still matter but its influences are largely negative and occasionally nefarious. However, these impacts of those policies can only be fully seen when viewed from far away. In this paper, it is not individual migrants’ welfare or frustrations that occupy my attention. Instead, this essay explores four ways in which what happens in Europe – or as people attempt to reach Europe – affects African migrants and those with whom they engage: First, by limiting the flow of remittances and opportunities; second, by diverting or redirecting migration trajectories; third, by extending the migration process and creating a generation of ‘transit’ migrants; and fourth, by directly and indirectly influencing African migration policies through exhortation, aid, and example.

Although it occasionally provides illustrations, this essay does not exhaustively review data in an effort to highlight the pros and cons of contemporary European migration governance. Nor do I pretend to be an expert in European migration matters. Based at the far end of the Africa continent, my focus is largely on the continent’s Southern and Eastern reaches, the parts least affected by why takes place on or around the Mediterranean. As such, my understanding of what happens in the Mediterranean relies more on news reports and rumour than careful research or reflection. That said, it is not entirely clear what border management in the Mediterranean area entails. As far as my reading suggests, there is not a single, clear, or coherent policy. There is Frontex, but even this agency is shrouded in mystery regarding mission, responsibility, and oversight. Instead, I can only respond to a series of ad hoc, changing, and unevenly implemented policy initiatives. In trying to make sense of how these affect African migration patterns, I draw on work being done by colleagues working in North Africa, France, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean as part of an URMIS-run programme on ‘transit’ migration. In particular, this essay draws on an earlier paper, written for a similar discussion, by my colleague, Aurelia Wa Kabwe Segatti.

Before continuing to the essay’s substance, it is also worth noting that even were there a clear set of policies and a clear set of effects of them, we may not know what they are. Across sub-Saharan Africa, data scarcity prevents informed predictions or good analysis of policy frameworks. Moreover, institutional incapacity limits our ability to empirically challenge assertions and promises made by outsiders, an ability further compromised by many countries’ dependence on foreign assistance from those they might otherwise criticise. There are moves to collect more information and build capacity—a key task of the Forced Migrations Studies Programme (FMSP)– but our current understanding of migration generally and how it might be influenced by European developments has far to go. As such, the remainder of the document should be read as a series of provocations: points for discussions and deliberation rather than conclusions.

Why Migration to Europe is Not What Really Matters

Newspapers and television are filled with images of Africans struggling, and often failing, to reach Europe. Detention centres across North Africa are filled with failed migrants while tens of thousands are caught and returned ‘home’ against their will. Tens of thousands also die trying to cross the Mediterranean or to reach the Canary Islands. Self-flagellating stories in the media, often recount the domestic evils of European migration policy: abuse, discrimination, detention, and the increasingly faint possibility of asylum. These are horrific stories to be sure and have rightfully causes a certain degree of soul search among progressive Europeans. Without denying their shock value, we must keep in mind that most of these accounts have little immediate bearing on the vast majority of Africa’s international migrants.

Viewed from the perspective of Southern and, to some extent, Eastern Africa, Europe is largely a place for skilled and professional migrants. The greatest number of these has come from South Africa – close to a million since 1994 – although Zimbabwe has also been haemorrhaging its professionals to the United Kingdom and elsewhere. In East Africa, Kenya and Uganda have long been exporters of caring skills—and now other forms of expertise—to the North. A recent UK parliamentary study found more Malawian doctors practicing in Britain than in Malawi.

Today out-migration continues for an array of reasons including job opportunities, wage differentials, working conditions, crime, and, at least in South Africa, as a side-effect of affirmative action policies that are perceived as limiting career prospects for the country’s White minority. Indeed, the immigration policies of countries such as the UK or Canada have attracted many qualified South Africans, particularly those skilled in the medical professions. In 2003-2004, South Africa acknowledged a deficit of 57,574 nurses, 200 of them leaving the country every month. Since 2004, no figures have been available for South African citizens’ whereabouts. However, comparing stocks of South African migrants in receiving countries and self-declared emigrants, Statistics South Africa came to the conclusion that approximately 322,499 South Africans had emigrated between 1970 and 2001 Others have argued that the number is three times that or more. The bulk of these are in Europe with smaller concentrations in North America and Australia.

The Skills Exodus

This is an important loss of human capital for Southern and Eastern Africa, but one that may be compensated by remittances and educational opportunities. It is also not entirely clear, as Michael Clemens’ work on medical migration out of Africa suggests, that these people would be contributing in their professions had they stayed in Africa. Indeed, many leave not only for higher wages, but so that the practice their profession under acceptable conditions and live in a place that supports their lifestyle aspirations. For present purposes, all this is beside the point: these people are generally unaffected by current efforts to curb African migration. For the most part, professionals plan their journeys, arrive ‘regularly’, and walk easily through airport customs. And while they may play important roles in the economy, they are unlikely to provide assistance to the very poor or those outside the urban centres from where they have come. As Zygmunt Bauman reminds us, the bridges these elite follow to the West are drawbridges. At the whim of those inside the fortress, what was an easy trot for some becomes a dangerous moat for others. It is this moat and the crocodiles it contains that should worry us.

Whether it is due to the crocodiles, expense, or individual ambitions, the vast majority of African migrants remain within Africa. Given the degree to which current debates, including this one, reflect external interests or self-criticism, it is little surprise that they are dominated by discussions of migration from relatively poor Southern countries to members of the OECD. But privileging South-North migration inaccurately reflects global patterns of human mobility and distracts us from their developmental and human impacts. Recent estimates find that only about half of the 74 million international migrants from developing countries reside in significantly wealthier, Northern countries. If one removes Latin and North American migration systems from these figures, the percentage remaining in ‘the south’ jumps dramatically. According to data cited in a recent World Bank report, 69% of Africa’s international migrants stay in Africa.  This translates into something close to 3.1 million African-born people (including North Africans) in Europe with 18 million international migrants within Africa. To put it bluntly, those in Europe are significant minority, but they are just that: the most important migrations are on the continent.

A closer look at migration within the region reveals a number of other important dimensions. For one, the number of refugees in Africa is almost equal to the number of Africa migrants to Europe: 3,023,000 in 2005 according to the UNHCR (2006). Many of these are housed in massive camps that generate crime, insecurity, and social tensions and potentially reshape trading networks and political authority. Second, the number of people displaced by war, conflict, and natural disaster is probably close to double the number of refugees. Third, and perhaps most significantly, urbanisation is resulting in millions of people moving on a yearly basis. The United Nations estimates that between 1995 and 2000, Nigeria alone had 5.4 million rural to urban migrants, Tanzania had 2.0 million, Kenya had 1.8 million, and South Africa another 1.28 million. The result of these movements may not be as Malthusian as many fear, but there is no denying their long-term significance on health, service delivery, families, and political institutions. There are also massive abuses to human rights and dignity – along with corruption and exploitation – that accompany many of these moves, both domestic and international. As important as debates over European immigration policies might be, these are the dynamics that we should be paying attention to. Unfortunately, they are only now creeping on to the African policy agenda where they are meeting fear, ignorance, and incapacity from those who should be addressing them.  If there is to be a positive European intervention in Africa’s migration governance systems, it will be to build the capacity to understand migration and development pragmatic policies to respond to it.

Gazing Northward: Why European Migration Policy Still Matters

Although I would prefer that our attention focus far more heavily on migration policies and practices within Africa—including the massive abuse and exploitation of international and domestic migrants and refugees across the continent—there are many a good reason to consider how Europe is managing migration. In particular, how these policies and practices are influencing what happens in Africa. In reviewing things European, we need to go beyond our justified indignation at the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants for their deaths and indignities can distract us from more far reaching concerns. In this regard I want to draw attention to four areas where what is happening in Europe matters for the parts of Africa with which I am familiar. There are undoubtedly many more issues that could be included here. At the very least, there is much more to say about the issues than I am able to do here.


The first concern relates to cash remittances, a theme that has, for better or worse, been at the centre of recent deliberations over ‘migration and development’ across much of Europe, North America, and within the international financial institutions. While I question the centrality afforded to remittances in resolving Africa’s development challenges, there can be little doubt that these transfers—material, social, political—remain critical to the welfare and survival of people from sending communities. Remittances from Zimbabweans abroad have helped keep that country afloat during its years of crisis and some of the continent’s least productive countries rely for their collective survival on money coming from abroad. Remittances to relatives stuck in refugee camps help them to achieve education or meet emergency expenses.  In some instances, these moneys help to rebuild their communities (although they may also help finance conflict). Our research also suggests that remittances are important resources in helping people to continue their migration: by receiving money from abroad, people who might otherwise get stuck in Malawi or Mozambique are able to continue to South Africa or elsewhere.

The success at blocking migration of the poor into Europe will turn off this tap. Even by raising the costs of movement across borders, people are less likely to visit home – an important time for transferring resources and investing in home countries (investments that may result in an ultimate return). As much of the research on remittances suggests the amount of money sent declines over time, trapping people in or out of Europe will have important, negative consequences for moneys returned to the continent. That said, the vast majority of Africans from East, Central, and Southern Africa are from relatively wealthy and professional families. There is research waiting to be done on the public developmental effects of money sent to their families although there are good reasons to believe the effects on poverty are minimal.

Diversion and Redirection

While the influence of European policy and practice on remittances may affect only a few – especially when viewed from East and Southern Africa – its influences are more pronounced on migration trajectories within the continent. In a 2006 FMSP survey in Johannesburg, Maputo, and Nairobi, close to 50% of migrants from non-neighbouring countries (e.g., Congolese in Mozambique and South Africa, not Mozambicans in South Africa) had originally considered going somewhere else. In almost all cases, this was Europe (with lesser numbers aiming for North America and other locations). With that option effectively closed, South Africa has become an important second best. Even for West Africans, long a primary pool of migrants to Europe, South Africa has started to attract those who either lack the resources or courage to head north.

But while South Africa provides important human development advantages for migrants, the economic opportunities remain modest compared with those in Europe. Even in semi-professional positions, the earning differentials are not as great as they are as between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. Living and transport costs are lower, but migrants are still considerably less able to accumulate capital in South Africa. Moreover – although not unrelated – legal status is tenuous and hard to come by. This means that people live in a state of permanent insecurity. While this similarly applies to many undocumented migrants in Europe, limited restrictions on arrest and deportation in Europe provide a modicum of security (although these may soon erode). For long term migrants in South Africa, it is not uncommon to be deported two or three times. At the very least, small business people are likely to lose many of their belonging to avaricious neighbours or state agents. Beyond simple harassment, the physical security of migrants is also at risk. As the May 2008 ‘xenophobic attacks’ illustrated to the world, South Africa’s public commitment to human rights does not always include the rights of non-nationals. Until South Africa accepts its role as a regional destination for migrants, it will remain a problematic second option.

A State of Permanent Transit

The desire to move to Europe coupled with the effective inability to do so is helping to generate a small but significant number of migrants caught in a state of permanent transit. For them, a successful migration experience will only end when they reach an increasingly elusive destination north of the Mediterranean. Our research across Southern and East Africa reveals the presence of this group, people who are reluctant to invest where they are or return home. In some cases they are supported by relatives at home or those who have already made it to richer destinations. In other cases, they work only to save for an onward journey that may never happen, sending neither remittances or building a future in their current residents. Their numbers are relatively small, but appear to be growing as more people join those stuck in limbo. Ongoing research hopes to reveal more about the state of being betwixt and between, a liminality that undoubtedly has important socio-economic and political consequences.

Apart from the immediate impact on their welfare, their presence has increased the profitability of corruption in the document trade. Until recently, South Africans did not require a visa to enter to the United Kingdom. Consequently, Africans from across the continent came to South Africa in the hope of securing the money and the documents needed to make the trip north. The UK has subsequently changed its policy, but South African documents are still more likely to open doors than a passport from Congo, Nigeria, or Mozambique. In the meantime, this group is a rich pool for predatory police hoping to gain a quick buck.  Elsewhere, migrants have attempted to enter the refugee resettlement schemes, changing their identities and their histories with the hope of riding a UNHCR plane to Europe, Australia, or North America.

Leading Through Aid and Example

The last area of influence I want to discuss is the most nefarious. It relates to the direct and indirect ways that European migration policy – particularly its ever more restrictive and dehumanising sets of controls – is influencing African border and migration practice. Although the International Organisation for Migration has, with European support, played a positive role in training officials and assisting in the repatriation of refugees, their hyperbolic anti-trafficking agenda, pushed with European and American support, has helped ensure that migration continues to be framed as a law-enforcement concern. Despite the relatively few people affected by the horrors of human trafficking in Southern Africa, the IOM and its partners have managed to push for policy reform while the faulty asylum system remains relatively untouched. (Claims that trafficking is the second most profitable illicit business after drugs do not get the critical public eye to realise that they are thoroughly without empirical base.) In doing so, they have also lent support for those calling for stricter and more militarised borders throughout the region.

The European Union is also playing an important if more sophisticated role in South Africa’s immigration regime by creating a ‘coalition of the willing’, to borrow a term from the Bush administration. Through political dialogues and ‘capacity-building’, they are gradually winning allies in their ongoing campaign to legitimise tightened border controls. This has both immediate and long-term benefits to the European Union. In the short-term, it helps prevent people from using South Africa as a springboard into the European Union. Although the numbers following this route are relatively small, corruption within South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs and relatively lax visa requirements for South Africans travelling to Europe (particularly those heading towards the United Kingdom), mean that South Africa is a frequent point of transit for Africans and Asians with intentions of onward travel (see above).

Over time, the European Union’s hope might be to strengthen South Africa’s border control ethos so as to ensure support for its restrictive immigration measures within international policy fora. Countries that themselves are practicing severe border regulations are in a poor position to protest when Europe tightens its controls one more notch.  Already we see the impacts in policy dialogues and debates around the future of Southern African migration policy and practice. Even a human-rights oriented country like South Africa can point northward and ask, “If Europe can do that to its immigrants, why shouldn’t we?”


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Prof. Loren Landau, PhD, is Director of the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.