This blog was originally published by the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research. Learn more here.

Images of young Black men travelling in boats across the Mediterranean have become a staple of the European media diet. The so-called ‘migration crisis’ continues to dominate political debates, and the use of development assistance to persuade African countries to help limit migration flows has become an increasingly important focus of policy efforts.

But these representations and the policies with which they have come to be associated reflect long-standing biases in how we think about migration in the African context, and they limit the possibility of harnessing the benefits of migration for development and delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Research by the Migration for Development and Equality (MIDEQ) Hub is challenging the biases behind Europe’s response to migration from African – and highlighting the need to centre inequality in our efforts to harness the development potential of migration.

The importance of migration within Africa

It is now well established that African migration is first and foremost intra-continental. In 2000, 75 per cent of all African migrants lived in another African country, and while the number of Africans living in Europe and the United States has increased, African migrants still overwhelmingly migrate within Africa.

Indeed, the scale of this intra-continental migration has recently increased. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), around 21 million Africans were living in another African country in 2020 – a rise of approximately 3 million since 2015. Meanwhile migration to African countries is also increasing, most notably from China; Africa is now home to an estimated 1–2 million Chinese migrants.

The African Union (AU) has long recognized the benefits of migration for development, and its revised Migration Policy Framework for Africa and Plan of Action (2018-30) explicitly engages migrants and diaspora in development processes for the first time, and formally establishes the principle of free movement as an objective towards which countries will work at the intra- and inter-regional levels.

But the development benefits of migration are neither straightforward nor inevitable. In Africa as elsewhere, MIDEQ’s research highlights the need to better understand migration-related inequalities and devise policies to address them.

Migration-related inequalities in Africa

Migration is a highly visible reflection of global inequalities, whether in terms of wages, labour market opportunities, or lifestyles. And whilst migration has the potential to reduce inequalities, it can also create new inequalities and deepen existing ones.

MIDEQ’s research in the China-Ghana corridor, for example, confirms that migration is a response to inequalities in income and opportunity, but contrary to popular perceptions, finds that most Chinese migrants are highly educated and have legal documentation. Often, the move to Ghana provides an opportunity for “social reshuffling,” enabling them to navigate social and institutional barriers and achieve a “class leap” in their home country.

Research on migration from Burkina Faso to Cote d’Ivoire demonstrates that migration can reduce inequality through the redistribution of resources at the household level, and finds evidence of increased access to education for the children of migrant households.

At the same time, migration can also increase inequalities. Inequalities in the destination country are associated with irregular and precarious migration, for instance, or a lack of rights for migrants and their families. And in countries of origin, although the story of remittances in relation to development is often a positive one, remittances are also changing patterns of work, social organization, and investment. MIDEQ’s research in southern Ethiopia, for example, has found evidence of increasing inequalities between migrant and non-migrant households. Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic amplified and deepened existing inequalities across Africa, including those associated with migration.

So what needs to change?

MIDEQ research identifies four key changes that are needed to ensure migration contributes to Africa’s development and the delivery of the SDGs at the individual, household, community, and national levels.

Firstly, policy makers, donors, international organisations and civil society in Africa need better evidence and data on the complex relationships between migration and inequality. In particular, the continent needs to build a network of migration scholars across Africa with linguistic and contextual knowledge of the contexts within which migration takes place, and develop partnerships between academia and policymakers to bridge gaps in understanding.

Secondly, migration research and policy in Africa needs to be embedded in a deeper understanding of development processes, including the relationships between migration and inequalities. As noted in research published by the European Union, migration is best understood in relation to broader issues of circulation, settlement, livelihoods, adaptation, family ties and changing economic activities, which combine to form the big picture of intra-African migration. At a strategic level, this means that the EU and the AU need to work closely together and reframe migration management as primarily a development rather than a security issue.

Thirdly, gaps between migration policy and practice in Africa must be narrowed. Although there are various migration policy frameworks and regimes on the African continent, all acknowledging migration’s contributions to development, these have yet to be effectively implemented.

Finally, we need to embed migrant rights and issues of equality in the analysis of the relationship between migration and development. Whilst the lower costs of migration within Africa increases its poverty reduction potential, structural factors locking Global South countries into unequal economic and power relations and a lack of rights for vulnerable migrants increases local, regional and global inequalities.

Moreover, an absence of opportunities for decent work, social protection and security can mean people lack migration alternatives even where the benefits to themselves, their families and the wider community are unclear. A rights-based approach to migration and development in Africa will ultimately reduce the possibility that migration will exacerbate existing inequalities – or create new ones.

The solutions and ideas expressed in this blog are based on discussions at a regional conference organised by the MIDEQ Hub and the University of Ghana in Legon. The conference brought together migration experts and policymakers and practitioners from the African Union, ECOWAS, IOM, GIZ and ICMPD, among others.