Critical migration policy narratives from West Africa

This article was originally published in the International Migration journal published on behalf of the International Organization for Migration.

While human mobility has always been an integral part of livelihoods in West Africa (Adepoju, 2005), the sub-region has become the focus of policy discussions on migration governance in recent years (Awumbila et al., 2014). The increased interest of the international community in migration issues in West Africa is partly due to the high level of labour migration and forced displacement being witnessed in the sub-region (Teye et al., 2019; UNHCR, 2020). Although media images and political narratives tend to suggest that there is mass migration from West Africa to Europe, a majority (i.e. 72%) of migrants from West Africa have been migrating intra-regionally (UNDESA, 2018).

Human mobility in West Africa is facilitated by the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Establishment (i.e. free movement protocol), which was adopted in 1979 by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to promote regional integration and economic development through free movement of labour and services (Awumbila et al., 2014). The free movement protocol is expected to grant ECOWAS nationals the right of entry, right of residence and right of establishment within the sub-region. ECOWAS citizens currently enjoy right of entry within the sub-region, although implementation of the right of residence and right of establishment aspects of the free movement protocol has been negatively affected by anti-migrant sentiments in some ECOWAS countries (Teye et al., 2019; Yeboah et al., 2021).

Outside Africa, Europe is the most popular destination of West African migrants. However, restrictive migration policies in European countries and availability of employment opportunities in some Asian countries have resulted in increased migration flows to the Gulf region, in recent years (Deshingkar et al., 2019). As West Africa is a major source of irregular migrants and refugees arriving in European countries (IOM, 2018), the European Commission has been engaging West African governments to develop regional frameworks and national policies for managing migration (Knoll & Weijer, 2016). Although it is generally acknowledged that a deeper understanding of the interests and perspectives of various migration policy actors can help identify potential areas of engagement with different stakeholders (Dimitriadis et al., 2020), there is little understanding of the emergence and effects of contesting narratives on migration governance in West Africa.

Against this background, this paper examines the competing interests and narratives that have been shaping international migration governance in West Africa. In so doing, the paper critically examines how major narratives have influenced the development of programmes aimed at protecting migrants and harnessing the benefits of migration. More specifically, the paper addresses the following questions: What are the key narratives and counter narratives shaping migration policies and decision-making processes of potential migrants in West Africa? What factors have contributed to the emergence of various narratives on international migration?

The paper argues that while there are contesting views on migration, the migration policies and programmes implemented in West African countries were largely based on narratives of political elites and international development partners, although some of these narratives were not supported by empirical evidence. While migration was, historically, seen as a developmental challenge, its potential to contribute to socio-economic development is now increasingly acknowledged. The paper demonstrates that some West African governments are now developing policies to harness the benefits of emigration, immigration and return migration for socio-economic development.