In Europe, the phrase ‘African migration’ is almost exclusively associated with people trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea on dinghies or old, overcrowded boats, but this is just a part of the picture, as Africans themselves know very well. On the one hand, those leaving the continent aren’t only doing so by sea (even if taking only irregular migration into account) nor are they only heading to Europe. Somalis, for instance, before open civil war broke out in Yemen, sought refuge in that country in large numbers. Many more people did the same by leaving their home country and staying, at the same time, on the African continent, as they actually have done for decades and in some cases probably for centuries. Populations of several border regions are often involved in migration cycles due to cross-border economic activity and pastoralist traditions, not to mention more or less exceptional situations like droughts and famine.
In other words, those of African Union Commission official Dr. Khabele Matlosa, “the development and regional integration story of Africa is essentially the story of internal (intra-state) and external (inter-state) migration patterns”. Among the many notable examples that can be made, at least two are worth mentioning. One is the route connecting Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, which since 1990 has been travelled by more than one million people, also shaping, for better or for worse, the story of the two countries (the sitting Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara, was for a long time legally barred from running because he was considered of Burkinabé origin). The second example is that of South Africa, which currently hosts several million people coming from other African countries (at least 1.5 million are Zimbabwean nationals) and has attracted labourers from abroad even during the apartheid regime. By 1970 there were over 260,000 migrants working in the South African mines, a trend that has never stopped.
Both internal and external migration appeal greatly to young people, for various reasons. First of all, they often are, so to say, the most connected with the rest of the world, for instance through mobile phones and similar devices. They are also those who, because of unemployment and socio-political marginalization, feel most heavily the contrast between the recent development of many economies and the persistent lack of opportunities in the society for those who are not directly or indirectly involved in the new expanding sectors. This, by the way, also shows why, for destination countries, immigration could be regarded as an opportunity: in fact, it does not only involve entire families fleeing war or poverty but also skilled labourers. On the other hand, however, this also means that, for Africa, immigration also represents a massive workforce and brain drain that the continent might regret in the future.
To tackle this problem, African leaders, both at a continental and at a national level, should tackle a series of causes: very different types of economies, societies and state systems throughout the continent, in fact, are affected. Eritrea is often used as an example of mass youth migration, and rightly so: according to a recent UN report, 5.000 people a month are leaving the Horn of Africa nation both to avoid indefinite national service, which often amounts to unpaid slave labour, and to find relief from a dire economic situation. On the other hand, even in Nigeria, the continent’s biggest economy, where democratic standards are sufficiently high, emigration has become a main concern. The country’s Catholic episcopal conference has recently warned that ‘unemployment is growing beyond control, leaving many of our citizens, especially the younger ones, to migrate, both locally and to other countries’. As a consequence ‘young promising lives are wasted on our streets, in the deserts of some African countries and on the shores of Europe’, the bishops added, asking the government to diversify an economy, which depends largely on the oil industry.
Nigeria is not the only case of a democracy with a developing economy, which, nevertheless, also witnesses high levels of emigration: Senegal is another such case. There are, obviously, many factors that make this phenomenon more likely than it would seem at first sight. First of all, economic development, even in advanced economies, does not mean an equal distribution of the wealth and, moreover, the differences between the cities and the rural areas, in terms of living standards, are still high. Examples such as the ones of Nigeria (where also the deadly Boko Haram insurgency must be taken into account as a driver for migration) and Senegal, also show in a very clear way why every possible solution to the youth migration issue is both in the hands of the African and the Western authorities. Africa can contribute by creating more jobs through programs such as those, already mentioned, of the African Union, while Europe could consider the possibility of delocalizing some industries or granting more favourable conditions to African exporters.
Both policies, however, are likely to be unpopular among European voters and that’s probably why cooperation between the two continents is currently following a completely different path. For instance, the EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative, also known as the ‘Khartoum Process’, was launched in Rome on 28 November 2014. Described as an initiative aimed to tackle human trafficking and smuggling, it has been widely criticized by activists especially because, in this framework, financial resources will be provided to countries, which are regarded as part of the problem of the mass exodus from the Horn region. On the other hand, a more open-minded approach to migration could prove beneficial for both continents, given the number of young talents that have emerged in many sectors of the African society in the last years. (D.M.)