African workers transporting timber from the Central African Republic to Sudan / Credit: Reuters
African workers transporting timber from the Central African Republic to Sudan / Credit: Reuters

Contrary to popular belief, most African migrants are not heading for Europe. The overwhelming majority of Africans on the move circulate within the continent to more prosperous countries.

The Mediterranean migrant drama, the influx of African immigrants on the Italian and Greek coasts, combined with the spread of makeshift camps across Europe -- including infamous ones such as the Calais “Jungle” -- have all contributed to the widely held view that Europe dominates the dreams of most African migrants. While there’s some truth to this vision, it’s not at all the whole truth. In reality, the overwhelming majority of African migration is within the continent.

This has been the case for "a long time," notes Sylvie Bredeloup, an expert on African migrations and research director at the Paris-based IRD (Institute for Research and Development), in an interview with InfoMigrants.

"African migrations remain predominantly intra-African, even though in recent years the numbers of Europe-bound migrants have increased." Bredeloup however denounces the "myth of invasion," cooked up by European political interests and "relayed by the media," as she puts it. "Today, more than 70% of African migrations take place inside the continent," she explains.

How does intra-African migration work?

The largest population movements on the continent are in West Africa, where citizens benefit from the free movement within the 15-member regional economic grouping, ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States).

Around 8.7 million West African migrants are outside their countries of origin and almost 67% of them -- or 5.8 million people -- circulate within this regional area.

Only 18.6% reach Europe and 8.2% make it to North America, according to UN figures for 2015. In other words, fewer than two out of seven migrants head to Europe.

What is the profile of the migrants?

Generally, it consists of populations on the seasonal migration trails, mostly crossing borders to plantations, mines or oil reserves for work, according to Bredeloup.

Occasionally, there are also large population displacements linked to violence ranging from political crises to terrorist threats in certain parts of the continent. In South Sudan for example, or in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of people are forced to flee to neighbouring countries.

Migrations linked to climatic disasters, such as famine and drought, are also observed in Ethiopia or Somalia.

Which countries are the most attractive?

The top destination spots change according to the times and the nature of the migrants’ activities. "The day before yesterday, it was Gabon and Ivory Coast. Yesterday, it was South Africa and Libya. Today, it’s Gabon and Equatorial Guinea," explains Bredeloup.

There are generally three major destination poles on the continent:

1. Ivory Coast needs agricultural manpower
2. Nigeria, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea attract populations because of their oil wealth.
These two destination zones, some of which -- such as Gabon -- are sparsely populated, attract an annual foreign workforce influx from countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Benin. These migrants take enormous risks -- such as crossing the Gulf of Guinea -- to reach their regional destinations.
3. South Africa's gold and diamond mines

There are also multiple migration movements on a smaller scale within the continent. Niger, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea-Conakry for example, attract border populations because of their gold mines.

What are the dangers confronting migrants?

As is the case across the world, migration is not free of risk. “Ignorance is a source of violence,” explains Bredeloup. "Rumours about one or another nationality circulate, leading to prevailing stereotypes, such as 'Nigerians are dangerous, they are warriors who will rob you,’ which can lead to aggression.”

Moreover, human trafficking, corruption and racism are rampant on the continent. Bredeloup explains that many nationals of French-speaking African nations are afraid of travelling through English-speaking Nigeria. "Since the 1990s, they know about the high incidence of corruption at border crossings,” she explains, “and their inadequate command of the English language does not serve them well.”


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