African migration: Who’s thinking of going where?

By Josephine Appiah-Nyamekyeand and Edem Selormey

Despite the danger of dying of thirst in the Sahara desert, drowning in the Mediterranean, or being sold as slaves in Libya, many Africans are willing to risk their lives in search of greener pastures. Face-to-face interviews with thousands of Africans confirm this basic news-media narrative, as well as the perception that this gamble is particularly appealing to young and well-educated Africans looking for jobs and fleeing poverty. But they also point to important differences by country, including potential migrants’ preferred destinations, that can inform targeted policy responses.

Afrobarometer’s current round of nationally representative surveys (to be completed by mid-2018) explores migration intentions and drivers in 35 African countries. Initial data from nine countries – Ghana, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Mali, Zambia, and Zimbabwe – show that on average, one-third of respondents have considered emigrating, including 16% who have given it “a lot” of thought (see Figure 1). The proclivity to emigrate is highest in Malawi (where 28% say they have thought “a lot” about leaving), Zimbabwe (22%), Benin (20%), and Ghana (20%). It is lowest in Mali, where eight in 10 respondents (80%) say they have not considered emigrating at all.

Figure 1: Considered emigration| 9 African countries | 2016/2017

Figure 1

Respondents were asked: How much, if at all, have you considered moving to another country to live?

Among potential emigrants, two groups that are critical to African countries’ economic future are overrepresented – the young and the educated

Among potential emigrants, two groups that are critical to African countries’ economic future are overrepresented – the young and the educated. Africa has the youngest population in the world (according to the United Nations), but many young people are considering seeking their fortunes elsewhere. In each of the nine surveyed countries, younger respondents are more likely to have considered emigrating (Figure 2). One-fourth or more of 18- to 35-year-olds in Malawi (32%), Ghana (26%), and Benin (25%) say they have given “a lot” of thought to leaving their home countries (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Considered emigration “a lot” | by age group | 9 African countries              | 2016/2017

Figure 2

Respondents were asked: How much, if at all, have you considered moving to another country to live? (% who say “a lot”)

Similarly, educated respondents are more likely than their less-educated counterparts to consider emigrating. On average across the nine surveyed countries, one in four respondents with post-secondary qualifications (25%) say they have thought “a lot” about emigrating, compared to 20% of those with a secondary education, 13% with a primary education, and 8% without any formal education (Figure 3). The proportions are particularly large among post-secondary graduates in Malawi (40%) and Zimbabwe (32%) – two countries marked by high lived povertyand unemployment, and particularly vulnerable to the pernicious effects of brain drainas trained health-care workers, engineers, and other vital human resources opt for better opportunities abroad.

Figure 3: Considered emigration “a lot” | by education level | 9 African countries | 2016/2017

Figure 3

Respondents were asked: How much, if at all, have you considered moving to another country to live? (% who say “a lot”)

Given Africa’s high rates of poverty and unemployment, especially youth unemployment, it is hardly surprising that potential emigrants say they are motivated mainly by a desire to find a job (43%) and to escape economic hardship/poverty (33%) (Figure 4).

This is consistent with Africans’ perceptions of unemployment as their countries’ most important problem requiring government attention – a problem that is pushing energetic young human resources out of their home countries. But sadly, for many emigrants, a journey of hope often ends in despair or death; reports of hundreds of African emigrants captured, subjected to inhumane treatment, sometimes even sold as slaves sparked global outrage and became a key issue on the agenda of the November 2017 African Union-European Union Summit and a joint AU-EU-UN task force created to address the crisis.

Figure 4: Reasons for considering emigration| 9 countries | 2016/2017

Figure 4

Excluding those who said they had “not at all” considered emigration, respondents were asked: There are several reasons why people leave their home to live in another country for an extended period of time. What about you? What is the most important reason why you would consider moving from [your country]?

On average, although half of potential emigrants want to leave the continent, almost as many would prefer to go to another country within the same region or to another African country

While the drivers of potential emigration are fairly consistent across countries, preferred destinations vary greatly. On average, although half (51%) of potential emigrants want to leave the continent, almost as many would prefer to go to another country within the same region (37%) or to another African country (10%) (Figure 5). Among locations outside Africa, Europe (20%) and North America (19%) are the preferred destinations.

Another country in the same region is by far the most popular destination for potential emigrants in Malawi (71%), Zimbabwe (67%), Zambia (48%), and Benin (48%), but Europe and North America dominate emigration dreams in Côte d’Ivoire (45% and 28%, respectively) and Ghana (31% and 39%) (Table 1) – even if immigration barriers mean that only a fraction of these dreams are likely to be realized.

Figure 5: Preferred destination for potential emigrants| 9 African countries | 2016/2017

Figure 5

Excluding those who said they had “not at all” considered emigration, respondents were asked: If you were to move to another country, where would you be most likely to go?

Table 1: Preferred destination for potential emigrants| by country | 9 African countries | 2016/2017 

Within regionElsewhere in AfricaEuropeNorth AmericaCentral/ South AmericaMiddle EastAsiaAustralia
Malawi71%8%4%9%2%1%1%1%
Zimbabwe67%8%11%5%0%2%0%4%
Zambia48%16%11%13%2%2%5%
Benin48%9%19%10%2%1%1%1%
Uganda31%15%13%24%2%11%1%1%
Mali27%20%37%9%1%1%1%1%
Kenya26%6%14%31%3%10%1%4%
Côte d´Ivoire8%4%45%28%3%2%2%1%
Ghana7%4%31%39%2%2%2%2%
9-country average37%10%20%19%2%4%1%2%

Excluding those who said they had “not at all” considered emigration, respondents were asked: If you were to move to another country, where would you be most likely to go?

Migration tends to be economically beneficial for both countries of origin and receiving countries. Many industrial countries need migrants – who often provide relatively cheap labour –  to work in sectors such as information technology, health services, agriculture, manufacturing, and construction. Countries of origin benefit from remittances, which total about three times the amount of foreign aidthey receive. Despite these advantages, many governments are currently reluctant to receive immigrants, especially lower-skilled economic migrants without a claim to a humanitarian status. While several opinion polls have reported that a majority of Americans think that undocumented immigrants in the United States should be given a chance to remain there legally, some citizens and politicians – in the political center as well as the right and far right –  argue that immigrants compete with them for jobs and resources.

More in-depth analysis may point policy makers toward differences in drivers, destinations, and costs/benefits of migration that can help them align policies with realities in specific countries and regions

Against this backdrop, developed countries have taken recent steps to control migration, including proposing tighter rules on immigration in the United States and establishing the European Union Trust Fund to help curb extra-continental emigration from Africa.

For African leaders, the major challenge in preventing the depletion of human resources clearly lies in prioritizing the creation of thriving economies that generate jobs and improve the living conditions of young Africans. But more in-depth analysis of data from Afrobarometer and other sources may also point policy makers worldwide toward geographic and socio-demographic differences in drivers, destinations, and costs/benefits of migration that can help them align policies with realities in specific countries and regions.

About the authors

Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye is Afrobarometer communications coordinator for anglophone West Africa.

Edem Selormey is Afrobarometer field operations manager for anglophone West Africa and East and North Africa.

To follow Afrobarometer releases on migration and other issues, visit www.afrobarometer.org.

Between Dejection and Awe: Reflections on Research with African Refugees

by Rose Jaji                                        Banner photo by Andrew McConnell/IRC/Panos Pictures

The gulf between “me” and “them” represented in the researcher and researched dichotomy narrows as one realizes that refugees are not different from oneself except that their lives have been disrupted by human-made calamities. In this piece, I address the discrepancy between media images and the realities I have encountered in my research with refugees in Kenya and Zimbabwe. I draw from the reflexive turn in anthropology to communicate my research experiences in Nairobi and Harare. Intent on neither romanticizing nor denying the resilience among the refugees who participated in the research, I convey the oscillation between dejection and awe, as I have found myself confronted with evidence of humanity’s capacity for evil and the marvelous stories of human resilience and hope. I write about refugees’ pain and my own sense of helplessness and conclude on a positive note by presenting refugees’ stories as being as much about recovery as they are about loss.

Dominant Images and my Encounter with Refugees

My first research trip to Nairobi was in the last quarter of 2006 (more trips have followed since then). I did not know what to expect but I had media images of refugees, particularly those from Africa, in my mind. The media has created and perpetuated distressing images of African refugees that portray them as the quintessence of loss and helplessness. Malkki has discussed the archetypal depiction of African refugees as, in her words, speechless emissaries. Unsure of what to expect because of the media images, I included payment for a translator in my research budget. My first surprise on my first encounter with refugees in Nairobi was that I did not need a translator as most of the refugees could speak English and were also multilingual.

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Photo by author

When I needed a translator during focus group discussions with refugee men from the Great Lakes region who spoke French, I hired a refugee woman from Rwanda who spoke both English and French fluently, in addition to Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili. These were not rural, illiterate people who had fled conflicts they could hardly explain. On the contrary, I was about to conduct research with professionals and university students who had abandoned their jobs and studies because of violence.

The Humanity of Refugees

As I continue researching with refugees, I am struck by how their worries about food and other basic necessities when they fled coexisted with worries about getting shot. Life took a completely different trajectory than they had dreamed of and anticipated prior to flight. Young refugee men from the Great Lakes region who had worked in their countries of origin as journalists and entrepreneurs or were university students with bright prospects told me about living like street children in Nairobi. The men who were in their twenties told me about the frustration of spending the best years of their lives unemployed and incapable of making long-term decisions and starting families. Their dreams were abruptly terminated by violence, flight and lack of opportunities to rebuild their lives in the host country.

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Picture from Flickr: “Somali refugee, Iftin Ahmed Farah, 24, in Nairobi, Kenya”, by Andrew McConnell/IRC/Panos Pictures.

I look at fathers hang their heads in shame because they can no longer provide for their children; gender roles have been reversed as their wives engage in informal activities and feed the family. I discuss this in my paper on young refugee men and masculinity. I also listen to refugee women relate experiences that are intricately linked to their gender. Refugee women’s stories are intertwined with sexual and gender-based violence, giving birth in dangerous circumstances en route to safety, losing husbands to violence and raising children without reliable sources of income. Married refugee women’s experiences are intertwined with the troubled state of married refugee men’s masculinity which forces women into the breadwinner role. This feeds into domestic violence and agitation among married refugee women. While these experiences may not be unique to refugees, they are exacerbated by the fact that they are interlinked with material loss against the backdrop of widespread violence.

Sense of Helplessness

Researchers cannot escape their human qualities, such as empathy and desire to help. Many researchers have found solace in action research, which involves an agenda to change the circumstances of research participants in a positive way. The impact of action research on refugees remains unclear. Kenya hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees and humanitarian organizations are stretched. They focus on camps where the majority of refugees reside. Very little if any assistance is available for urban refugees.

Collaboration between academics and practitioners has the potential to foster mutual understanding not only between them but also between them and refugees who wonder why their plight remains unchanged in spite of all the data they have provided

Based on the gloomy stories I have listened to, I have reflected on what it means to access refugees’ stories when one lacks the means to improve their circumstances. On my first visit to Kenya, some young refugee women and men wanted to resume their university studies and I was a student myself without the additional funds to help. And who would I help in a sea of deprivation and need? This is a difficult subject for most researchers. Refugees told me about researchers who had made promises to them, for example, on assistance with third country resettlement, but did not fulfill these promises. Indeed, some refugees had become wary of researchers and they openly communicated this to me. Feeling guilty researching people in need when one is unable to improve their situation is understandable but making false promises as a way to salve one’s conscience is at variance with research ethics. I wonder whether it would not be more ethical and feasible to share research output with and engage those who tirelessly work daily to assist refugees. Collaboration between academics and practitioners has the potential to foster mutual understanding not only between them but also between them and refugees who wonder why their plight remains unchanged in spite of all the data they have provided.

Beyond the Refugee Tag

As weeks turned into months during my first research trip, the refugee label receded to the background as I became more conscious of refugees as neighbors in the low-income neighborhood where I lived with them. Although the sense of loss lingered even after decades of living outside their countries, refugees endeavored to rebuild their lives in the same way that people who are not refugees seek to make the best out of their circumstances. I acknowledge the need to keep refugees’ circumstances in the limelight and ensure that humanitarian assistance continues to be channeled to refugees. However, it is important to note that the stereotypical image of refugees as helpless and passive victims may result in asylum seekers who do not fit into this stereotype having their applications dismissed for, in the language of refugee status determination, lacking credibility.

Refugees’ stories are not solely about loss, they are also about survival, resilience, hope, and triumph even without material comfort

Online comments on stories on refugees posted on the CNN website, Yahoo! And YouTube to mention a few reflect the quintessential image of refugees represented by African women holding starving babies and toddlers “gender-balanced” with idle, able-bodied men and sick old men who cannot access the medical attention their conditions require. Refugees who deviate from these images of want and helplessness are accused of being economic migrants or terrorists. How does anyone get the time to dress so well, pack items into a backpack, and remember to carry their smartphone when they flee? Most of the anonymous writers of these comments seem puzzled by this possibility. But countries that descend into violent conflict have a middle class like any other country. Among refugees are professionals with bank accounts containing savings; they have the resources to arrive in the host country with the presumable trappings of “non-refugeeness”. It should thus come as no surprise that they flee with expensive jewelry, smart phones, and are not dressed in rags with malnourished babies and toddlers in tow. Yet, the dominant discourse silences their individual stories by inscribing the text of helplessness and victimhood on them. In this scheme of things, many host countries think of what the refugees will take instead of what they will give. For instance, African countries lament the “brain drain” without noticing the “brain gain” imbedded in refugee influxes. Refugees want to be economically independent and turning them into recipients of charity leads to frustration which feeds into the refugees-are-demanding-and-ungrateful narrative that dominates public debates in many host countries.

This pathologization of refugees also involves the assumption that refugees are incapable of articulating the complex conflicts that they fled. Refugees have shared with me well-informed and insightful perspectives on armed conflicts, ethnic politics, genocide, gender, and international relations in Africa. My informants and I would have intense moments as we discussed the horrors of violent conflicts and express outrage at and frustration with the corruption and poverty. We would also bemoan rigged elections. All this would eventually morph into cathartic humor as we joked at the expense of bad African leaders. Refugees’ stories are not solely about loss, they are also about survival, resilience, hope, and triumph even without material comfort. And, indeed, they are also stories of enduring love for the countries that denied them basic human rights including the right to life. I realize that imbedded in the unfamiliar is the familiar; refugees’ stories of loss and recovery resonate with the human experience in general.

About the author

Rose Jaji is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Zimbabwe. Her research areas of interest are migration/refugees, gender, and peacebuilding. Her current research is on migration from the Global North to Zimbabwe.

Recent publications

‘Reflexive ethnography and refugee research’. SAGE Research Methods Cases. 2018.

‘Under the shadow of genocide: Rwandans, ethnicity and refugee status’. Ethnicities , Vol. 17 (1), 47–65, 2017.

‘Normative, agitated, and rebellious femininities among East and Central African refugees’. Gender, Place, and Culture 22, 494509, 2015.