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What we get wrong about African migration

London is hosting its first 2020 UK-African Investment Summit to promote jobs and investment, as the continent’s population should reach two billion in the next thirty years. In an article in Monday’s Guardian the former prime minister, Tony Blair, said Britain should not be left behind when it comes to investment in Africa with its enormous opportunities. Yet never far away from the subject of Africa is the issue of migration.

People wait for passengers during a strike by airline workers at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi on March 6, 2019. – Hundreds of travellers were stranded at Nairobi’s international airport as riot police were deployed and teargas fired to disperse striking workers. With flights grounded since midnight, passengers were advised not to come to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport — East Africa’s busiest according to the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) — until further notice. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP) (Photo credit should read YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)

We continue to view Africa as corrupt, not surprising in the light of the leaked documents that exposed how Africa’s richest woman, Isabel dos Santos, pilfered her country, Angola, where most of its citizens live on $2 a day. We also see Africans as victims of a violent continent, war-torn, with populations of poor migrants desperately waiting for boats to ferry them to the gold-paved streets of Europe. Of course, those issues do fuel migration, but approximately 86 per cent of international migration within Africa is not primarily related to conflict.

Over the last two decades, research has shown that most African migration is not toward Europe but toward other African countries, and to the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the Americas. And more significantly, “…the bulk of African migration — 80 per cent — takes place within the continent of Africa and is mainly for economic purposes,” said Mohammed Abdiker, regional director of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the UN migration agency.

Last year, “over 21 million Africans were living in another African country,” he continued, in his opening speech at the Ministerial Forum on Harmonising Labour Migration Policies in East and Horn of Africa in Nairobi, a meeting that took place at the same time as the London conference. “Most Africans migrate for family, work or study as is the case in other world regions.”

Our views about migration are still often informed by stereotypes. For two decades, academics have questioned the assumption that African migration is different from any other, according to academics Marie-Laurence Flahaux and Hein De Haas. African movement is not “exceptional”, but parallels the usual reasons for moving — the search for work or family or study.

The unreported story is that migration in the region moves along three main corridors, says Abdiker. The Eastern route moves towards the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other countries on the Arabian peninsula; the Northern route towards the northern part of the continent, and possibly to Europe; and finally the Southern route, towards the southern part of the continent, including Kenya, the United Republic of Tanzania, and down towards South Africa.

Abdiker’s opening address began with the example of the rescue of 100 Kenyan girls at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport who were about to be trafficked to the Gulf. The point of the conference is to use data to harmonise labour policies, protect workers’ rights and facilitate safe passage.

Tony Blair writes that it is essential to support governments, especially as the UK navigates a new role in a post-Brexit world. “If we can use the UK-Africa investment summit to become a true economic partner to African countries, it would be of great strategic benefit to the continent and to the UK.”

Since the mid-1980s, migration across the world has risen, with about 60 per cent staying within their region. When we think of migrants we think of Syrian refugees in boats, destitute Africans stranded in camps in Libya, trafficked Romanians and the huddled masses that built America. But migration comes in many forms, not least that of the Royal flight to Canada by the Sussexes. They won’t have to claim asylum, pass the points test or participate in the guest-worker programme. The Sussexes will find Canadians warm and welcoming.

Prince Harry and Boris Johnson had a 20-minute farewell chat at the conference. Maybe one of the things they discussed was that most Britons think immigration is a good thing. Then Harry jetted off to Vancouver to start his new life as an immigrant.