Migration governance in flux. What can Africa learn from the rest of the world?

By on 27/08/2023 | Updated on 27/08/2023
A pcitrue of the president of the nations who form the Mercosur southern common market.
A picture of the president of the nations who form the Mercosur southern common market. Photo: Alan Santos/PR reproduced under Creative Commons

African governments have long looked to work together to free movement of people across the continent. As they work to make further progress, what are the lessons that can be learned from European and South American experiences?

Since the Abuja treaty for African economic integration in 1991, ambitious African leaders have had in mind an end-goal of lowered borders and the much freer movement of goods, services, capital, and people across the entire continent of 55 countries. For many this invoked pan-African ideals which had emerged in the early 20th century in response to colonial borders which continued to shape Africa long after decolonisation.

After independence, the emergence of national states in place of imperial territories solidified colonial boundaries with the imposition of new border controls and new distinctions between citizens and others. Restrictions on the movement of people across borders was even greater than in the colonial era when empires marked boundaries, not nation states.

African leaders returned to pan-Africanism in the late 20th century having learned that it was difficult to drive growth and hence raise living standards in 55 isolated countries most of which were quite small. Enlarging markets would enhance developmental opportunities. The question was how to do it – what governance structures would enable economic integration, and how should human mobility be managed? How does Africa realise its evident collective desire to facilitate the movement of Africans across African national borders?

In the early independence era following the 1950s there were two views; some leaders, notably Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, felt that from the start the objective should be continental integration. Others clustered around Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere who argued an incremental approach starting at the regional level – such as East Africa, West Africa, and Central Africa – was more feasible as coordinating integration for the entire, huge continent at once would be impossibly difficult.

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Economic integration plans developed through the years

Nyerere’s view predominated and regional structures of coordination and, incrementally, integration began to develop. By the end of the 20th century there were eight functioning regional structures in Africa operating at significantly different levels of integration. Trade was increasingly freed up and in some cases the mobility of people across borders was also improving.

First to move was the Economic Community of West African States. ECOWAS was a remarkable achievement bringing together French, British and Portuguese ex-colonies together in a single broad grouping. In 1979, a few years after its formation, ECOWAS agreed to a treaty for the free movement of persons. There were three phases. First was visa free visitors’ rights, then a right to residence, and then a right to ‘establishment’, meaning rights to work or run businesses. Though this three-phase design became a template for other African regions, ECOWAS never moved definitively beyond the first phase, though it agreed to the second, residence phase. Domestic law largely prevails when it comes to rights beyond visiting.

Some other African regions, notably in East Africa, Southern Africa and the Horn of Africa, followed in the wake of ECOWAS, but domestic law tended to prevail when it came to rights of residence and establishment. In East Africa and West Africa regional courts have tried to enshrine the sovereignty of regional treaties, but their success has been limited.

Despite the uneven and incomplete implementation of regional agreements for the movement of persons, in 1991 the Abuja treaty made a commitment to a comprehensive continental freedom of movement. In 2018, the same year that the African Continental Free Trade agreement (AfCFTA) was agreed, a treaty on the free movement of persons in Africa was endorsed by African leaders at their annual African Union summit. While the free trade agreement was widely ratified and came into force, only four of 55 members of the African Union ratified the free movement of persons protocol.

The next steps for freedom of movement in Africa

This naturally poses the question – how does Africa realise its evident collective desire to facilitate the movement of Africans across African national borders?

One possibility would be to try to follow the European model. Europe is unique in achieving internal freedom of movement, residence, and establishment for all citizens of EU countries. But, in the case of the EU, it took 30 years between the establishment of a common market and the Single European Act, and another six years before full freedom of movement was achieved. Though the AfCFTA is in force, it is a long way from full implementation. The EU road to free movement of persons would be long.

Africans might also consider the case of South America. Movement towards open borders for people moved slowly forward in Andean Pact and MERCOSUR states, and then made a quantum leap in the new millennium when the relaunched MERCOSUR southern common market agreed to regularise irregular migration after two years with an unblemished work and conduct record.

When more than seven million Venezuelans fled their country post-2015, the liberal approach of South American countries towards the movement of persons was consolidated. It should be noted that this development was built on several decades of incremental progress in coordinating and simplifying border management, documentation to enter and leave states, and bureaucratic procedures for human mobility.

African countries are moving forward. In a world where hostility to migrants is widespread and is cynically abused by populist politicians, attitudes in Africa are mostly favourable and progress is happening on many fronts. In addition to formal regional processes, many countries are unilaterally opening their borders to visitors from other African countries. Within regions, some sub-sets of members have moved forwards in plurilateral agreements, such as in East Africa, where Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda have moved ahead of their fellow members of the East African community. These are also numerous bilateral agreements over visa-free travel and even, between some bordering states, agreements to allow travel across borders with recognised identity documents – no passport required.

Some African countries hesitate to open their borders. Countries which are relatively richer and offer their inhabitants free health care, education and other social benefits, but still have significant inequality and poverty tend to be more protective and fearful of an influx from poorer neighbouring countries.

One lesson from the experiences of Europe and South America is that there are different paths towards regional systems of free movement. Africa is following several of those paths simultaneously which is not a bad thing – they don’t exclude or explicitly hamper each other.

The South American process offers further lessons. First, there was the attention given to common documentation, border management systems and bureaucratic procedures, even before there was significant border opening. Then, there were systems developed to facilitate business travel and the mobility of skilled people. So, when the decision was made to liberalise further in the 2000s, reliable systems and practices were already in place.

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About Alan Hirsch

Alan Hirsch is a research fellow at the New South Institute, emeritus professor at UCT, & research associate at SOAS. He directs the Migration Governance Reform in Africa Program at the New South Institute.

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