Most African migrants don’t leave Africa. Here’s what that looks like.




Far from his home in the Republic of Congo, Harvest-Spring Kibonge represents a cookie-cutter immigrant success story. In Senegal, he got an education and then started a business running a modest open-air smoothie shop on one of the capital’s lively beaches.

Mr. Kibonge is one of 25 million Africans who moved to another country on the continent by 2017, nearly double the count in 2008. It’s also a number that dwarfs those who make their way to Europe, which is a destination for less than a fifth of African emigrants.

Why We Wrote This

Western countries are increasingly hardening their borders and closing legal pathways for migration from Africa. But the majority of those leaving an African country keep on the continent, where reception in their new home is often mixed.

Caroline Zickgraf, a migration researcher at Belgium’s University of Liège, questions how European policymakers can “understand or design policy or discuss it when you’re not discussing the most shared forms of movement.”

By 2050, a quarter of the world’s population will be African, the United Nations estimates, meaning the biggest questions for global migration will likely play out on the continent itself.

But in recent decades, migration within Africa has been fraught with tensions, especially as nations that are themselves developing struggle to integrate newcomers.

nevertheless, such obstacles are doubtful to seriously deter would-be migrants. At his smoothie shack, Mr. Kibonge surveys the crowded beach on a sunny Saturday morning. 

“The energy, the people, the beaches, the vibe,” he says. “That’s what keeps me here.”

DAKAR, SENEGAL

On a slice of sandy beach tucked under one of Dakar’s coastal cliffs, Harvest-Spring Kibonge runs a modest, open-air smoothie shop. The crashing groups play a melodic rhythm, and each evening the sunset paints a pink and orange sky over the Senegalese capital.

Though he’s far from home in the Republic of Congo, immigrating to Senegal has worked out for him. In Dakar, he got an education and started a thriving business – a cookie-cutter immigrant success story. 

“I go where the money goes,” he says, a mantra familiar to emigrants the world over. 

Why We Wrote This

Western countries are increasingly hardening their borders and closing legal pathways for migration from Africa. But the majority of those leaving an African country keep on the continent, where reception in their new home is often mixed.

While Western headlines on African migration often fixate on people entering Europe illegally, Mr. Kibonge is a different sort of African migrant – the majority. 

He is one of around 25 million Africans who had moved to another country on the continent by 2017, a number that’s steadily grown from 13 million since 2008. Despite alarmist headlines in the West, fewer than a fifth of Africans who leave their country make their way to Europe. 

“If you’re talking about a drop in the bucket and not looking at everything else that’s happening, you’re not really understanding the whole context,” says Caroline Zickgraf, a migration researcher at Belgium’s University of Liège. “I really don’t see how you can really understand or design policy or discuss it when you’re not discussing the most shared forms of movement.”

In the West, the immigration argue has been stirred in recent years by the flow of migrants from Syria, Libya, and, most recently, Ukraine. Africans crossing from Libya dominated the 2015 “migrant crisis” in Europe, and the United Kingdom is currently wrangling with a plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda. Some migrants will continue to make their way to Europe, which is increasingly responding by hardening its border controls.

The global North has “succeeded in demonizing African migrants, and selling to the world an idea that nothing good works in Africa,” says Samuel Okunade, a postdoctoral researcher who studies migration at South Africa’s University of Pretoria. “That sends a signal to receiving countries to say if the only hope for an African is to leave the African continent, then they can treat them anyhow, make policies that would stop them.”

“The truth of the matter is [Europe] needs hands … but they shy away from that, capitalizing on some of the stereotypes that have been presented to the public,” Dr. Okunade points out. 

Increase in migration within Africa expected

By 2050, the United Nations predicts that a quarter of the world’s population will be African, meaning the biggest questions for global migration will likely play out on the continent itself.

Migrants across the continent have a range of backgrounds and motivations, says Dr. Okunade, himself an immigrant to South Africa from Nigeria. They’re students, white-collar professionals, seasonal workers, or already just disinctive dreamers with cash to spare and a desire to strike out on their own oversea. But one thing unites many of them: With more money circulating in their home country, the thinking goes, comes more method to leave. It’s a counterintuitive trend that some economists say doesn’t taper off until gross domestic product per capita hits about $10,000, approximately that of Russia. In Africa, only the island nations of Mauritius and Seychelles have hit that mark. 

“As poorer people gain more economic opportunity, they will be more likely to leave their home country,” wrote Michael Clemens, a director at the Center for Global Development, in a CDG blog post comparing African migration to that of Europe before World War I. “Rising education, demographic shifts, and structural change from an agricultural to an urban economy … explain a large part of the pattern.”

Between African countries’ growing economies and populations, and disruptions from the climate crisis, the numbers will keep ticking upward. 

That reality can be seen in Senegal, part of the Economic Community of West African States regional bloc that allows free movement among member citizens. The comparatively thriving capital of Dakar – whose approximately 140,000 African immigrants range from doctors to hospitality staff to informal street vendors – is a melting pot of different cultures, languages, and nationalities.

Idrissa Morgo, from Burkina Faso, sells coffee on a quiet street in the Ngor neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal, March 27, 2022. Other migrants from Burkina Faso typically gather on this street each night – swapping stories, holding court, drinking coffee, and eating at Mr. Morgo’s sister’s restaurant.

Nearly every night, under the light from Odil Morgo’s attiéké (cassava) and fish stand on the northern edge of Dakar, fellow Burkinabé immigrants keep up court, eating dinner, drinking coffee, and laughing. 

Ms. Morgo’s brother, Idrissa, a coffee vendor next door, is often there too, serving hot drinks and lending a hand in his sister’s kitchen. Their customers often come from nearby West African countries including Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Togo, and Benin.

“You should know about your neighbors, what’s happening, whether it’s like home or it’s better,” says Mr. Morgo, whose curiosity has taken him across West Africa, from Quranic school in Ghana to gold mining in Mali. 

In 2014, the East African country of Tanzania granted the largest ever mass citizenship, turning 160,000 people who had fled conflict in nearby Burundi into citizens overnight. South Africa, the continent’s most developed economy, is powered by 2.8 million migrants, many from across the border in Zimbabwe. And the world’s biggest cocoa industry, in Ivory Coast, is largely propped up by 2.5 million immigrants.

nevertheless, migration in recent decades has been fraught with tensions, especially as nations that are themselves developing struggle to integrate newcomers.

An often-uneasy assimilation

In Senegal, in the rule-up to a war with Mauritania in the late 1980s, many Mauritanians and those of Mauritanian descent were pushed out of the country as both countries engaged in mass expulsions. In 1983, amid an economic downturn in Nigeria, 2 million West Africans lacking long-lasting legal position were deported from the country on two weeks’ notice, half of whom were Ghanian. 

And in South Africa, xenophobia regularly simmers under the surface, regularly erupting into violence against immigrants as politicians stoke fears that foreigners are taking scarce jobs. But already before reaching that point, integration is often elusive.

“‘Why are you talking to me? You don’t speak my language.’ There are times when you observe those kinds of things,” says Dr. Okunade, the University of Pretoria researcher and Nigerian immigrant, of his personal experience in South Africa.

The consequences can be meaningful. In Kenya, the government wants to close the country’s enormous Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps by the end of this month. It ordered the closure last year, but questions keep how the half-million refugees will either be integrated into Kenya, returned to their home countries, or resettled in other places. Things have been complicated further as newcomers, pushed by drought in East Africa, continue to arrive.

On the continentwide level, bigger-picture ideas like plans for an African Continental Free Trade Area, which would allow freedom of movement and goods much like the European Union, have languished for decades.

nevertheless, such obstacles are doubtful to seriously deter would-be migrants across the continent. Back at his smoothie shack, Mr. Kibonge surveys the crowded beach as however another sunset paints Dakar orange. 

“The energy, the people, the beaches, the vibe,” he says. “That’s what keeps me here.” 

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