Work Migration in Africa: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Wednesday, 17 November, 2010 - 10:24

Work migration contributes to the economic growth of the host countries and migrant workers are a development resource for their home countries. Migrant workers are vulnerable to xenophobia, racism, discrimination and are mostly ill-treated in their host countries

Work migration is currently a contentious issue across Africa and the world, as witnessed in the recent elections in England, Australia and the United States (US) that had immigration issues as a central campaign topic. Work migration cuts across class and skill boundaries, as well as geographical and demographic contexts. It also represents an integral way in which poor households, particularly in Africa, diversify their sources of income and ensure their livelihoods. Indeed, the correlation between development and migration is a strong one for migrants, for both their home countries, as well as for the host countries that receive them. However, migration is often viewed in a much more negative light.

Developed countries are increasingly suspicious of work migrants who are perceived to be stealing jobs, increasing crime and diluting the national culture. Outright xenophobia, the ugly side of migration, is increasingly becoming an issue in many countries also. On the part of home countries, migration is also often viewed negatively due to the longstanding concern of the ‘brain drain’ of African professionals to developed countries.

This discussion paper delves into the various conceptions of work migration from Africa to developed countries. In this regard, the good, the bad and the ugly sides of work migration will be discussed in an aim to see the wood from the trees in this contentious debate.

Work migration

Work migration is not a new phenomenon in Africa. Indeed, Africa’s economic history was forged by large population movements driven by the slave trade, colonisation, poverty, ecological degradation, population pressure and a cultural propensity for outward migration. (2)

In the last 50 years, both the volume and velocity of international migration has increased due to the following events. In Africa, the liberalisation of colonial restrictions on movement after independence greatly increased the possibilities for outward migration to developed countries. Secondly, the collapse of communism was instrumental in further freeing up restrictions of movement in Africa and throughout the world. (3) Lastly, globalisation, which is a major driver of migration, and vice-versa, has also facilitated a greater awareness of the growing disparities in life chances between rich and poor countries. (4)

In Africa, transnational migration is not the only type of work migration occurring. Regional work migration within Africa and local migration from rural to urban areas are also both prominent forms of work migration. This paper, however, is concerned with transnational work migration of Africans to developed countries, such as the US and those in Europe. Most Africans migrate to Europe and according to a 2005 study by the International Organisation for Migration.(5)

However, these figures are probably grossly underestimated as they do not take into account the majority of undocumented Africans living and working in the world. Due to Africa’s colonial ties to Europe, most Africans tend to migrate to Europe and according to Kohnert,(6) this migratory tendency will accelerate in years to come. Work migration is therefore set to become even more of an issue both for Africa and for Europe and the rest of the world.

The good...

Migration is not a zero-sum game in which one country gains and the other loses. Work migration is beneficial both to the home country of the migrant and to the host country in which the migrant chooses to work. Migration and development are linked in a number of ways. Migration has become a key feature in meeting economic, labour market and productivity challenges in developed countries. In this sense, work migrants provide a response to fast-changing needs for skills and personnel as a result of technological advances, changes in the market and industrial transformations.

This is particularly the case in Europe, in which the gap left by an aging population is being filled by migrant workers. Therefore, by replenishing a declining work force and injecting younger workers into the economy, work migration increases dynamism and innovation in the work force. (7) Moreover, work migrants often fulfil ‘three-D’ jobs - dirty, dangerous and degrading jobs. (8)

Developed countries’ efforts to fill ‘three-D’ jobs and to increase labour productivity at the lowest cost and acquire greater economic competitiveness is continuously being met by a growing contingent of cheap, low-skilled migrant labourers in numerous sectors of national economies. (9) Furthermore, the contributions of international migrants to development extend beyond economic gains to encompass cultural enrichment and exchange, social welfare and political advocacy.

Aside from contributing to the economic development of host countries, migrants are a development resource for their home countries. Migrant remittances, according to Nyberg-Sorensen et al (10) are double the size of aid and are well targeted at the poor. The remittance practices of migrants have direct effects on the households who receive these ‘migradollars’ as money is primarily spent on current consumption (food and clothing), as well as investments in Millennium Development Goals-related areas such as children’s education, healthcare and agriculture. (11) Remittances are therefore agents of local and national development in the home countries of migrants.

Work migration from Africa to developed countries is therefore a mutually beneficial phenomenon, which results in development gains for both home and host countries. The positive benefits of work migration are often underplayed and undervalued, especially by developed countries. This is particularly the case in times of economic downturn such as the world is currently experiencing in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008.

The bad...

Nyberg-Sorensen et al (12) aptly capture the ‘bad’ side of work migration, stating that current alarmist commentary on migration includes “apocalyptic visions of a western world beset by massive migration pressure from ‘barbarous’, ‘degenerating’ regions of the developing world, coupled with overwrought anxieties about growing ‘imbalances’ between the native population and other racial categories”. Indeed, on the part of developed migrant-receiving states, the prevailing view is that immigration pressures have reached intolerable levels. This sentiment has been accompanied by more restrictive legislation and the tendency to confuse the status of refugees, illegal immigrant, legal immigrants, highly skilled and unskilled migrant labourers and view all of these categories with the same security concerns. (13)

Migration is closely linked to security concerns at the individual, national and global levels and this is especially true when one considers that migration often occurs as a result of conflict and violence. However, that said, it is important for receiving countries to properly differentiate between the different categories of migrants and to legislate accordingly without succumbing to the alarmist tendencies described by Nyberg-Sorensen et al. Coercive policies minimise the developmental benefits of work migration for home and host countries and work against peace and security at all levels.

Indeed, rather than stemming transnational migration to developed countries, increasingly harsh policies promote and benefit human smugglers and employers who hire illegal immigrants to avoid complying with government employment regulations.(14) Thus, an unintended consequence of harsher migration controls is the growth of human trafficking and smuggling organisations.

With regard to the negative effect of work migration on the home countries of work migrants, the most prominent is the ‘brain drain’ effect. The loss of human capital is a key challenge as African states already face serious human resources shortages due to skills migration to developed states. Educated Africans are leaving the continent in droves in search of the larger paycheques and superior working conditions in developed states. Kohnert’s (15) research reveals that “between 33 percent and 55 percent of Africans with higher education left Angola, Burundi, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Tanzania in search for a better life and employment in OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries. For example, about 20 000 Nigerian and 12 000 South African doctors migrated overseas, whereas only 33 000 remained in South Africa”. A key effect of the ‘brain drain’ is that it curbs the growth of an African middle class and the development of sustainable structures of civil society. The existence (or lack thereof) of a middle class plays a major role in political and economic stabilisation of countries. (16)

The ‘bad’ effects of work migration are more than matched by the ‘good’ effects, though there is one more side to work migration that is consistently raising its ‘ugly’ head around the globe.

The ugly...

Migrant workers are highly vulnerable to racism, xenophobia and discrimination and this is even more apparent in the current climate of economic downturn and growing unemployment levels in migrant-receiving countries. Migrant workers are being blamed for many of the ills currently besetting previously burgeoning economies in developed areas of the world. In addition, increasing migration means that states have become more multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious. This has brought about the challenge of accommodating diversity and the reality of finding political, legal, social and economic mechanisms to ensure that mutual respect and mediation of differences is guaranteed. (17)

Unfortunately, xenophobia, racism and discrimination have become commonplace as current international disputes about national identity have shown. The recent international debate over the banning of the Islamic burqa in many Western countries is a case in point. While this has elicited mixed views, it has also catalysed harsh anti-Islamic sentiment in many developed countries and has revealed the intensely negative views of developed country national’s towards Islamic migrants (north African citizens are predominantly Islamic). This is but one example of outright discrimination and xenophobia in host countries and which is becoming more common globally.


In an increasingly globalised world, the way forward in managing migration to increase the benefits for migrant-sending African countries and for migrant-receiving developed countries, may be found in the following actions. Most important is the need for increased awareness creation and advocacy of the mutually beneficial nature of work migration. In many countries, it is ignorance and a lack of information on the part of citizens as to the benefits of work migration that leads to many of the negative effects of work migration occurring. The problems associated with work migration will not be solved by feeding fears of an ‘immigrant invasion’, nor will it be solved by implementing ever harsher laws and security measures at border posts. It will be solved by greater communication and international cooperation on migrant issues between home and host countries and a deeper global commitment to peace, security and equality throughout the world.

- Catherine Pringle through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit ( The November edition of the Africa Watch Newsletter is republished here with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. For more information, see or Alternatively, click here to take advantage of CAI’s free, no obligation, 1-month trial to the company’s Standard Report Series.

- In addition to topical discussion papers and tailored research services, CAI releases a number of fortnightly and monthly publications, examining the latest developments in Africa, across a wide range of interest areas. Interested parties can click here to take advantage of CAI’s free, no obligation, 1-month trial to any/all of the CAI publications.
- For more information, see or
(1) Contact Catherine Pringle through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit (
(2) Kohnert, D. 2007. African Migration to Europe: Obscured Responsibilities and Common Misconceptions. German Institute of Global and Area Studies: Working Papers, No.49, pp. 5.
(3) Nyberg-Sorensen, N., Van Hear, N., & Endberg-Pedersen, P. 2002. The Migration development Nexus: Evidence and Policy Options. International Organisation for Migration Research Series, No. 8, pp. 9.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Kohnert, D. 2007. African Migration to Europe: Obscured Responsibilities and Common Misconceptions. German Institute of Global and Area Studies: Working Papers, No.49, pp. 7.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Taran, P. 2006. Imperatives for Union Leadership in Defending a Rights Based Approach to Migration in the Age of Globalization. International Labour Organization for the International Trade Union Confederation Workshop on Organising Migrant Workers and Promoting Their Rights, Brussels, 12-15 December, pp. 1.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Nyberg-Sorensen, N., Van Hear, N., & Endberg-Pedersen, P. 2002. The Migration development Nexus: Evidence and Policy Options. International Organisation for Migration Research Series, No. 8, pp. 9.
(11) Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).2006. International Migration and Development: Implications for Africa. A background document for the High Level Dialogue on Migration and Development United Nations General Assembly. New York City, United States of America, New York, 14-15 September, pp. 2.
(12) Nyberg-Sorensen, N., Van Hear, N., & Endberg-Pedersen, P. 2002. The Migration development Nexus: Evidence and Policy Options. International Organisation for Migration Research Series, No. 8, pp. 9.
(13) Ibid.
(14) Ibid.
(15) Kohnert, D. 2007. African Migration to Europe: Obscured Responsibilities and Common Misconceptions. German Institute of Global and Area Studies: Working Papers, No.49, pp. 7.
(16) Ibid.
(17) International Labour Office (ILO), International Organisation for Migration (IOM), & Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR). 2001. International Migration, Racism, Discrimination and Xenophobia. For Distribution at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, August, pp. 1.

NGO Services

NGO Services

NGO Events