The Future of Mobility and Migration within and from Sub-Saharan Africa

Loren B. Landau
Caroline Wanjiku Kihato
Hannah Postel
Publication type

African migration—its drivers, dynamics, and consequences—increasingly features in European and global policy debates.Through an examination of existing data on African mobility, this report argues there are few reasons to expect dramatic changes in the sources, directions, or nature of migration within and from sub-Saharan Africa. In the coming 30 years, economic inequality (within the continent and between Africa and Europe), climate change, persecution, and conflict will continue to encourage ever-diversifying movements to cities, to neighboring countries, and beyond Africa. The vast majority of those moving will stay within their countries of citizenship or move to neighboring countries; about one-fifth of sub-Saharan migrants will seek passage to Europe, Australasia, or North America. Although the proportion of Africans migrating internationally may not substantially increase in the decades ahead, the onset of the continent’s demographic boom will result in many more Africans on the move. Ironically, current development investments intended to sedentarize would-be migrants or reduce fertility (and hence the number of potential migrants) are only likely to intensify movements. For sub-Saharan African economies to absorb the surplus labor, African states would almost universally need to sustain two decades of economic growth at a pace previously unseen in global history. 

Even if the general trends are likely to continue, three “second order” variables will influence the consequences of human mobility:

1. The degree of socio-spatial inequality within sub-Saharan Africa. Greater equality may limit movement while socio-spatial inequality will likely exacerbate migration. 

2. Europe’s willingness to accept significant numbers of African migrants and the strategies pursued to regulate such movements. Recognizing that African incentives to enter Europe will remain strong, policies enabling movement will reduce the costs of doing so and the degree of violence, corruption, and organized crime associated with migration. 

3. African state strategies to facilitate or control movements. These strategies—exercised at national, regional, or continental scales—will produce a number of externalities connected with political tensions, human rights abuses, and criminalization of public institutions and business within Africa and Europe. 

The report ultimately outlines three plausible scenarios stemming from demographic, economic, and political variables. Within The Cosmopolitan Concord, European and African leaders promote openness in ways that limits corruption and violence while promoting socio-spatial equality and migrant inclusion. Europe’s openness to black Africans retains popular good will, investment opportunities, and European political influence. Under The Containment Compact, European and African leaders seek to limit mobility without countering heightening socio-spatial inequality. This results in widespread violence, criminalization, and conflict across Africa and into Europe. Underground migrant communities in Europe will be met by hostile, nationalist mobilizations. Finally, The Militerranean results from continued European closure to African migrants countered by African openness with moderate levels of inequality within Africa. While sub-Saharan Africa will face reduced violence and corruption, the Mediterranean will become militarized while Europe becomes an ideological battleground. Overt and organized political hostility to Europe by African political leaders leads to economic closure and declining European influence. 

About the Authors

Dr. Loren B. Landau is the South African Research Chair in Human Mobility and the Politics of Difference based at the University of the Witwatersrand’s African Centre for Migration and Society. A publicly engaged scholar, his interdisciplinary work explores human mobility, community, and transformations of political authority. He has published widely in the academic and popular press and is a frequent media resource on regional and global migration policy debates. Publications include The Humanitarian Hangover: Displacement, Aid, and Transformation in Western Tanzania (Wits Press); Forging African Communities: Mobility, Integration, and Belonging (Palgrave); I Want to Go Home Forever: Stories of Becoming and Belonging in South Africa’s Great Metropolis (Wits Press); Contemporary Migration to South Africa(World Bank); and Exorcising the Demons Within: Xenophobia, Violence and Statecraft in Contemporary South Africa (UN University Press/Wits Press).

Dr. Caroline Wanjiku Kihato is Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing’s (WIEGO) Urban Policy Program Director; a Visiting Associate Professor at Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg; and a Global Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington D.C. Her career has involved both teaching and conducting research in the academy and the nonprofit sector in Southern and Eastern Africa. In 2011, she received a MacArthur grant on Migration and Development and spent a year as a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) at Georgetown University, in Washington D.C. She was previously a Policy Analyst at the Development Bank of Southern Africa and a Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of the Witwatersrand. She is the author of Migrant Women of Johannesburg: Life in an in-between City (Palgrave Macmillan) and co-editor of Urban Diversity: Space, Culture and Inclusive Pluralism in Cities Worldwide (Johns Hopkins). 

Hannah Postel is a doctoral student in Demography and Social Policy at Princeton University where she focuses on international migration and development. Before joining Princeton, she worked as part of the Center for Global Development’s (CGD) migration and development team, contributing to a range of projects on labor mobility, global migration governance, and forced migration. Postel produced the first quantitative study of Chinese migration to Zambia on a Fulbright research grant. Before joining CGD, she managed a portfolio of USAID economic growth projects with Carana Corporation and 40 oversaw a randomized control trial on girls’ empowerment with Innovations for Poverty Action–Zambia. Postel holds a BA in international political economy from Middlebury College, is fluent in Spanish, and proficient in Mandarin Chinese.

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