Africans get richer, but only so they can afford to move to the West - it's a very complicated story

Africa is rising, but it seems the richer a country becomes, the more people want to move abroad. Far from being a paradox, it's smart economics.

IT’S been bad news for African migrants in the past two weeks – anti-foreigner attacks in South Africa have left seven dead and thousands homeless; an estimated 800 drowned in the Mediterranean trying to cross into Italy; and 30 Ethiopian Christians were beheaded and shot by Islamic State militants in Libya.

The Ethiopians were thought to have been in transit on their way to Europe as immigrants.

In recent years, migrations out of Africa have increased sharply – in 2007, the net migration out of sub-Saharan Africa was 663,000 people, according to data from UNDP. But in 2012, 1.5 million left the region, more than double from five years prior.

It seems counter-intuitive that people would want to emigrate out of a continent that is posting robust economic growth figures and is constantly touted as the “next frontier” in international investment. Don’t Africans want to be a part of “Africa Rising”?

No journey for the poor

One of the more intriguing nuggets about the Africa emigration story is that far from fleeing poverty, migrants out of the continent are likely to be relatively well off, and are rarely from the most destitute families.

Data from the UN’s World Migration Report shows that African emigration rates to the OECD countries are strongly related to GDP per capita, and to household wealth, as these migrants are more likely to have the resources to pay for transport to and resettlement expenses in the OECD countries, and are more likely to have the education and other skills required to find jobs there.

The journey across the Sahara desert and over the perilous Mediterranean costs anything between $1,000 and $3,000, and often, payment is strictly in advance.

It isn’t the conflict-ridden areas of the Horn of Africa or the Great Lakes region that have sustained high emigration rates in the continent.

If we break down migration trends by sub-region, highest emigration rates out of Africa have been from North Africa – over the past four decades the region has had a  “net loss” of people through migration, but (until 2011) the region has not suffered any large-scale war or conflict that would trigger a mass movement of people in the conventional sense.

In Eastern Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes, mass migration has been linked to conflict, but after peace returns, people go back home. Rwanda, for example, had a net migration of 57 people in every 1,000 between 1990-1995, around the time of the Rwandan genocide.

But after the country stabilised, the net migration trend was reversed, with the country gaining 61 people in every 1,000 – more than those who left.

Research suggests that most people want to emigrate not because they are poor, but because their reality does not match up with their aspirations and what they expect to get out of life – it’s a relative, rather than absolute, dissatisfaction.

Spreading risk

And the UN report suggests that the high emigration rates from peaceful countries with rosy economic prospects is not a paradox, but smart economics – essentially, families are hedging their bets and diversifying risk by sending one of their own abroad, and securing an added stream of income that is insulated from local political and economic vagaries.

It seems that families realise that although headline economic figures are promising, they are vulnerable to both local and external shocks. The rains could fail or the currency could be suddenly devalued - the Nigerian Naira and Ghanaian cedi have both suffered a precipitous decline in their value in the past few months, some of it linked to the collapse of global oil prices.

Or a once booming tourism sector could be decimated in a matter of months by terror threats and travel advisories, as has happened in Kenya. Since the 2013 Westgate attack, tourism arrival numbers have dropped by more than half, at least 25 hotels have closed down and an estimated 30,000 jobs have been lost.

In other words, having a migrant abroad enhances financial security in economies that are unpredictable, as many African ones are, as opposed to merely raising incomes through remittances - and they do indicate that people are getting smarter about risk management.

But does the well being of family members left behind outweigh the costs of family separation? The UN report says that it depends on the original situation of the family – women left behind by migrant husbands may experience greater well-being if they become the de facto head of the household in their husbands’ absence, and enjoy a greater sense of empowerment and control over their lives.

Similarly, in the case of very poor families, having the income from remittances just to buy the basics like food and medicine far outweighs the cost of family separation.

When its not worth it

But in other cases, it’s not worth it – the family suffers much more from the separation than it benefits from the extra income; this is particularly the case when their financial situation was comfortable enough that remittances resulted in only a small financial improvement.

About 50% of African migrants do not actually go abroad, but to another African country – in the sub-Sahara case, its nearly two-thirds (65%) who emigrate within their region. These tend to be migrants who are not wealthy enough to afford to move to a Western country, or don’t have the education and skills to get a job there.

But are they better off going to Europe or emigrating to another African country?

The World Migration Report quotes data from Gallup that looks at the happiness and satisfaction levels of migrants in the West, and compares it to people in their home country with a similar demographic profile who did not move but remained at home.

The results show that the move to Europe and America, though it tends to improves migrants’ financial situation and happiness, it only does so up to a point- any additional increases in income do not increase happiness.

But those who end up staying long in another African country not only consider themselves to be worse off than if they’d stayed in their home countries; their satisfaction with their standard of living and their outlook for the future are also worse, as are their evaluations of their household income – in the long run, they feel that they gained little from their lateral move.

So, xenophobic South Africans should sit tight - soon African immigrants to the country will get disillusioned and fewer might come in future. The Europeans, on the other hand, should expect more overcrowded boats to make that perilous trip across the Mediterranean.


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