Migration: A force for inclusive, social and economic development in eastern Africa

Saturday December 12 2020

African Migration Report says over 26 million international migrants are on the move across the continent. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA


Migration holds untold advantages for East and Horn of Africa. It is a catalyst for and lies at the heart of development ambitions across the region, that could unleash social, economic, and political transformative change. But to fully harness its power requires regional co-operation and well-governed migration policies.

The recent African Migration Report says over 26 million international migrants are on the move across the continent. There are almost eight million migrants in East and Horn of Africa, representing 30 per cent of Africa’s migrant population, making it host to the largest share of international migrants on the continent by region. According to the same report, migrants, including those in the diaspora, remitted over $81 billion to Africa in 2018, with $48 billion coming to sub-Saharan Africa in 2019, according to the World Bank data.

By matching the labour market’s demand with supply, migration is making important contributions to the economies of both migrant source countries and destination, changing lives by increasing productivity and facilitating trade and investment.

Regional integration and its mobility dimensions are at the heart of this transformation. According to a 2019 UNCTAD report, the East African Community recorded $3.1 billion worth of intra-regional economic community trade in 2016, while the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) recorded $2.5 billion.

Whilst the removal of trade barriers could be the obvious driver of trade for regional integration, migration has a clear link to increased trade amongst countries, as migrants source goods from countries of origin and destination. Migrants also promote tourism and contribute to significant flows of goods through cross-border traders.

Migration is proving to be a powerful driver for women and youth empowerment. Migrant women in East and Horn of Africa, make up the highest percentage of migrants in Africa, at 50 per cent. Many women travel to find work and send money to support families back home, hence supporting local and national economies. Women too, represent the majority of remittance recipients, using funds to start businesses and improve livelihoods. Unfortunately, migrant women and girls remain the most vulnerable to violence and discrimination.


East Africa also happens to have the youngest population of migrants within the continent, at a median age of 27.0 years, compared with a continental average of over 30 years of age.

We must appreciate that migrants and increased mobility contribute to national development through reducing poverty and lowering the unemployment rate among youth. This then means the provisions for movement of citizens within the region as advocated by the African Union’s African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement; the East African Community’s Common Market Protocol and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s Free Movement Protocol are therefore key to the further migration and mobility-fuelled transformation of the economies in the region and continent. These serve to create jobs for a growing and an increasingly youthful population.

The EAC’s Common Market Protocol allows for the free movement of goods, persons, labour, services, capital and the rights of establishment and residence for all partner states. To date, citizens of EAC partner states travel visa-free within the region and governments are progressively implementing an integrated border management system that do not require passports.

Further, the partner states are at advanced stage of harmonising labour and social security policies, programmes and frameworks. Also, measures that restrict the right of establishment and residence have been eased. The Council of Ministers established a regional monitoring group on the implementation of the EAC Common Market and reports on the status of implementation of all the freedoms and rights enshrined in the protocol to the Council on biannual basis.

This February 2020, Igad’s inter-ministerial session endorsed the Free Movement of Persons protocol and in November, Igad’s legal and policy experts met to validate a 10-year road map to implement the protocol. Both the protocol and the road map are waiting adoption by Igad’s Council of Ministers and Assembly.

These protocols promote migration that is safe, orderly and regular and respects the social, labour and human rights of migrants and their families as envisioned by global leaders when they adopted the Sustainable Development Goals as well as the Global Compact for Migration.

Considering that the 53 percent of migrants from Africa remain on the continent and 79 per cent of all international migrants on the continent were born in Africa, agreements and policies like these that can improve mobility, productivity and the protection of migrant workers are critical to implement and develop, so to fully realise the positive contributions of migrants. 

However, the recent movement restrictions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic have shone a spotlight on the need to protect the rights of migrants in order to protect the social and economic gains that the mobility of these communities bring about. Thousands of migrant workers from the region, within the region and in the Gulf nations, have lost work and businesses, severely impacting incomes and remittances.

The World Bank estimates a 23.1 per cent decline in remittances to sub-Saharan Africa in 2020 due to the pandemic, affecting households of migrants, and the economies in their countries. Tens of thousands of such workers have been repatriated home against their will as governments scrambled to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 by targeting migrant groups.

More worrisome is that in the long term there is the risk of losing momentum for free movement regimes in the region and on the continent due to the impact of Covid-19-related restrictions on movement. Covid-19 could devastate the benefits of mobility and migration on which many local economies rely. Such wasted opportunity would be particularly concerning given that now, more than ever, Africa need access to safe, orderly and regular migration to support the socioeconomic recovery of its nations from the worst economic disaster in a century.

In order to make the most out of migration flows for the benefit of all, two key elements of migration governance needs strengthening. First, there is a need to formulate effective evidenced-based migration related policies through whole-of-government approaches in order to advance broader interests by promoting stronger co-ordination and responsibility-sharing among all ministries with migration-related functions. In the absence of effective migration policies, many of the potential benefits of migration will remain untapped.

Mismatches between supply and demand need to be addressed, including a lack of recognition of skills, which otherwise leave many migrants unable to attain attractive jobs in countries of destination. Remittance costs erode hard earned incomes. Returning migrants are not effectively reintegrated to maximise the potential of their newly acquired skills. And most sadly, we see the social, labour and human rights of many migrants, and members of their families, exploited throughout the migration process: recruiters that charge exorbitant fees or promise jobs that are nowhere to be found; smugglers exposing migrants to the most horrendous hazards; and traffickers turning migrants’ dreams of brighter futures into the darkest nightmares of servitude.

Second, we need to strengthen partnership and dialogue between countries in East and Horn of Africa well as between the region and other transit and destination regions. Stronger partnership would maximise bilateral and regional arrangements on labour migration and strengthen linkages between migration and development. Already, the UN Migration Agency (IOM), the EAC and Igad support Inter-States Consultative Mechanisms and Regional Consultative Processes in promoting dialogue and co-operation on migration. Since January 2020 the three organisations have supported the Regional Ministerial Forum on Migration (RMFM) to bring together Labour ministers from across the East and Horn of Africa to promote harmonisation of labour migration policies. IOM, EAC and Igad also stand unified in support of nations across the region to realise the dreams of regional integration in an inclusive government and society approach. 

This is a long-term endeavour that requires concerted efforts by all parties and a strategic vision. We are therefore happy to join forces for the launch this week of IOM’s strategy for the East and Horn of Africa which has support for regional integration and inter-regional co-operation at the heart of its agenda.

IOM, Igad and EAC look forward to working together to serve our member states to promote governance that enhances resilience and facilitates mobility that is safe, orderly and regular through improved governance. Together we can ensure migrants are treated with dignity and are not abused or exploited, and to reap the potential of migration for a prosperous region and continent.

Mohammed Abidker is the regional director, the International Organisation for Migration, East & Horn of Africa; Dr Workneh Gebeyehu is the executive secretary, Intergovernmental Authority on Development; and Christophe Bazivamo is deputy secretary general productive and social sectors at the East African Community.