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date: 25 March 2023

Migrants and Refugees in Africafree

Migrants and Refugees in Africafree

  • Aderanti AdepojuAderanti AdepojuCoordinator, Network of Migration Research on Africa


Intraregional migration of cross-border workers, unskilled and temporary contract workers, undocumented migrants, highly skilled professionals, and refugees characterize the migration landscape in Africa and is reflected in distinctive and changing configurations in the different subregions: labor migration in the west and central areas, movement of refugees in the eastern and southern areas, and migration of skilled professionals from west and east to southern Africa. Migrants and refugees in Africa share a number of common features: both are caused in large part by a set of interrelated factors—conflicts, underdevelopment, poor governance, and economic and social deprivation—and movements are confined largely to the continent. Youth unemployment, a major trigger for irregular migration, together with emigration of skilled professionals, pose serious challenges for many countries; remittances from the diaspora, though a lifeline for poor families left behind, do not compensate for the loss of skills. The refugee situation is highly dynamic and fluid. The sheer numbers of refugees in Africa, their composition, and the challenges they face and the limited success obtained thus far in the search for a permanent solution require sustained efforts in what is regarded an African problem requiring essentially an African solution.


  • Groups and Identities
  • World Politics


Migrants and refugees in Africa share a number of common features: both are essentially intraregional movements caused in large part by a set of interrelated factors—conflicts, underdevelopment, poor governance, economic and social deprivation, environmental crisis, human rights abuses, and so on. Most African refugees and migrants normally relocate to neighboring countries in search of security and improved livelihoods.


A series of myths and misconceptions surround the discourse on international migration in Africa—notably that African migrants are invading the countries of the North; that they are desperate, bundled folks escaping poverty; and that the migration is unidirectional, facilitated by smugglers, traffickers, and the like (Flahaux, 2017). These perceptions are popularized by the media and magnified by footage of migrants’ sinking, rickety boats in the Mediterranean. These stereotypes are, however, far from reality.

Since the early 1960s, the number of Africans living outside their country of birth has, in absolute terms, increased from about 8 million to almost 36.3 million in 2017, but this is in line with the overall growth of the continent’s population, with the result that the share of Africans living abroad to the continent’s total population remained virtually stable. In reality, more than half of all Africa migrants live in other African countries (European Commission Joint Research Centre, 2018).

No doubt Africans are among the most mobile populations in the world due to a complex—and dynamic—set of economic, social, political, demographic, and environmental factors. Profiles of the migrants—highly skilled professionals, female health workers, students, unskilled workers—are as diverse as their origins and destinations. Also influential are the transnational societies, the diaspora, the huge remittance flows, linkages with home communities, and the impact of these transactional relations on the home and destination society and economy (Economic Commission for Africa and African Union, 2016). More recently, the continent has seen the effects of the structural social and economic transformative policies embarked upon by many governments to restructure and promote inclusive development and generate sustainable opportunities for youth (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2018).

There is a growing recognition among researchers that intra-African migration is much more prevalent than from the continent to Europe or other parts of the world. Indeed, about two-thirds of Africa’s international migrants are living in another African country (Dick & Schraven, 2018). This figure conceals striking diversity among Africa’s subregions: 80% in west Africa, 60% in southern Africa, and 52% in eastern Africa. The situation is markedly different in north Africa where migrants reside mostly outside that subregion in Europe and the Gulf States.

Intra- and intercountry movements continue to be a central feature of life for the people of Africa. Much of this movement takes place in diverse political, economic, socioethnic, and ecological settings, but it remains essentially intraregional (Adepoju, 2016). Migrants from and within Africa include temporary cross-border workers, unskilled and temporary contract workers, traders, undocumented migrants, highly skilled professionals, and refugees. Distinctive forms of migration characterize the different subregions: labor migration from western and central Africa to other locations within the region, as well as to the developed northern and oil-rich countries of the Middle East; refugee flows within eastern Africa and, increasingly, western Africa; labor migration from eastern and southern African countries to South Africa; and cross-border clandestine migration of nomads in west and east Africa.

These configurations are, however, changing dynamically, as these countries experience socioeconomic structural changes, demographic dynamics, and security challenges to the extent that no country remains unaffected by international migration flows, with some serving concurrently as countries of origin, transit, or destination for migrants (Economic Commission for Africa and African Union, 2016). These countries are also concurrently experiencing challenges and opportunities with respect to the emigration of skilled professionals, the diaspora’s links with country of origin, and migrants’ remittances from within and outside the region. It is pertinent therefore to examine critically the interactions between the demographic, economic, ecological, political, and sociocultural dimensions, as migration is and has been a predominant response to the cumulative destabilization of social, economic, and environmental systems. Moreover, the distinction between internal and international migration in the region is fluid. Often, internal migration leads to, or is linked to, international migration, which can happen in varying dimensions—asylum, irregular migration, or semi-skilled labor migration.

Root Causes of Migration

In Africa, emigration pressure is fueled by unstable politics, ethno-religious conflicts, poverty, and rapidly growing populations. This has resulted in increases in the labor force in some areas, persistent economic decline, and environmental deterioration, which has shaped the trends and patterns of international migration. It is increasingly recognized in the literature that an individual may have various motivations for migration, and these may change over time (Carbone, 2017).

Consequently, migration is not only growing in volume in all major subregions, but it is also changing in character: most countries do not have a single migration configuration but a whole range of types. Youth unemployment of 18% to 50%—increasingly including graduates ready to do any work, anywhere, and at any wage—creates a pool of potential, destitute, and desperate migrants, whose numbers are projected to double within the next 25 years. It is precisely the decent-work deficit that prompts the emigration of youth, who desperately seek a more secure future and are willing to engage in dangerous and uncertain journeys, including daredevil ventures into Europe in irregular and undocumented situations.

Over the next decade, Africa’s demographic scene, including a rapidly growing young population, will likely manifest in substantially increased migration, particularly to Europe, as the population in the latter declines substantially. Indeed, by 2050, “one in every four persons of working age in the world” will be in Africa (Economic Commission for Africa and African Union, 2016).

In most African countries, the public sector—the dominant employer—has not been able to provide viable employment opportunities to meet the demands of the rapidly growing labor force, thus generating large numbers of unemployed youths. Mismanaged economies and human rights abuses have spurred the exile of both skilled and unskilled persons. Conflicts and environmental degradation have further aggravated the pressure for migration from poorer to relatively prosperous regions, within and, increasingly, outside the continent. In the Sahel, in particular, desertification and cyclical famines have triggered waves of environmentally displaced persons across national frontiers within and outside west Africa (Vigil, 2017).

Africa’s political and economic crises have also triggered migratory flows to new destinations that have no prior historical, political, or economic links to the countries of emigration. For more than a decade now, traditionally labor-importing countries—attractive destinations for migrants—have experienced endemic political and economic crises, which spur out-migration of their nationals and of migrants (Adepoju, 2016).

In recent times, in Africa as elsewhere, migration has been fueled by greater access to information, increased ease of travel, demographic dynamics, and supply–demand labor dynamics. These are the so-called pull factors.

Africa is now experiencing an overall trend away from unskilled labor migrants toward the commercial migration of entrepreneurs who are self-employed, especially in the informal sector. This includes Sahelians in west Africa who have been moving to Italy, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, and Spain—even though there they encounter an increasingly hostile reception, with growing xenophobia, apprehensiveness of foreigners, and anti-immigrant political mobilizations. As a result, a growing number have crossed the Atlantic to seek work as petty traders in the United States.

An increase in autonomous female migration has also been recorded. No longer confined by national borders, professional women from Nigeria, Ghana, and, to some extent, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa now engage in international migration. For instance, female nurses and doctors have been recruited from Nigeria to work in Saudi Arabia, and over 5,000 Ghanaian and Nigerian nurses are working in the United Kingdom.

Female migration as a family survival strategy has greatly intensified. Independent female migrants, primary breadwinners for families left behind, constitute over half of African migrants in Europe, Latin America, North America, the southwest Asian countries, and Oceania. The phenomenon of “care drain” emigration—of women who leave their own families to work abroad in the Gulf States and Europe as domestic workers—has taken root (Adepoju, 2016). This phenomenon of independent female migration constitutes an important change in traditional gender roles in Africa. Among the subregions, western and eastern Africa increasingly have higher numbers of female international migrants (as well as of international migrants in general) than other parts of the continent.

The Specificity of Migration Dynamics in Africa

Africa is a region rooted in migrations, voluntary and compelled, and intraregional migration configurations are fostered by shared culture, language, and colonial heritage (Economic Commission for Africa and African Union, 2016). These factors blur the distinction between internal and international migration and circulation and between migration in regular and irregular situations.

The colonial system reinforced the foundation of present-day stocks, flows, and patterns of migration, while cultural affinity facilitated movements across frontiers. Consequently, significant migration across long borders without distinct landmarks has been largely undocumented as frontier workers commute daily between home and their place of work on adjacent sides of national borders. The fluidity of this phenomenon has prompted discussion as to whether the term “circulation” rather than “migration” would be more appropriate in the African context (Adepoju, 2007).

These migrations take place largely within the context of economic unions (Dick & Schraven, 2018). Regional economic unions are often dominated by the economies of a single country, and movements of persons have thus been directed, on the whole, to a limited number of countries within these unions. Examples of these “magnet” countries are Botswana and South Africa in southern Africa, Gabon in central Africa, Kenya in east Africa, and Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria in west Africa. In reality, the prosperity of many of these countries was built by migrant labor, including through cocoa and coffee plantations in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, mines and agriculture in South Africa, and the forestry and oil industries in Gabon. Resource-rich but labor-short countries such as Botswana, Gabon, and Côte d’Ivoire rely heavily on immigrant labor, and an estimated 2 million immigrants reside in South Africa.

North Africa

North Africa is a subregion with overlapping transcontinental and intraregional migration systems. Migration within, to, and from north Africa consists of mixed migration flows, and the distinctions between irregular migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers are blurred. Sharing borders with the European Union and the Gulf countries, north Africa serves as the origin as well as the transit area for labor migrants and asylum-seekers to Europe (Awad et al., 2015).

Migration from north Africa is mostly to Europe and the Gulf States. Its colonial heritage facilitated migration from Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to Europe, while Egyptians and Sudanese found temporary work in the Gulf States. In 2015, 3 million North Africans were living in the Gulf States and about 7 million in Europe. With over 770,000 international migrants in 2015, Libya was a major destination for migrants, before the ongoing crisis (UNHCR, 2017). Sudan has also hosted thousands of migrants from South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Chad. Morocco, a country of emigration, now also serves as a destination and transit country (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR], 2017). The war in Syria has also caused thousands to flee to north Africa.

West Africa

West Africa is well known among researchers for its intensive migration, with half of all migrants in sub-Saharan Africa being West African. The population of international migrants is estimated at about 9 million, or 2.8% of the total population. Intraregional migration is essentially north to south, and the principal countries of emigration include Burkina Faso, Mali, Togo, and, in the early 1980s, Ghana. In a dramatic twist, Côte d’Ivoire—previously a destination country—has been riddled with crisis since 2000 and remains unstable, economically and politically. This spurs emigration, refugee flows, and internal displacements and seriously disrupts economic activities, especially the production and export of cocoa and coffee. By the mid-1970s, Nigeria had become a country of immigration as the oil-led expansion of road and building construction, infrastructure, education, and allied sectors attracted workers, both skilled and unskilled, from Ghana, Togo, Benin, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. Ghana and Nigeria have experienced “migration transition”; they have transitioned from being receiving countries to becoming sending countries in recent decades (Adepoju, 2015). Today, Ghana is also experiencing some return migration of skilled professionals. The Protocol on Free Movement of Persons of the Economic Community of West African States facilitates 90-day visa-free entry into member states by Community citizens (Awumbila, Benneh, Teye, & Atiim, 2014).

Within west Africa, the Sahelian countries—Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and Gambia—are mostly landlocked, very poor, and inhabited mainly by nomads, semi-nomads, and sedentary farmers. Among the nomads, the most numerous pastoralists are the Fulani who live in Niger, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Senegal. The poor economic situation, coupled with rapid population growth, weak infrastructure, desertification, and declining agricultural productivity signals a crisis that has now translated into substantial emigration. The recurring environmental problems, especially droughts and famine, are the pertinent drivers of emigration.

In the face of the complex multilayered, imbalanced human and land/environmental systems, family coping mechanisms include employment portfolio diversification, selective sponsored migration, increasing circular migration, and diversification of migration destinations. However, current knowledge is not well established as most people impacted by environmental degradation do not migrate, and placing environmental migrants in the voluntary-forced migration continuum is yet an unresolved challenge (Vigil, 2017).

East Africa

East Africa is characterized by refugees and asylum-seekers, internal displacement, labor migration, and irregular migration, typified by human trafficking and migrant smuggling. The region has witnessed massive refugee flows, especially from the Horn of Africa and the countries of the Great Lakes region. In Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya, the majority of immigrants originate and circulate within the subregion. Human trafficking and migrant smuggling are rampant throughout east Africa. Burundi and Rwanda are countries of origin for irregular migrants to the more stable East African Community neighbors and, through them, beyond the subregion.

Migrants between Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania have taken advantage of a common language, cultural affinity, and shared colonial experience, as well as the defunct but recently resuscitated East African Economic Community (EAEC). These migrants originated from and worked in the rural areas of a unified political and economic space. The sisal, tea, and coffee plantations in Tanzania, Kenya’s sugar and tea estates, and the cotton plantations in Uganda all employed locals as well as foreign laborers from the densely populated and resource-poor hinterlands of Rwanda and Burundi (Oucho, 2015). (Rwanda and Burundi have since joined the resuscitated EAEC.) Apart from migrants to neighboring countries, temporary workers were also attracted mostly from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan to the Gulf States. South Africa and Botswana are also popular destinations for labor migrants from the subregion.

Central Africa

Central Africa is a subregion of emigration, as well as host to refugees from South Sudan, Rwanda, and Central African Republic (CAR). The major countries of immigration are mineral-rich Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The plantation and mining sectors in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and the palm plantations in Cameroon, offered employment opportunities to immigrant laborers from the CAR, Congo, and Nigeria, as well as to traders and domestic and service workers from Senegal, Mali, Benin, and Togo. A rich but small country, Gabon relies on contract labor and immigrants from other African countries, and from Europe, who constitute about a quarter of the wage earners. Since the 1980s and earlier, thousands of immigrants have entered Gabon from Burundi, Rwanda, the DRC, and Congo in search of a better life and greater security (Adepoju, 2007).

Southern Africa

Migration in southern Africa is influenced by state policies in Namibia, Mozambique, and South Africa and by labor demand in the mining and agricultural industries in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia. In more recent years, employment opportunities in industrial development in South Africa and Botswana have attracted immigrants. There are about 4 million migrants in the subregion, excluding a significant number of irregular migrants in South Africa (Crush & Williams, 2010).

The net migration status of most of these countries has changed over time. For example, Zimbabwe became a country of emigration in the wake of the prolonged political crisis and the collapse of the country’s economy. This was also the case in Zambia, following the slump in copper prices on the world market.

Several factors have impacted migration in southern Africa, in particular the end of apartheid in South Africa and the consequent changes in the mining sector’s migrant labor system (Crush & Williams, 2010), as well as conflict and instability in Mozambique, the DRC, Angola, and Zimbabwe. Poverty, inequality, and unemployment are key drivers, pushing migrants to South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, and Namibia—especially from Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe, with the last of these countries accounting for the largest number of international migrants in the subregion. Undocumented migrants from Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique work as seasonal laborers in the farms of South Africa. In recent years, the hospitality sector has also attracted migrants from outside of Africa (European Commission Joint Research Centre, 2018).

Changing migratory configurations, however, imply that South Africa is concurrently not only a recipient but a sender, and perhaps also a transit country, exporting skilled migrants to Europe, North America, and Australia. In recent years, Botswana has become a significant country of immigration. A prosperous, politically stable country, it has attracted highly skilled professionals, who are in short supply, from Ghana, Zambia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Kenya. Most of these people work in the private sector and at the university.

New Wave of Migration into Africa

A significant new trend is the recent wave of migration into Africa—mainly from China but also smaller numbers from Brazil and Portugal (to Mozambique, Angola). The estimated 1 million Chinese migrants working in building construction in Zambia; in engineering works in Mali, Nigeria, and Chad; and in agriculture in Tanzania, the DRC, and Mozambique dwarf the numbers of other non-African immigrants (French, 2014). The slogan “The Chinese are coming” has been replaced by “The Chinese are here!” These immigrants consist of temporary labor migrants linked to Chinese development work in Africa, small entrepreneurs, in-transit migrants, and agricultural workers. Chinese rural migrant workers are also moving to Africa with government support and encouragement to become farm owners. Indeed, several thousand Chinese farmers have already taken advantage of this opportunity in Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal.

There are mixed feelings about Chinese investment by African political leaders, activists, the business sector, workers, and the general populace. The controversy in 2018 over loan repayment by Zambia is perhaps the most dramatic. There is also an uneasiness stemming from the absence of skills transfer to local people, a very limited impact on local job creation, and scant concern for the welfare of workers, which has generated resentment in local African communities, especially in Zambia. Many infrastructure contracts signed by Chinese firms mandate that the majority of workers for the project be Chinese, thereby precluding Africans from benefitting from such investment. The poor working conditions, low pay, abusive practices, bans on unions and protests, and general disregard for the rights of workers have provoked significant discontent among Africans, especially in Zambia (French, 2014).

Irregular Migration to Europe

The key underlying causes of migration in general and irregular migration in the endemic countries, such as Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Mali in particular but also Libya and Nigeria, are rooted in oppressive regimes, mismanaged economies, corruption, insecurity, deteriorating livelihoods, and the abuse of human rights.

The introduction of tougher rules regarding the entry and residence of regular migrants to Europe has, since the mid-1990s, inadvertently pushed irregular African migrants to use the Maghreb as a transit region to enter Europe clandestinely. Even then, north African countries, Morocco in particular, have increased visa restrictions, ostensibly as a response to stricter border controls imposed by countries in Europe that have contracted the defense of their southern borders to the Mediterranean countries (Abi, 2018).

African migrants have increasingly adopted more sophisticated, daring, and evasive methods to enter northern countries, even as border controls are tightened. The number, and especially the desperation, of the youths attempting this dangerous passage is fueled by distorted information on labor market conditions in European Union (EU) countries, as well as by the increasing professionalism of traffickers, who use scams and bogus travel intermediaries with promises of passage to Europe.

The region’s human trafficking and smuggling map is complicated, involving diverse origins within and outside the region. As is now well-known because of the tragic drowning of thousands in the Mediterranean, a growing number of young people are involved in reckless ventures to gain entry into Europe. Movements are more clandestine, involving riskier passages and trafficking via diverse transit points.

Every year thousands of Africans have drowned in the Mediterranean while attempting to cross to Europe. Intensified border patrolling at the Straits of Gibraltar has prompted migrants to cross from places further east on the Mediterranean coast, as well as to explore new crossing points from ports in Senegal and Mauritania. The spectre of irregular migrants risking their lives to forcibly enter southern Italy on overcrowded, rickety boats or across the desert (witnessed in 2014 but tragically scaled up in 2015 and thereafter) is unlikely to diminish—in large part because of the huge employment deficit in Africa in the face of bourgeoning numbers of young school leavers.

The entry points, Spain and Italy especially, are pushing for more equitable burden sharing by other EU countries. In 2015, Sweden and Germany received 50% of asylum applications from children traveling alone, with Sweden welcoming between 29,000 and 40,000, and Germany accepting about 30,000 unaccompanied minors (Rietig, 2015). Indeed, of the top 10 countries of origin of first-time applicants for asylum in the EU between January and October 2015, Eritrea and Nigeria made the list as seventh and eighth, respectively, behind Syria and Afghanistan. But the backlash was immediate with Germany, which faced intense pressure from anti-immigrant nationalist politicians and the populace, a situation that was to affect election outcomes in a dozen or so countries.

Recent findings on the root causes stress the imperative to focus on the economic, socio-cultural, and political context within which trafficking of the most vulnerable group takes place, namely of children and women—for sexual exploitation within and outside the region. The lack of appropriate anti-trafficking legislation—and the weak enforcement of what laws there are—must be addressed by strengthening laws and applying policy frameworks to apprehend, prosecute, and punish traffickers and protect their victims (Oucho, 2015).

Brain Drain and Brain Circulation

At independence, African countries invested heavily in education to train nationals to fill the gap created by the departing colonialists—education was regarded as the main vehicle for rapid development. Within a generation, these poor countries were able to produce well-qualified professionals, including, recently, information technology (IT) specialists. Other nationals were trained abroad. However, education has expanded faster than the absorptive capacity of these countries’ economies. The small private and bloated public sectors have absorbed only a few graduates, resulting in large-scale graduate unemployment. Emigration of highly qualified professionals from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Senegal, Ghana, and Uganda to Europe, North America, and the oil-rich Middle East in the 1970s intensified in the 1980s. Highly skilled professionals, including doctors, paramedical personnel, nurses, teachers, engineers, scientists, and technologists, from Africa were and continue to be attracted by relatively higher salaries and better living conditions in rich countries, thereby draining these specialized skills from Africa and its development agenda (Awases, Gbary, Nyoni, & Chatora, 2004).

Findings on this assertion are contradictory. A study of physician emigration in 53 African countries rejects this assertion, arguing that the countries with the lowest rate of physician and nurse emigration are precisely those with the worst overall health outcomes (Clemens, 2013). In contrast, another study of 2,000 health professionals in Uganda, Cameroon, Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Senegal concluded that their loss had a significant effect on quality of service by the less qualified who remained behind (World Health Organization, 2006).

Africa is now experiencing the transformation of brain drain to brain circulation within its borders—to Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Botswana, and South Africa. As political and economic crises continue to have an adverse effect on conditions in the traditional countries of immigration within the region, highly skilled professionals, pressured to leave their countries by the uncertain economic conditions, have found South Africa, and the booming economy of Botswana, attractive alternatives to Europe, North America, and the Gulf States, transforming the erstwhile brain drain into brain circulation within the region. Migration to South Africa has increased further since the demise of the apartheid regime and the spectacular political transformation in the country. Migrants attracted to South Africa include skilled professionals—professors, doctors, lawyers, nurses, and engineers—unlike the traditional immigrants from Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Malawi, and Mozambique, whose nationals are mostly unskilled mine workers and farm laborers. Most migrants to Botswana are highly skilled professionals in industry, education, and the private sector. Rwanda stands out in successfully retaining its best and brightest while also attracting international talent. To some extent, Morocco, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, and South Africa are following in its wake (London School of Economics, 2018).

The Diaspora

The migrant-diaspora-return continuum and linkages are both strong and pervasive in Africa. During their sojourn abroad, migrants maintain contact by visiting and by sending money home, usually aiming to return home at the first opportunity. Many sending countries (Ghana, Cape Verde, Nigeria, Burkina Faso) have expatriate populations spread over various parts of the world as a result of emigration over generations. Their home countries also harbor a population of immigrants to varying degrees, as depicted in Table 1.

Table 1. Stock of Immigrants in African Countries, 2015

Percentage of Immigrants in Total Population



Madagascar (0.1), Somalia (0.2), Eritrea (0.3), Lesotho (0.3), Angola (0.4), Tanzania (0.5), Nigeria (0.7), Zambia (0.8)


Congo DRC (0.7), Mozambique (0.8), Niger (1.0)


Ethiopia (1.1), Guinea Bissau (1.2), Equatorial Guinea (1.3), Sudan (1.3), São Tomé e Príncipe (1.3), Malawi (1.3), Sierra Leone (1.4), Ghana (1.5), Comoros (1.6), Cameroon (1.6), Central African Republic (1.7), Senegal (1.7), Guinea (1.8), Uganda (1.9)


Mali (2.1), Mauritius (2.2), Benin(2.3), Kenya (2.4), Swaziland (2.5), Liberia (2.5), Burundi (2.6), Zimbabwe (2.6), Cape Verde (2.9)


Mauritania (3.4), Chad (3.7), Namibia (3.8), Rwanda (3.8), Togo (3.8), Burkina Faso (3.9)


South Africa (5.8), South Sudan (6.7), Botswana (7.1), Congo ROC (8.5), Côte d’Ivoire (9.6), Gambia (9.7)

11.1 and over

Djibouti (12.7), Seychelles (13.3), Gabon (15.6)

Source: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

African diaspora is clouded by the history of the slave trade, but an estimated 30 million Africans are working outside their countries of origin (Ratha et al., 2015). More recent emigrants, wherever they are, rarely sever their ties with home. Given favorable working conditions at home, skilled professionals in the diaspora would prefer to return there to contribute to the development of their countries. At the political level, the African Union has officially recognized the diaspora as Africa’s sixth region (the others being western, central, northern, southern, and eastern Africa).

African diaspora are active at home in political advocacy, charity, and cultural exchange. For example, Ghanaian diaspora in the United Kingdom have pressed and received a concession from their government allowing them to participate in national elections. They are also actively involved in modernizing political processes. In addition, African diasporic associations help new arrivals adapt to and enter into labor markets, reinforce cultural identity, and mobilize members’ capital for community development projects at “home,” as well as contribute to charity and development programs. A group called Nigerians in Diaspora Organisations has been established and is actively involved in dialogue with governments at home.

African leaders are now energetically exploring strategies to attract their nationals back home to contribute to national development. Leaders in Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana, among others, are courting their nationals in diaspora, offering incentives to encourage them to return. About a dozen governments have established ministries or agencies of the diaspora to coordinate diaspora-related programs. These have also articulated diaspora policies to harness the contribution of their nationals abroad for domestic development (Adepoju, 2014). Many migrants who nurse the hope of ultimately returning home have acquired skills and capital that can be productively invested back home. Often the skills acquired by individuals do not match available job opportunities at home, however.


In Africa, the variety of means of transferring remittances include banks, money transfer operators, post offices, and recently cell phones or other communications media and informal networks (Economic Commission for Africa and African Union, 2016). Diaspora resources go far beyond economic remittance and include, importantly, other contributions such as social capital (sources of ideas, behaviors), technological capital (transferable knowledge and skills), and political remittance (political support, identities). Remittances to Africa have been rising steeply—both in number and size—and they now parallel export earnings and official development assistance and are thus an important source of income for many African countries. The inflow of international migrant remittances through official channels amounted to approximately $53 billion in 2010, increased to $64 billion in 2015 and $67 billion in 2017 and was projected to rise further in 2018, in spite of the global economic crisis. These amounts are probably at least equaled by the money sent home through informal channel. Nationals of Egypt, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Cape Verde, Lesotho, Eritrea, and others working abroad remit huge sums of money to their home countries (see Table 2).

Table 2. Migrant Remittance Inflows to Africa, 2000–2017 (US$ million)







West Africa






Northern Africa






Eastern Africa






Southern Africa






Central Africa












Source: World Bank, Remittance Data Inflow (October 2017).

The uses of remittances vary widely: to augment family income and pay for basic services (healthcare in particular), for the education of siblings and children, for improved housing, to set up enterprises, and to enhance agricultural production through improved irrigation schemes and other agricultural inputs, as has happened in Mali and Senegal. Since migration in Africa is generally a household portfolio diversification strategy, pooling resources helps the poor overcome the poverty constraint to migration (Azam & Gubert, 2006). Hometown associations’ investments can improve basic infrastructural facilities that benefit all households, with local, often wider, multiplier effects.

Not all remittances are routed via official channels, because of heavy transaction costs and risks. Transaction costs of formal money transfers are exorbitant—the fee to send $200 to Africa is about 9%, compared to less than 8% in South Asia—and transactions through informal channels may be risky. Irregular migrants normally opt for informal channels of remittance for fear of apprehension and deportation and mostly use the traditional human courier Kara International Exchange system—a network of traders, visiting relations, and associates—to send money home. This process is prompt, avoids exchange rate fluctuations and costly transfer charges, and overcomes the bottleneck of poor accessibility in remote rural areas. Greater competition and spread of Internet-based transactions could potentially resolve these bottlenecks.

However, the real impact of remittances on the economies of emigration countries in Africa is yet to be fully understood as, apart from raising the level of national savings, remittances are essentially private transfers that do not directly augment the public budget.


Specialists in medicine and healthcare represent a small proportion of the emigrants from Africa, but the relatively large exodus of doctors impacted negatively on the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals in the health sector of many countries, especially Cameroun, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda, and Zimbabwe (Awases et al., 2004). Understandably, a major challenge facing Africa now is how to retain, attract back, and effectively utilize the rare skills of their nationals. But leaders must also address the root causes of the brain drain.

Libya, once a major migrant-receiving country, is now virtually a failed state, with many of its nationals fleeing internecine wars and seeking refuge in Europe. Côte d’Ivoire, another previous magnet for migrants in west Africa, has not fully recovered from years of instability. It is now a country of immigration, transit, and emigration. The same is true of Nigeria, which is regarded as having the largest (services-sector-based) economy in Africa. In all of these countries, unemployment is a major development challenge and a trigger for emigration. In South Africa, for example, more than 50% of the youth are unemployed. In Nigeria, over 1 million unemployed youth apply for jobs where fewer than 5,000 people are needed (see Adepoju, 2016).

In Africa, many countries that previously received substantial numbers of migrants are no longer capable of absorbing more and are now expelling irregular immigrants. In many parts of Europe, too, the xenophobic reactions, especially in the wake of the current migration crisis, reinforce the feeling that immigrants from African countries who work in the hospitality and domestic care industries are unwanted and must be returned to their countries.

Data on migration is patchy and not comparable across the countries of the region. Very few countries have adequate data for the compilation of a national migration profile. The collection of accurate and up-to-date information on migration across borders must be factored into data-gathering procedures. Cooperative research and information-sharing between countries of origin, transit, and destination of migrants of all configurations should be encouraged.

Refugees in Africa

The number of refugees in Africa has increased rapidly since the late 1960s, and today one of the largest refugee problems the world has faced is in Africa. In recent years, the refugee situation in Africa has assumed a disturbing dimension in terms of the number and composition of the persons involved, the causes of the problem, and the limited success obtained thus far in the search for a permanent solution.

The refugee problem in Africa grew slowly in the early 1960s, then took a traumatic turn in the 1970s, with a tremendous increase in the number of refugees and displaced persons. According to Hamrell (1967) “one of the most acute refugee problems today is to be found on the African continent.” Judging from the great numbers involved, the extent of the economic and social misery and desolation, and the consequent human tragedy it has generated, the situation certainty constitutes “one of the most agonising and complex problems from which African society is suffering” (Organisation of African Unity [OAU], 1978, p. 7).

As Betts (2018) asserts, “Africa hosts more refugees than any other region of the world.” Africa is the home of millions of refugees, their numbers increasing from a trickle to a flood and currently standing at over 5.3 million. These come mostly from South Sudan (about 2.4 million), Somalia (986,000), Sudan (694,000), the DRC (620,000), and CAR (545,000) and are hosted in Uganda (1.4 million), Sudan (907,000), Ethiopia (694,000), the DRC (536,000), and Kenya (471,000) (UNHCR, 2018).

It was estimated that there were only 400,000 refugees in Africa in 1964; by January 1, 1967, the number had increased to 735,000 (Hamrell, 1967, p. 14). The magnitude and the rapid increase in the number of refugees pose serious problems for the countries of asylum. As Gould (1974) emphasized, “Refugees constitute one of the greatest but least well-documented tragedies of present day Africa” (p. 413). The situation has, not surprisingly, deteriorated since 1974, when this observation was first made. The cause of this traumatic situation is complex and included, initially, wars of liberation, secessionist wars, persecution, social upheaval, and, later, civil conflicts, natural disasters, especially drought and famine, and internal political instability (Adepoju, 1982a).

Decolonization and Refugee Flows

In the early to mid-1970s, political oppression, characteristic of the foreign-dominated areas of Africa, including Guinea Bissau, (then) Rhodesia, Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, and South Africa, was the principal cause of refugees and internally displaced persons. In 1969 the situation prompted the Organisation of African Union to broaden the definition of the word “refugee” in the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951 to include

every person who, owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

The so-called frontline states—Botswana, Zambia, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Swaziland—were destabilized by the apartheid regime in South Africa and harbored thousands of freedom fighters, some from what was then Rhodesia (Adepoju, 1982a).

Ironically, however, the attainment of independence in some of these countries, especially Angola and Mozambique, rather than stemming the wave of refugees, actually exacerbated it. Revolutionary totalitarian regimes in Ethiopia and the prolonged terror regime of Amin in Uganda forced thousands to flee these countries.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the majority of African refugees originated from three territories still under Portuguese rule, namely Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique. These refugees—about half a million persons—lived mostly in three neighboring countries sympathetic to the liberation cause: Zaire, Senegal, and Tanzania.

Refugee groupings are heterogeneous. They include political refugees, freedom fighters, and a large residual group with mixed characteristics, as well as women and youth fleeing from war or racial, religious, and cultural conflict or persecution, and those escaping from famine, drought, and other forms of natural disaster. The concept of “refugee” in Africa is thus extremely broad.

Post-Independence Era and Refugee Crisis

The African refugee situation in the post-independence period was complex, dynamic, and unpredictable as new crises emerged or escalated, or as existing ones deteriorated, as was the experience in Chad, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea. Refugee flows have been created by armed conflicts, as well as by demands for boundary adjustments to accommodate the socio-cultural realities of the countries concerned, and to regroup people of similar ethnic groups arbitrarily assigned to different countries by colonialist powers. The war between Ethiopia and Somalia over the Ogaden region, and later between Eritrea and Ethiopia, are classic cases. Secessionist attempts in Nigeria and Shaba province in Zaire, and the series of coups d’état in Uganda, Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria, all produced refugees. Some countries—often among the poorest in Africa—that received thousands of refugees also generated refugees in droves. For example, in the 1970s, Uganda—affected initially by Amin’s regime and subsequently in the wake of the 1978 disturbances—harbored a large number of refugees from Rwanda and Zaire, while thousands of its own nationals continued to seek refuge in Sudan, Kenya, and Zaire. In the same vein, Zairean refugees were mostly found in Angola, Uganda, and Sudan, while that country harbored refugees from Angola, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and Zambia.

Apart from the tradition of African hospitality, there was also a realization that the refugee problem is a general African problem and that the burden created by it should therefore be shouldered by all African states, in the spirit of burden-sharing (OAU, 1978). The examples can be multiplied, but the Tanzanian situation stands out: it welcomed and ultimately offered nationality to Burundi refugees.

The number of refugees in Africa has increased considerably since the 1970s; currently there are more than 5 million refugees in Africa, most of whom are concentrated in southern and eastern Africa (see Table 3). The seriousness of the problems posed by these refugees is underlined by their age/sex composition, the burdens they impose on the fragile economies of the countries of asylum, and the indefinite duration of stay for most refugees, who are supported in material matters by these governments and by the international organizations concerned with problems of refugees.

Table 3. Refugees in Africa by Region


Number of Refugees

Number in Refugee-Like Situations


Central Africa/Great Lakes Region




East/Horn of Africa



Southern Africa



Western Africa







Source. UNHCR Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2016 (June 2017).

In the 1970s, more than 75% of refugee families in Somalia had female heads of household. In the Sudan, of the estimated 300,000 refugees from Ethiopia in 1978, almost 40% were women. In Swaziland, where refugees from rural areas in South Africa numbered about 5,000, more than 50% of the 375 families living in organized settlements were women and girls. Also in Tanzania, just over 50% of the 37,000 refugees in the Mishamo settlement were women and girls, while 25% of the settlement families had women as heads of household. Another striking feature of the refugee situation in Africa is the predominance of children under age 15 (Adepoju, 1982b). This situation remains tragically unchanged in recent times. For instance, according to the UNHCR (2017), about 86% of the more than 1 million South Sudanese refugees in Uganda are women and children who are fleeing intercommunity conflict, persecution, violence, economic decline, disease, hunger, and human rights violations.

The voluntary repatriation of refugees resulting from general amnesty, cessation of war, and the achievement of independence slightly reduced the number of refugees. Nonetheless, the increasing wave of armed conflicts in Africa, the worsening political situation, and sporadic natural disasters in various parts of the continent make the refugee issue extremely unpredictable and durable solutions seemingly elusive.

Current Refugee Crisis

The refugee map in Africa is fluid and highly unpredictable. The number of refugees has soared over the years, partly due to the ongoing crises in the Central Africa Republic, Nigeria, the DRC, South Sudan, and Burundi. Initially localized for decades in the Horn of Africa, refugee camps are now springing up in all other subregions, especially in west and southern Africa (see Table 3). The triggers were, and still do, include conflicts, civil unrest, environmental disasters, oppressive regimes, and the concomitant abuse of human rights. While old causes of refugee flows abate, new ones have emerged to aggravate the complexities and the search for durable situations.

The five countries with the largest concentration of refugees in Africa are Uganda, Ethiopia, the DRC, Kenya, and Sudan, located mainly in the Horn, east, and central Africa. Between them, they harbored 4.9 million of Africa’s 5.6 million refugees in 2017.

At the base of Africa’s current refugee crisis is increased interethnic (sometimes remotely interreligious) violence caused by poor governance, natural disasters, environmental degradation, and fierce competition over dwindling resources. Millions of people have been forced to flee their homes in war-torn countries, causing the number of refugees in Africa to increase sporadically over the years. As a solution to end these conflicts remains elusive, the prospect for these refugees to return home remains increasingly bleak.

The situation in Kenya caught world attention when the government gave notice of its desire to close the Dadaab camp for Somali refugees—at that time the largest refugee camp in the world—accusing it of harboring Islamic fundamentalist fighters who in April 2015 allegedly murdered 148 students at neighboring Garissa University. At that time, thousands of refugees had been living in the camps for decades. In South Sudan, where the refugee crisis is dire, a dispute between the prime minister and his deputy resulted in protracted and brutal ethnic-based conflict; over 4 million people have fled their homes and become internally displaced or refugees in neighboring countries.

Ethiopia is arguably the second-largest refugee-hosting country in Africa. Conflicts in South Sudan and Somalia and conflict-induced food insecurity in Somalia spurred refugees to move into Ethiopia, which hosted 900,000 refugees and had 110,000 new arrivals registered in 2017 (Abebe, 2018). Concurrently a source of refugees, as well as transit, Ethiopia has adopted a comprehensive framework that includes providing work permits to qualified refugees and facilitating local integration where feasible, especially for Southern Sudanese.

In the Central African Republic, where fighting between ex-Séléka Muslim and Anti-balaka Christian militant groups has continued to escalate since 2016, the withdrawal of international forces in 2017 sparked the geographical spread of the conflict countrywide. In the DRC provinces of Haut-Katanga and Tanganyika, the clashes between Congolese security forces and militia groups have driven civilians to the Congo. In Congo, about 620,000 sought refuge in neighboring countries in early 2018. In all, porous borders in many African countries have caused conflicts to spread to neighboring states, as the cases of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria aptly demonstrate—where the Boko Haram Islamist armed militant groups have been wreaking havoc, on and off, for nearly 10 years (Dahir, 2018; United Nations, 2018; UNHCR, 2017).

The Case of Uganda.

Uganda has been widely lauded as one of the most progressive refugee-hosting countries in the world (Betts, 2018). Indeed, the country provides a unique example of concerted efforts to provide short- and longer-term solutions to the refugee crisis there. This country is now home to one of the largest—and still growing—population of refugees in Africa, exerting enormous pressure on public services and local refugee-hosting infrastructures. The biggest influx of refugees has been from South Sudan, which has replaced Somalia in the top three positions of countries with the most refugees. (South Sudan produced 1.4 million refugees in 2016, alongside 1.9 internally displaced persons. The following year, in 2017, the number increased to 2.5 million refugees and a further 2 million displaced inside the country.)

Apart from those fleeing to neighboring Sudan, others have fled to Kenya, Ethiopia, the DRC, and the Central African Republic (UNHCR, 2017). Of the major refugee-hosting countries in Africa, Uganda, with more than 1 million, hosts the largest number of refugees; spectacularly, almost half a million South Sudanese arrived there in the second half of 2016 alone.

As the violence in South Sudan continued unabated, in February 2018 the United Nations estimated that the number of South Sudan refugees could exceed 3 million by the end of the year (up from 2.5 million in 2017)—making it Africa’s biggest refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide in 1994 (United Nations, 2018). As rival rebel groups and government troops continue to engage in a brutal conflict in South Sudan, hundreds of refugees arrive daily at the border of neighboring Uganda. In northwestern Uganda, for example, more than a quarter of a million refugees are living in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp alone.

Upon arrival, the refugees are provided with plots of land for shelter and farming, some cooking utensils, and basic food rations. Uganda’s progressive refugee policy allows refugees to work, own land, travel, and access public services, including education and healthcare. This approach, dubbed the “self-reliance strategy,” by enabling both refugees and host communities to benefit, enables refugees to establish businesses that trade with and employ host nationals (Betts, 2018). The Uganda Solidarity Summit on Refugees in 2017 (Uganda Government, 2017) acknowledged the progressive model of the country’s refugee strategy and considered it inclusive and offering opportunity for refugees to become self-reliant in the medium to long term.

Life in settlement camps can nevertheless be traumatic, largely due to food insecurity, health and nutrition challenges, inadequate water, poor sanitation and hygiene, sexual and gender-based violence, and pressure on facilities, especially schools. In some communities the population of refugees outnumbers that of the locals—for example in the district of Ocea, refugees outnumber locals in a ratio of 2 to 1 (65,000 and 31,000, respectively), a situation that aggravates tension between the two groups (UNHCR, 2017).

In addition to other problems, most of the camps in Uganda are becoming filled beyond their maximum capacity—as is the case of Imvepi Refugee Settlement—and are obviously unsustainable. With a maximum capacity of 110,000 people, it is already hosting over 95,000 refugees, with more than 1,000 moving in every day.


Africa is characterized by significant movements of people in both voluntary and compelled situations—as economic migrants and as refugees, respectively. Refugees and migrant movements in Africa share a number of similarities in terms of root causes, patterns, and characteristics. Both are caused, or exacerbated, by poverty, underdevelopment, poor governance, and conflicts. Many countries that initially were sources of refugees are currently also origin and destination countries for both refugees and migrants, who are largely confined to the continent. Like migrants who move to key locations in subregional economic communities, recent refugees are hosted mainly by a few neighboring countries, mostly in eastern and central Africa.

Efforts at attaining a global compact on refugees and migrants—so-called mixed migration flows—are ongoing at national, regional, and global levels, aimed at creating a safe and orderly system. While refugees are largely women and children, mostly of rural origin, economically motivated migrants are mainly young, educated persons seeking improved livelihoods principally within the continent and in trickles outside. The drivers of both movements are rooted in economic deterioration, conflicts over diminishing resources, political instability, and environmental disasters. Migrants and refugees are now mixed in terms of their causes, routes, vulnerability, and protection needs.

In Africa, migrants rarely sever links with the home country and remit money to support and augment the economic condition of family members left behind. Some also nurse the hope of return. Of the solutions to the refugee situation—settlement in country of first asylum, resettlement or relocation in a third country, and return to country of origin—returning home is the most commonly preferred and most successful option. In the meantime, the model of economic inclusion of refugees for self-reliance rather than encampment (or confinement in camps) adopted by Uganda and being explored by Kenya and Ethiopia is both innovative and progressive and can also enhance local development to the benefit of the refugees and local communities.

The sheer numbers of migrants and refugees in Africa, their composition, and the challenges they face once again call for comprehensive strategies to strengthen institutions attempting to address the seemingly intractable conflicts that generate refugees and to provide gainful and sustainable employment for the teeming population of restive youths for whom migration, however risky, has become a matter of necessity rather than choice.

African governments have always regarded the African refugee problem as one requiring an essentially African solution. To that extent, Africa’s protocol on conflict prevention and resolution will need to be reinvigorated—to address one of the major causes of refugee creation. In like manner, the African Union’s proposal of an African common passport and protocol on free movement of persons, and the eight Regional Economic Communities’ promotion of intra- and interregional labor mobility, will need to be fast-tracked to facilitate regional integration and intraregional migration.


Parts of this article are indebted to Adepoju (1982a, 1982b).

Further Reading


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  • Adepoju, A. (1982b). The refugee situation in the Horn of Africa and Sudan. ISSUE: A Journal of Africanist Opinion, 12(½), 29–34.
  • Adepoju, A. (2007). Migration in sub-Saharan Africa. Uppsala, Sweden: Nordic African Studies Centre.
  • Adepoju, A. (2015). Operationalising the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement of Persons: Prospects for sub-regional trade and development. In M. Panizzon, G. Zücher, & E. Fornalé (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of international labour migration. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
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  • Adepoju, A. (Ed.). (2014). The Diaspora decade: Some perspectives on African migration-related issues. Lagos, Nigeria: Network of Migration Research on Africa.
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