Across the developing world, migrants move to other poor countries nearly as often as they move to rich ones. Yet their numbers and hardships are often overlooked.
They typically start poorer than migrants to rich countries, earn less money and are more likely to travel illegally, which raises the odds of abuse. They usually move to countries that offer migrants less legal protection and fewer services than wealthy nations do. Yet their earnings help sustain some of the poorest people on the globe.
There are 74 million “south to south” migrants, according to the World Bank, which uses the term to describe anyone moving from one developing country to another, regardless of geography. The bank estimates that they send home $18 billion to $55 billion a year. (The bank also estimates that 82 million migrants have moved “south to north,” or from poor countries to rich ones.)
Good walls make good neighbors
The story is told from the Massacre River, the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It’s a sad and violent tale where the Dominican Republic is much more developed (and less troubled) than its neighbor, whose people face great obstacles attempting to find work outside the country. (From the story: Per capita income in the Dominican Republic is $2,850; in Haiti it is $480.)
Viewing the story from a West African context, the reality is much different. There’s a lot of reasons for this. Unlike the island of Hispaniola, the West African sub-region largely shares a common colonial tongue and a similar history. This has made it easier for migrants to look at West Africa as a single unit where goods and people moved freely, allowing West African countries to become simultaneous immigration, emigration and transit countries.
“[The] Colonial period provoked large-scale labour migration required for plantations, mines and public administration beyond local supply,” Aderanti Adepoju wrote in his UNESCO study, Creating a Borderless West Africa: Constraints and Prospects for Intra-Regional Migration. This brought people to places like Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal and the Gambia. It also underscored the reality that coastal countries (by and large) were richer than their Sahelian counterparts to the north. (However, this economic disparity is nowhere near the intensity as exists between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. That’s because no country in West Africa is nearly as affluent as the Dominican Republic – or, sadly, Haiti.)
After independence the countries created ECOWAS, the economic community of Anglophone, Lusaphone and Francophone West African states, whose charter codifies that member citizens can move across other borders with just an identity card.
This union hasn’t exactly faced perfect harmony. Issues between Nigeria and Ghana have lead to the forced repatriation of respective immigrants from both countries. After years of welcoming economic immigrants from the entire sub-region, Cote d’Ivoire got a case of xenophobia in the mid-1990s and began blaming the very immigrants that built the country for its economic troubles. Issues have occasionally cropped up between Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Senegal’s Casamance region. Ditto for Mauritania and Senegal. We could list many more of these outbreaks, of course, but for the most part, people in West Africa enjoy free movement.
One issue that is often left unsaid is that immigration from one country often begets more immigration. After a few members of the same village in Burkina Faso found work in Niamey, it seemed the rest of the village moved to Niger’s capital. Today, they have a small neighborhood to themselves. Ghanaians have also moved to Ouagadougou to increase trading opportunities, bringing with them their food and other customs (read: beer). In Accra, Francophone friendly neighborhoods have long been active. Togolese seem to have spread throughout the entire region, escaping decades of brutal rule and extremely limited economic opportunities (which is saying a lot in this neighborhood).
Send them your poor, huddled masses
Another often unspoken issue: Do political leaders support immigration because it rids them of would-be rabble rousers and brings them workers with few rights? This is one argument against Mexican immigration to the United States. Migration acts as a political safety valve and allows Mexico’s reforms to remain half-baked because many Mexicans most impatient for change simply move north. Does this happen in West Africa? With the Burkinabé expatriate community said to number near five million, has the government simply allowed the best and brightest to move elsewhere? For the most part Togolese, Nigeriens and Malians have taken their place – but with few rights and no political representation. (Urban renewal seems to frequently target neighborhoods with high foreign-born populations.)
The one question facing West Africa is how long can these immigrants stay? While immigrants have been promised full residency, Adepoju claims that ECOWAS countries have yet to figure out how to fulfill that promise. Even with coastal countries still relatively more affluent than those bordering the Sahara, West African immigrants continue to find work throughout the sub-region. (The region’s growing economies may make this task easier.) Eventually, it seems, these immigrants return home. This may be due to economic downturn and natives force immigrants away; sometimes it’s just time to go home again. ECOWAS may not offer a perfect solution – but looking at the issues facing richer and more developed Hispaniola – West African immigration seems to work a lot better.