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  • Migration within Africa and Beyond
  • Beth Elise Whitaker (bio)

Migrants, refugees, foreign aid, security, political liberalization, diaspora politics

On January 27, 2017, the week-old Trump administration temporarily banned immigration to the United States from seven countries, including three in Africa (Libya, Somalia, and Sudan), and blocked refugees from all countries. The executive order prompted protests around the world and drew attention to the plight of refugees and migrants. Community groups held town hall meetings, and refugee service organizations saw a jump in contributions and volunteers.1 Social media were awash with stories about people whose lives were upended when the ban prevented them from seeking medical care in the United States or reuniting with loved ones. But the executive order also had supporters, including some who called for a boycott of Budweiser over a commercial about its founder’s arriving in America as a refugee from Germany in the 1850s.

The recent furor about immigration in the United States is only the latest chapter in a lengthy global saga. In 2015 all eyes were on Europe as it struggled to manage a rapid increase in the number of refugees and [End Page 209] migrants, mainly from the Middle East and Africa. Even as Hungary, Slovenia, Austria, and Bulgaria hastily erected razor-wire border fences, Germany announced plans to admit eight hundred thousand asylum seekers. Anti-immigrant protests in many cities were matched by equally passionate rallies in favor of welcoming migrants. While the specifics were different, the arguments were reminiscent of similar debates in the U.S. in the 1830s or 1920s or in Europe in the 1930s. For centuries, the effort by migrants to seek better lives in new countries has been met with a mix of hospitality and hostility by citizens of those countries.

Given how the recent migration “crisis” has been portrayed in the media, one might think that Europe is being overrun. Consider these headlines: “As Europe Grasps for Answers, More Migrants Flood Its Borders” (The New York Times, Sept. 7, 2015); “A Global Surge in Refugees Leaves Europe Struggling to Cope” (The Washington Post, April 21, 2015); and “Crisis Warnings Sound as E.U. Gears Up for New Migrant Wave” (The Seattle Times, Jan. 15, 2017).2 Since a large number of the migrants discussed in these articles are from African countries, there is an impression that people are desperate to get out of the region. Few articles explain why people are migrating beyond a passing reference to “war, persecution and poverty in an arc of strife from West Africa to Afghanistan” (Faiola 2015).

Most accounts also overlook the fact that the majority of African migration takes place within Africa itself. When Africans leave home, more often than not they move to nearby countries. Geographic proximity allows them to return home to visit family, or to return permanently if circumstances change. Some migrate farther to regional hubs like South Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, or Nigeria, but relatively few go to Europe or the United States. According to a recent International Monetary Fund report, about 13 million of the 19.6 million sub-Saharan Africans living outside their home countries in 2013 migrated within the region (Gonzalez-Garcia et al. 2016).3 Migration within Africa is not new; even as the nature of borders has changed markedly from precolonial times to the present (Herbst 2000), Africans have long been on the move.

Just as Europeans and Americans have mixed reactions to the influx of immigrants, so do Africans. In recent years, anti-immigrant hostility has increased throughout the region, and governments have cracked down. The rise of xenophobia in South Africa has been well-documented, manifesting itself in periodic violence against Somalis, Zimbabweans, and others (Charman & Piper 2012; Danso & McDonald 2001; Gordon & Maharaj 2015; Landau 2010, 2011; Neocosmos 2010; Nyamnjoh 2006). In Côte d’Ivoire, antiforeigner rhetoric and policies contributed to a civil conflict that divided the country for nearly a decade (Bah 2010; Bassett 2011; Mitchell 2011, 2012; Whitaker 2015). After years of welcoming refugees, Tanzania has forcibly expelled half a million Rwandans since the late 1990s and limited the admission and movement of others (Chaulia 2003; Kamanga 2005; Rutinwa 1996...


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pp. 209-220
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