What’s holding back free movement of people across Africa?

Free movement of people across Africa often stirs mixed reactions across the continent. Despite the understanding of the benefits of liberalisation of movement of people across the continent, the topic has often been treated with caution.

For instance, in March this year during the African Union summit in Kigali, only 27 countries adopted the protocol on free movement of persons.

The Economic Commission for Africa said that the subject has been treated with somewhat misplaced fears, skepticism and mistrust with most having a perception that it could jeopardise security and economic gains.

Emelang Leteane, the Social Affairs Officer at ECA said that there’s a popular misperception about the consequences of opening up borders.

“African migration has often been viewed wrongly. For instance, few understand that four fifth of migration is within the continent. When conditions improve, people always go back. Recent economic successes in Ethiopia and Rwanda have seen return migrants,” she said.

When free movement is effected, she added, it opens up economies, and skills movement and overall output.

“The core idea of AU free movement is to liberalise trade, skills and productivity,” she said.

She said that most African economies have been citing a shortage of skills required as they seek to diversify their revenue streams, which she noted that can be fast addressed by allowing free movement of people.

“The core idea of the Free Movement of Persons Protocol is to contribute to African integration, which is an opportunity for the liberalisation of movement of persons across the continent; investment; tourism and trade opportunities,” she said.

She noted that, a number of East African firms have cited a deficit of up to 40 per cent in skills which are easily available elsewhere on the continent.

Citing the recent Gallup poll, she said that Rwanda was ranked the third most welcoming country for migrants worldwide, behind Iceland and New Zealand and has not suffered the feared consequences.

Christophe Bazivamo, the Deputy Secretary General of the East African Community in charge of Finance and Administration, said that fears that free movement of people could lead to increased human trafficking and insecurity can easily be addressed through cooperation among security agencies.

He said having good governance systems and well-functioning cooperation has proven that a country does not necessarily expose itself to vulnerabilities.

He said that, across the EAC region, they have noted that a majority of skills gaps and shortages can easily be addressed by allowing free movement of people.

Bazivamo said that it only takes an internal assessment of internal systems among regions and countries in aspects such as immigration and police to address the fears.

Linda Oucho, of the African Migration and Development Policy Centre, said that other bottlenecks to the initiative include fears that it could dilute cultures and livelihoods of citizens.

“Africa should not only focus on cash remittances but also social remittances in the form of diaspora skills. They can make a huge difference on the ground if brought back to the continent,” Oucho added.

A section of stakeholders, however, blamed leaders on the continent for lacking the commitment to effect the initiative.

Josephine Uwamariya, the Country Director of ActionAid, said that there has always lacked a commitment among a number of countries probably based on the leaders’ little understanding of underlying benefits.

Joseph Moroto, the South Sudanese minister for Tourism said, that in their case they noted a section of immigrants who were involved in illegal activities.

Visa free movement is said to present several benefits, including increased investments and industrial growth, increased job creation, a larger market for African goods, increased integration and deeper intra-regional trade.

Other benefits include easy repatriation of profits for nationals working in neighbouring countries as well as students’ access to better education, among other benefits.

A recent report by the African Development Bank showed that African passport holders continue to face visa hurdles when travelling to other African countries.

The report showed that African passport holders still require visas to access 54 per cent of countries on the continent.

Several countries have expressed concern that opening up borders could see an increase in cross-border crimes such as smuggling of weapons and contraband, human trafficking, illicit trade, among others.

Moreover, the African Development Bank report shows  that countries that are more open in terms of free movement of people achieve faster growth rates and attract more business, trade and investment.