When the Organisation of African Unity (later the African Union) was established on 25 May 1963, it was an ambitious project, born while much of the African continent was in the firm grip of colonialism. It set up for itself what seemed like an impossible task at the time, which was to free Africa of all forms of colonialism and set up sovereign and independent states.

In 2021, that goal has mostly been achieved. However there persists a relentless colonial hangover in the form of balkanisation. Imposed and illegitimate colonial borders continue to impede economic growth, the free movement of people and undermine the ideal of an integrated and prosperous Africa. This Africa Day, it is necessary that we give attention to the status of migration on the continent and work together to find ways to integrate African people and identify opportunities.

People-centred migration governance could harness the manifold benefits of migration for the African continent. Greater investment in policies that promote the free movement of people, with enhanced intra-regional and inter-regional cooperation, have the potential to contribute to the political unity and sustainable economic development of Africa. A key enabler of this process is an inclusive migration governance framework aligned with Pan-African ideals and perspectives, as articulated in the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

The 2018 Economic Development in Africa Report on Migration for Structural Transformation, documented migration trends and highlights on the continent.1 The report showed that 86% of the migration in Africa is cross-border migration within the continent. The report further finds that intra-African migration has benefit for structural transformation in destination countries and shows that a 1% increase in the number of immigrants in the destination country may increase manufacturing value-add by 0.26-0.43%.2 The Africa Visa Openness Report further confirms the benefit of migration in its 2020 report, by noting that African “countries that relaxed visa regimes and adopted visa-free and visa-on-arrival policies have seen economic benefits in recent years, attracting growing numbers of business and leisure travellers”.3 Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda have reaped much benefit from migration. These three countries have taken positive steps in lightening the administrative process for accessing work permits and visas and have experienced a 50% increase in cross-border trade as a result, with women constituting the majority of cross border traders.4 It has also shown that there are additional positive effects on structural transformation when the level of education in the origin country is higher than in the destination country.5

Despite such benefits, domestic policies and laws that undermine the free movement of people and the associated social cohesion and integration – continue to be enacted. The persistent protectionist attitudes of African states create political and economic fragmentation and prevent the continent from adequately leveraging from the resources, skills, markets, experiences, and cultures within it. The absence of a regulatory framework and the resistance from states has not halted the movement of people. However, irregular migration has rather become more rampant. Migrants use increasingly precarious routes, which render them vulnerable to abuse by smugglers and human traffickers.

Moreover, states often view irregular migration through the prism of national security, which leads to a dangerous generalisation that all refugees and migrants are a potential security threat. This generalisation has the ability to foster xenophobia in host populations and has contributed to the securitisation of migration, including the reinforcement of border control, without due respect for migrants’ human rights.

The 2020 enactment of the Border Management Agency Bill by the South African government clearly demonstrates a response to migration which is rooted in securitisation.6 The audacious Gauteng Township Economic Development Draft Bill, which seeks to limit (if not make it outright impossible) entrepreneurial participation of migrants in the province, can only be read as a growing and emboldened anti-immigrant sentiment in by the state.7 Furthermore, South Africa’s COVID-19 response to close land borders but leave air borders unfettered shows a commitment to locking out its immediate African neighbours who travel by road. These actions which might be aimed at keeping others out, have the potential to lock South Africa out from opportunity, growth and diversity.


In 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda, the African Passport was launched. This is a crucial instrument in the facilitation of the free movement of people, though ratification of the African passport is slow. In 2017, the Peace and Security Council of the AU acknowledged that the benefits of free movement of Africans across African borders outweighed the real and imagined economic and security challenges that such a reform might pose, yet resistance persists.

Despite reluctance from Africa’s middle- to high-income countries to ease migration, some have made significant progress. The two most welcoming African countries towards fellow Africans are Benin and the Seychelles which offer visa-free access to all African visitors with appropriate travel documents. Following them, two African countries have a combination of visa-free access and visa on arrival policies for all Africans—Senegal and Rwanda. Comoros, Madagascar and Somalia offer visa on arrival policies for all Africans, and another 12 countries offer a combination of visa-free and visa on arrival policies for a majority of other African countries.

On 1 January 2021, trading formally began under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The AfCFTA is a continental market for goods and services intended to help deepen the economic integration of the African continent and promote development. The agreement brings together 1.3 billion people across 55 countries with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) valued at US$3.4 trillion. Policy makers and business leaders alike agree that the success of this agreement will hinge on its ability to facilitate the movement of people.

Africans need to imagine migration as a tool of growth and prosperity. Incidences of xenophobic violence across the continent but particularly in South Africa are often driven by the false notion that migrants extract from host countries and make no contributions – despite the data contradicting this. These acts of hate (which have often resulted in the loss of human life) fuel instability, threaten peace and security and stunt economic growth. Civil society, the private sector, governments and African citizens need to collaborate efforts towards integrating the continent through movements, investments and policies which aim to integrate Africa.

Written by Musa Gwebani, Social and Economic Rights Portfolio Manager: OSF-SA


  1. https://unctad.org/webflyer/economic-development-africa-report-2018
  2. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2018/06/07/figures-of-the-week-internal-migration-in-africa/
  3. https://www.visaopenness.org/
  4. https://ecdpm.org/talking-points/connecting-people-markets-africa-2021/#:~:text=On%201%20January%202021%2C%20trading,African%20continent%20and%20promote%20development.
  5. https://unctad.org/webflyer/economic-development-africa-report-2018
  6. https://www.gov.za/documents/border-management-authority-act-2-2020-english-sepedi-21-jul-2020-0000
  7. https://www.gauteng.gov.za/Departments/DepartmentPublicationDetails/B11B93B2-BAFB-44C9-9227-A549C5DF4A7C?departmentId=CPM-001003