Understanding South-South migration

By Jason Gagnon, PGD1 coordinator, OECD Development Centre


Migration is the talk of the moment. Last week, I participated in the 11th GFMD2 Summit and the Intergovernmental Conference on the GCM3, where experts debated migration’s place in today’s global context. The outcome: 163 member countries of the United Nations pledged their support for a ground breaking document establishing migration – and migrants – as a vehicle for good.

Amongst the many debates, much talk was on South-South migration (SSM) and on the future particularly of Africa in this regard. But why this focus? Most studies on SSM fail to clarify what is different about SSM and why we should pay attention to it. Arguments are good for why SSM may be similar or different to what we’ve come to expect from previously studied migration corridors. But there are also many misconceptions on SSM – particularly in Africa. So what do we know?

Most of this misconceived perception lies in how we measure stocks, which currently tells us that more migrants born in the South live elsewhere in the South (than in the North): 53% to be exact in Africa. And the numbers are indeed much higher when we dig more locally: 71% in sub-Saharan Africa. Dig down deeper and the rate increases even more: up to 79% in Middle Africa.

But stocks only provide us with the story at a certain point in time. We have done poorly in measuring actual migrant flows, as in entries and exits, in a standard way. Indeed, the perception is that SSM is growing faster than South-North migration. This is not true according to available data. If we look at the stocks of migrants for the data points we have across years, SSM is actually decreasing relative to migration towards the North. The share of migrants from Africa and living in Africa was at 66% in 1990. And that downward trend is confirmed for every sub-region in sub-Saharan Africa. The trend is even more remarkable when we drop the vague nomenclature of South vs. North, and instead categorise countries by their income levels. The stock of migrants from low-income countries living in other low-income countries has been in constant decrease from 1995 to 2015 (from 45% to 21%) and increasing quickly to rich countries (from 36% to 54%). And that is completely normal, and in line with migration and development dynamics experienced throughout history. The world’s countries are developing and converging economically, which provides people the possibility to reach for better opportunities – and they themselves then become agents of development, something we pointed out in our Perspectives on Global Development in 2017.

But focusing on the South-North vs. South-South notion of migration detracts from the real important policy point of migration dynamics. Just like the SDGs, which point to the fact that we’re all developing economies, we should view policy in the migration field as ‘we’re all migration countries’.

That is also not to say that SSM is not growing in absolute terms. Indeed, this is precisely the reason why we should be concerned about certain regions of the world where immigrant integration and the links between migration and development are undervalued. Countries should be concerned about what this may entail. Viewed in absolute terms, SSM is increasing. As a whole, African countries hosted 24.7 million immigrants in 2017, up from 19.3 million in 1990; a 28% increase. Almost all of these immigrants were born somewhere in Africa. And conditions are ripe for this to continue. Consider that the estimated current total of 1.05 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa in 2018 will more than double to 2.2 billion by 2050. Combine that with the fact that women in Africa are increasingly entering the labour force relative to previous cohorts. Or look at the fact that urbanision will increase in sub-Saharan Africa from a current rate of 40% to 58% by 2050. And perhaps most strikingly, the emigration rate from sub-Saharan Africa relative to its population, at 2.5%, is amongst the lowest in the world. The increasingly sparse migration routes to OECD countries will mean that intraregional migration in Africa will undoubtedly rise.

So then what is needed for a better understanding of SSM and recognition of its development potential?

First, we need a more comprehensive and better reflection on migration between developing countries, one that highlights why SSM might be different. Most of the studies undertaken on the topic point out that their work is novel because it is done in a South-South context, but don’t explain why that matters. It therefore requires a better acknowledgement of the plurality and individuality of migration corridors. A good start would be to integrate more views and reflections from academics in the South, who are often best placed to apply the contextual foundation of migration processes from their regions.

Second, it requires a recognition by countries in the South that immigrant integration is not only a policy domain for rich countries. It’s great news that a number of countries have begun rolling out migration strategies, but few of them discuss immigration beyond border controls. Integration does not happen on its own. Immigrants can be misunderstood, discriminated against, barred access to services, leading to frustration, unemployment and setting in motion a vicious cycle that is hard to break. OECD countries know this well now, but if a lesson is clear for developing countries, it is that integration must be a part of a migration policy. (This is an argument we have made before here and here.) And empirical evidence exists on how migrants contribute to developing economies, but that their contribution remains limited.

Third, SSM is an important development phenomenon, but one that we cannot let feed into the argument that harnessing it will help stem migration to OECD countries, or the “North”. It won’t. Rather, we must embrace it as another piece of the complex and evolving puzzle of development, one in which policy can play a role in maximising that potential. And for SSM to really have an impact on development, we need a more holistic view of migration, one which incorporates all facets of migration, as well as all parts of governments, all ministries and levels of governments, the private sector, and civil society organisations. A recent Development Centre report points to the importance of drawing-in the often inadvertent effect of public policies on migration. In short: we need more people at the policy table.

Finally, everything mentioned above may be wrong — or at least incomplete. In other words – we have very little idea about the informal and fluid nature of migration and remittances in Africa – and we may be underestimating everything. Consider this: while 71% of sub-Saharan Africa emigrants live in another sub-Saharan Africa country, only 31% of all remittances sent to sub-Saharan Africa originated from other countries in sub-Saharan Africa – equivalent to less than half of the migrant stock. Part of the reason is because income levels, which partly determine remittance amounts, are higher outside of Africa. But another important part of the reason is that the use of informal remittance channels is high in Africa, and our best estimations on such informal flows are more than a decade old. Consider also the high rate of cross border workers in Africa – playing a crucial role in their local economies, whatever side of the border they may be on. One study cites that such cross-border trading may contribute to the income of up to 43% of Africa’s population.

So fourth, we need data more reflective of the African migratory context. The 1998 UN standards for migration statistics are very good practice, but we need to go beyond them. And the newly announced African migration observatory is the perfect platform to be that laboratory – one tasked with exploring novel ways of obtaining relevant data in Africa.

On the eve of International Migrants Day on December 18, my hope is that we start breaking down the barriers posed by identifying migration according to South vs. North, which can mislead policy and muddle up a good understanding of global migration dynamics. Instead, the time is ripe to start building a global narrative around migration as a positive force for development, in all countries.

1. Perspectives on Global Development

2. Global Forum on Migration and Development

3. Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration