Is Western Policy on Migration Holding Africa Back?

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by Ebenezer Obadare

First Published in: Aug.23,2022

Mar.10, 2023

More than a generous immigration policy, Africa desperately needs help holding on to its precious human capital.


For some time now, it’s been customary to frame the debate on global North–South migration in terms of its economic benefits to destination Western countries. The question, for example, of whether an influx of “low-skilled” immigrants is potentially inimical to the welfare of their counterparts in destination countries derives from this framing. If entertained at all, the reasons why immigrants flee hearth and home, often in the most perilous of circumstances, are a secondary consideration. The same neglect of the situation in ‘sending countries’ (in reality, there is no such thing) can be seen in discussion of high-skilled immigration, generally accepted as a win-win for both immigrants and destination countries.


Western policy on immigration appears to encapsulate this incongruity. Under pressure from sundry pro-immigrant groups, many western countries have embraced a policy approach aimed at making legal immigration less onerous and more humane. At the same time, the need for high-skilled manpower to fill gaps in various sectors of the Western economy—health and education immediately come to mind—has prompted a raft of programs and initiatives geared towards attracting and keeping talented individuals from various parts of the world. True, the overall picture remains mixed, with immigration being a continued source of rancor within western civil societies. Nevertheless, Fortress Euro-America of the closing decades of the twentieth century has yielded to a more liberal immigration regime.


From a Western perspective, Africa has been one of the prime "beneficiaries" of this new dispensation. As African states have struggled with infrastructural decay, poverty, and corruption, highly skilled Africans have sought fresh starts in various parts of the Western Hemisphere. The statistics do not make for easy reading. According to the African Union (AU), an average of seventy thousand skilled professionals exit Africa annually. In the decade spanning 2008 to 2018, the proportion of doctors trained in Africa working in hospitals across the United States grew by 27 percent. In the U.S. healthcare sector, 24 percent of registered nurses, 20 percent of nursing assistants, and 16 percent of personal care aides hail from Africa. As of 2018, more than 5,250 Nigerian medical doctors were employed in the British National Health Service (NHS). While the whole of Africa has an estimated 4.5 doctors per 10,000 residents, the United Kingdom and the United States respectively have 2.9 and 2.6 doctors per 1,000 residents. As of 2015, 86 percent of African-educated physicians working in the United States were trained in just four African countries—Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa.  


According to the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), “only forty thousand of the over eighty thousand medical doctors registered with the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria practice at home.” As of 2019, “five thousand of the registered thirty thousand pharmacists in Nigeria had travelled out of the country.”


The annual cost to the African region of the flight of medical personnel is approximately 2 billion dollars. 


From an African standpoint, the view from the education sector is no less dispiriting. In December 2020, the number of university students from Sub-Saharan Africa studying outside their homeland stood at just a little over four hundred thousand. According to a Campus France survey, “about 5 percent of the 8.1 million tertiary students on the continent have crossed a border, as compared to the global average of 2.4 percent.” There are currently more than seventy thousand Nigerian students studying outside the country. In the United States, the population of Nigerian students pursuing college education has gone up by 93 percent over the past decade. From Cairo to Cape Town, the triggering factors appear to be the same, and are not necessarily limited to problems in the education sector. According to the 2022 Africa Youth Survey, “Economic strife, insecurity, corruption, political intolerance, unreliable internet, and poor education systems are behind the desire of many African youth to relocate to Europe or the United States.”   


While 52 percent of 4,500 Africans aged 18-24 surveyed recently by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) “are likely to consider emigrating in the next few years,” numbers alone do not do justice to the level of despair of many of the region’s youth at its gloomy prospects, or the sinking feeling among young people that they must get out if they ever hope to achieve something meaningful with their lives. The currency of the slang “Japa” (translation, “leave with no plan of ever coming back”) among Nigeria’s disenchanted youth is telling.   


It is right and proper that pro-immigration groups across the West sympathize with the plight of African immigrants who, it should be remembered, cannot be blamed for wanting to get away from a predicament they had no hand in creating. Nevertheless, more than rote concern is needed to ensure that important questions around quality of governance and political accountability in Africa are placed front and center. That this has not been the case counts as one of the major failings of Western migration discourse. Other than insisting on the proper treatment of immigrants and calling attention to the human rights situation in countries of origin (something witnessed most recently in the reaction to the UK-Rwanda asylum deal) there seems to be little curiosity about longstanding political and economic determinants of emigration.


If pro-immigration groups are genuinely interested in African development, as the majority unquestionably are, they must face up to the uncomfortable paradox that an unquestioning defense of continued emigration from Africa (coupled with a dogged opposition to repatriation) is effectively a vote for the region’s continued underdevelopment, since the status quo amounts to little more than an evacuation of African talent to the West.


To be effective, Western pro-immigrant groups must synergize with local civil society groups across Africa working to hold the continent’s many corrupt leaders to account. The logic is simple: the more accountable African leaders are, the more robust civil society becomes, and the greater the incentive for young people to remain. This is not an argument against immigration. It is, on the one hand, acknowledging the obvious truth that the loss of energetic and driven young people leaves Africa denuded. On the other hand, one is merely amplifying a frustration that civil society groups across the continent have consistently expressed.


Nor, just to be clear, is this a case of blaming the West for Africa’s problems or asking that Western countries step in as the region’s long-awaited saviors. If any blame is to be assigned, it is to African leaders for their scandalous mismanagement of the continent’s abundant resources. Nigeria, and increasingly South Africa, are prime examples of this culture of waste and political predation. Beyond playing the blame game, the aim is to underscore the point that migration has an unintended deleterious effect that pro-immigrant advocates can no longer afford to overlook.   


Affirming immigrant rights and campaigning against immigrant repatriation is noble. Working in concert with Africa-based actors and institutions to help the continent keep hold of its precious human capital should be the goal.   

First published in :

CFR (Council on Foreign Relations)


Ebenezer Obadare

Ebenezer Obadare is the Douglas Dillion Senior Fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also a senior fellow at the New York University School of Professional Studies Center for Global Affairs, as well as a fellow at the University of South Africa’s Institute of Theology. Prior to joining CFR, he was a professor of sociology at the University of Kansas. He is the author or editor of eleven books, including Pastoral Power, Clerical State: Pentecostalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Nigeria.

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