Free Movement of Persons in Africa: What are the benefits and challenges?

Border crossing between Benin and Togo. Source: YoTuT on Flickr ©2011

In his opening speech at the 30th African Union (AU) Ordinary Session in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the AU Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, urged member states to adopt the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, stressing the significance of ensuring ‘that Africans are no longer treated like foreigners on their own continent, while others move about therein often freely.’

Similar sentiments were echoed throughout Africa, as the continent widely welcomed the adoption of the Protocol on Free Movement at the AU Summit in January 2018. First conceived more than 25 years ago in the 1991 Abuja Treaty, the Protocol continues to be hailed as a significant step forward in Africa’s integration efforts.

The potential benefits of increased movement within Africa cannot be overstated. In addition to enhancing Africans’ rights to entry, residence and establishment in AU member states, many see the Protocol — if widely adopted and implemented — as a catalyst for the continent’s socio-economic development and as a chance for African countries to finally respond to the complexities of migration as a collective.

A key area where the Protocol could have significant impact is trade. Intra-African trade remains dismally low. At less than 15 per cent of total trade, intra-African trade lies well below other regions; by comparison, in Europe and Asia, intra-regional exports account for roughly 70 and 60 per cent respectively. Undoubtedly, trade among African countries is partly stifled by visa hurdles and stringent entry rules which make it strenuous for citizens to move from one country to the next.

What is more, free movement in Africa can attenuate some of the major challenges that many African labour markets face. It can plug skills gaps, while enabling countries to fix skills mismatches in their labour markets. With more people able to move freely, firms can much more easily find the necessary talent and skills that they need; this is critical to driving productivity which, in turn, has an impact on the economic growth of countries.

But the potential benefits of free movement extend beyond trade and labour markets. At the sub-regional level, free movement has been shown to boost tourism, ease demographic pressure in sending countries and increase cultural exchange. Importantly, it can reduce irregular migration, which often leaves migrants at the mercy of smugglers and traffickers.

Despite its benefits, free movement also brings its own challenges. Real fears over possible job losses and dampening of wages for local workers in destination countries must be acknowledged. These concerns are especially prevalent in Africa’s upper middle-income countries. In addition, while remittances are of significant benefit to countries of origin, concerns over brain drain and the consequent loss of working-age individuals persist.

Other significant risks include the potential increase of violent incidents driven by xenophobia as well as the continent’s mounting security threats, including those of terrorist groups that cut across borders such as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab.

The potential downsides of increased movement may explain why several AU member states are yet to sign or ratify the Protocol, but proponents of free movement have long argued that these challenges are not insuperable. African Regional Economic Communities (RECs), some of which have already made significant strides on free movement, offer useful lessons on how to effectively implement free movement regimes. To be sure, free movement regimes in several RECs continue to be dogged by implementation challenges; nonetheless, regional bodies still provide a helpful blue print for harnessing the benefits while mitigating the challenges of free movement.

The 4th Pan African Forum on Migration (PAFoM) will be held in Djibouti Ville, Djibouti from 19–21 November 2018. It is a chance for all key migration governance actors in Africa to discuss both the benefits as well as the challenges that free movement brings.

This year’s theme “Harnessing the Benefits of a Free Movement of Persons Regime for Sustainable Development in Africa” reflects what has long been clear: migration cannot be disentangled from development and the “free movement-development nexus” cannot be overlooked. It also acknowledges that Africa’s myriad development and security challenges cannot be addressed in isolation, but as the result of a collective effort.


This article was written by Bernardo Mariano, IOM’s Senior Regional Adviser for Africa.