African Stories of Migration


We would like to highlight different stories of immigration in Africa and of Africans to the Americas. This article features migration within Southern Africa, from Malawi to Zimbabwe, from Zimbabwe to South Africa and from Africa to the Americas.

UNHCR’s Report on Migration in Southern Africa

Bantu Migration
Bantu Migration

At the end of 2011, there were some 449,000 people of concern to UNHCR in Southern Africa, including 145,000 refugees, 245,000 asylum-seekers, 55,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 4,000 returnees.

Individuals in mixed-migration movements towards South Africa often use camps in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe as temporary stopovers, putting a strain on scarce humanitarian resources and creating tensions locally. This has led many governments in the region to restrict access to the asylum system by requiring travel documents at entry points and applying the “first safe country” principle, whereby entry is refused to asylum-seekers who have travelled through a safe country prior to their arrival.

Some positive steps have also been taken in the management of mixed-migration movements. These include Mozambique’s signing of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. Other countries in the region have pledged to accede to the relevant international and regional instruments and to undertake legal and policy reforms to address the mixed-migration challenge.

With the exception of Angola and South Africa, the countries in the subregion hosting a significant number of refugees maintain encampment policies that restrict the freedom of movement of refugees and asylum-seekers and hamper their efforts to become self-reliant.

Migration from Malawi to Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe to South Africa

For a long time many Zimbabweans especially young men went to work in South African mines. A lot of stories emerged from this migration. Many legends, myths and true stories about men who went to South Africa still haunt many Zimbabwean families. Some fathers went in search of employment and sent their children to school with the proceeds, however some went and never returned, leaving their families destitute. When the stories were told there was always the lure of better employment opportunities in the mining industry which was exploding rapidly. Most of the men who went in search of employment were driven by the need to support their families as new needs were emerging. The men who initially took the trips to Johannesburg had grown up with the notion that agriculture  would be their way of life but the times were changing quickly and all of a sudden the needs of their families were changing. Education for children was becoming increasingly important, taxes instituted by the government had to be paid and the land was not producing enough to support a family.

Migration of Zimbabweans to South Africa slowed after independence as most men could now find jobs locally. However from the late 90s migration has increased due to Zimbabwe’s economic woes. Some of the same issues from the past are now coming back to haunt families.

Migration from Africa to the United States

Black Immigrants in the United States have the highest rates of educational attainment and employment among all immigration groups. This means they are the immigrant group with the most formal education which is probably the most under reported statistic since most Westerners would probably pick Asians because of the stereotypes associated with this group. In 2007, 75% of Black African Immigrants aged 18 to 64 were employed versus 71% of immigrants overall and 72% of US-born adults. In 2007 Black African Women had an employment rate of 68%, which was 8% higher than for all immigrant women except from countries with large Muslim populations.

However, when one compares educational attainment with earnings, there is a disconnect. Data from 2007 shows that median annual earnings for Black Immigrants were $27,000 which is about 20 percent below the median for US-born workers ($33,000). This in spite of the fact that African Immigrants have substantially more education than US-born workers. The continent of Africa as a whole has experienced massive brain drain over the last 25 years and will continue to even when immigrants do not always receive credit for their work in the countries they migrate to.

Most Black African Immigrants are underemployment even when they have high skills or credentials. In 2009 more than a third of immigrants with a bachelor’s degree from abroad were working in unskilled jobs. The data shows however that the longer they stay particularly ten years or more and obtain US citizenship they are more likely to be employed in jobs reflecting their education and skill level. Is this ten years that the continent loses that could have benefited most of our struggling economies. In addition, immigrants from Africa tend to be more fluent in English therefore increasing their job prospects. Based on the data from many surveys, it is clear that underemployment occurs because of difficulties in translating credentials and racial discrimination in the US Labor market. Immigrants from Anglophone countries e.g. Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa, Zimbabwe with a bachelor’s degree or more are more likely to hold skilled jobs.

Even though the prospect of living in a Western country is very enticing, how much do Africans lose in earning potential when they migrate? After most Africans migrate to the US, Europe and Australia they are less likely to ever make a meaningful contribution to the growth and development of their native country. What can Africa do to retain more talent while offering its citizens the opportunity to live a middle class lifestyle? It is after all the number one reason that most people leave their home country.

The United States benefits from this disproportionately high-skilled African migration. In 2000, according to data from the World Bank’s Global Skilled Migration Database, the United States was the destination for 37 percent of all African skilled migrants to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, versus 15 percent of all migrants. Canada and Australia similarly attracted a much higher share of high-skilled than low-skilled African migrants; by contrast, the United Kingdom, France, and other European countries were destinations for a greater share of low-skilled African migrants.