Seeking fortune or fleeing existential threat? Few topics are as politically charged and give rise to discussions as intense as migration. Together with Professor Ewout Frankema of the Rural and Environmental History group (RHI), Michiel de Haas charts the shifting patterns of African migration for the period from around 1800 to the present day.
Historically, the slave trades defined African intercontinental mobility. Until abolition in the nineteenth century, well over twelve million Africans were forcibly taken overseas. While the repercussions of slavery remain widely debated, a new movement of Africans into the West has emerged, involving Mediterranean crossings into Europe in ramshackle boats. But what happened in the intervening period? ‘There was a great deal of migration,’ says Michiel de Haas. ‘We should not forget that, in the colonial period, there were numerous European and Asian ‘fortune seekers’ settling in Africa. But Africans themselves also moved in large numbers, both voluntarily and forced. We have quite a lot of knowledge about aspects of such migration in specific countries and regions, but the broader picture for Africa is lacking. That is what we seek to contribute.’
Main drivers of migration from Africa
‘If we understand better what the main drivers of migration are, we can also better understand current developments,' says Michiel de Haas. ‘This provides useful insights into which policy levers can be pulled, and which ones cannot, to influence migration flows.’
De Haas and Frankema invited leading specialists from Africa, Europe and the United States to write a chapter for a scientific book. ‘We open the book with a synthesis in which we stake out the broad drivers and patterns of African migration. Throughout the book we employ maps and integrate statistics to make our analysis more concrete. We use workshops to benefit from each other’s insights share and to discuss our findings with fellow researchers. In this way, we expand our understanding of migration as a central phenomenon in African economic history.’
A clear pattern
‘Rational’, ‘imaginative’ and ‘determined’ are some important migrant characteristics, according to Michiel de Haas: ‘Migrants are sometimes portrayed as making irrational choices. But that is not accurate. Their options are of course constrained by numerous circumstances, but two centuries of migration in Africa show a clear pattern: people only move in large numbers and over a long period of time if there is something for them to be gained. Migrants choose on the basis of a consideration: where do I have the most opportunities, at home or elsewhere? People who leave know very well what they are doing. If opportunities dry up in one destination, they go somewhere else. Even colonial regimes, which did not particularly shy away from using harsh coercion, were often unable to control or divert migration flows, or eventually improved conditions at destinations such as mines.’
Investing in the area of origin then seems like a good strategy to prevent major disruptive migration flows. ‘Yes, you would think so,' says De Haas. ‘But remember: it's usually not the poorest of the poor who are mobile, but the people who have a bit of money and want to get ahead in life. So, based on past experience, one has to be realistic about investments or other forms of migration policy in Africa: you can try to increase people's opportunities and contribute to the education and health of future migrants. But you're not going to stop migration itself.'
Xenophobia is a constant factor when it comes to migration. In Europe, some people fear that we will be flooded by migrants from Africa who are looking for our prosperity. ‘We are by no means unique in this,’ says De Haas. ‘You see that fear everywhere. Particularly during periods of economic decline, xenophobia intensifies. Even within Africa itself. Nigeria, for example, expelled a million migrants from neighbouring countries in the 1970s. South Africa today is also a case in point.'
Migration is a core constituent element of human societies, and will likely continue to be so. The development of knowledge is therefore of great importance. With their project, De Haas and Frankema want to offer historical context and relevant backgrounds to scholars working on Africa, history and migration. ‘But we definitely also have the ambition to inform current societal debate on migration,' says De Haas. ‘There are many images and ideas about African migrants. Confronting these images and ideas with historical realities can help to clarify the discussion on migration and help politics and society to move forward on this complex issue.’