Impact story

Shifting patterns of African migration between 1800 and today

Fortune seekers or people fleeing because their existence is threatened? Few subjects 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.

In the first half of the nineteenth century the overseas slave trade was abolished. Nowadays we think of migration and Africa as refugees coming to Europe in ramshackle boats. But what actually happened in the intervening period? There was a great deal of migration, both voluntary and forced, but mainly within the continent. ‘We have quite a lot of knowledge about aspects of this migration and developments in specific countries, but the broader picture for Africa is lacking,' says Michiel de Haas. ‘That is what we are trying to outline’.

Main drivers

‘If we understand better what the main drivers of migration are, we can also better understand current developments,' says Michiel de Haas. ‘Then you will also know better which knobs you can turn to influence migration flows’.

De Haas and Frankema invited leading specialists from Africa, the US and Europe to write a chapter for a scientific book. ‘We are writing the synthesis in which we show the broad outlines. We also have maps made. During a conference we will discuss our findings with fellow researchers. In this way we will contribute to the building of knowledge about African economic history.’

If we understand better what the main drivers of migration are, we can also better understand current developments.
Michiel de Haas, Rural and Environmental History

A clear pattern

Rational, imaginative and determined, Michiel de Haas mentions as important characteristics of migrants: 'It is sometimes portrayed that migrants make irrational choices. But that is not true. Two centuries of migration in Africa show a clear pattern: People only come when there is something to be gained. Even harsh coercion under colonial regimes was often ineffective. 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'.

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 come, but the people who have a bit of money and want to get ahead in life. So you have to be realistic about investments or other forms of migration policy in Africa based on the past: 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.'

It is sometimes portrayed that migrants make irrational choices. But that is not true. People only come when there is something to be gained.
Michiel de Haas, Rural and Environmental History

Xenophobia

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 arises. Even within Africa itself. Nigeria, for example, expelled a million migrants from neighbouring countries in the 1970s'.

Migration is of all times and will always be there. 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 migration scientists working on migration in the present. ‘But we definitely also have the ambition to contribute to the current societal debate on migration,' says De Haas. ‘There are all sorts of images and ideas about migration from African countries. Putting these images and ideas in context and perspective can help to clarify the discussion on migration and help politics and society to move forward on this complex issue.’