Spotlight: Migration – more complex than crowded boats and border crossings


The ISS is helping the international community get the facts on migration, and is bringing African voices into a difficult debate. It promotes migration management and governance as a human rights, development and socio-economic issue rather than a security concern.

A dedicated migration programme works with governments, the African Union and global institutions like the International Organisation for Migration and the UN refugee agency. ISS experts sit alongside academics and think tanks on working groups looking at migration and security, and the impacts of migration on specific countries. 

‘We are changing the global narrative on African migration,’ says Programme Head Ottilia Maunganidze. ‘We challenge the notion that African migration is about desperate opportunists on crowded boats crossing the Mediterranean,’ she says. The reality is that far more Africans stay on the continent than those who attempt to leave its shores. More than 80% of African migration is within Africa, and only 8% of migrants in Europe are African.

The ISS also promotes a gender focus in Africa’s migration debate. Migration is traditionally seen as a male phenomenon, yet women are moving more than ever, often migrating independently to escape war or fulfil economic needs. ISS research in South Africa found that African women migrants face xenophobia, racism and misogyny, and that restrictive policy responses have disproportionate impacts on women and children.

‘Migration is not a simple story about people crossing borders, but a complex issue spanning gender, human rights, xenophobia, economics, conflict, politics and security,’ Maunganidze says. ‘We are building an evidence-based understanding that contributes to both African migration governance and realistic European responses.’

ISS researchers understand the structural drivers of migration, and are working with African governments on policy responses. ISS is part of a steering committee on migration and urbanisation for the South African government’s inter-ministerial committee on population policy. ISS analysts advised South Africa on how it can reverse the country’s institutionalised negative attitudes towards low-skilled African migrants and asylum seekers by embracing migration’s development potential and providing legal pathways that promote orderly migration.

By talking with migrants and refugees, ISS is able to tell migrants’ own stories about why they move

‘There is no evidence that migrants are an elevated security risk or that their presence justifies heavy-handed military or criminal justice responses,’ says Maunganidze. ‘It is better to see migration as an opportunity to manage.’

The ISS brings new facts to the debate, based on its fieldwork, analysis and relationships across the continent. By spending time on the ground talking with migrants and refugees, it is able to tell migrants’ stories about why they move. A series of groundbreaking reports have looked at the dynamics of migration in the Horn of Africa, responses to migration in Algeria, and people smuggling in Niger and Libya. The ISS also reported on freedom of movement in southern African and Ethiopia’s progressive refugee policy.

ISS analysts guide African governments on implementation of the Global Compact for Migration and how it links to the UN’s sustainable development goals as well as national development, trade and investment policies. The AU approached the ISS to assist its collation of the continent’s migration laws. The ISS also helped write the governance section of the Southern African Development Community’s migration framework, and the security component of the International Organisation for Migration’s first report on migration in Africa.

The ISS is an authority on African migration. It drives progressive narratives and highlighting migrants’ positive contribution in filling labour shortages and skills gaps, particularly in developed countries with a shrinking working age population.

For more information contact:

Ottilia Maunganidze, ISS: +27 12 346 9500, [email protected]

Picture: Amanda Nero / IOM

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