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Africans Want to Migrate, But Not Permanently  

A survey released in mid-June shows that political instability and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are pushing young Africans to consider emigrating, within Africa and beyond. 

“The real bombshell out of the survey is that a very high percentage of the people in the response group are thinking about migration,” Ivor Ichikowitz, whose South African-based family foundation commissioned the report, told The Guardian

The survey, the second of its kind, was conducted through personal interviews with 4,507 people between the ages of 18 and 24 across 15 sub-Saharan African countries. The previous study, released in 2020, had found more than two-thirds (66%+) of young people wanted to remain in Africa; now, 52% plan to move abroad in the next three years. In Nigeria and Sudan specifically, that number increased to 75%.

“In many countries in Africa, it’s an election year or a year just before elections, and it’s kind of logical that people will see instability as a concern,” Ichikowitz explained to The Guardian. “But marry that with lack of access to water; marry that with a major concern for terrorism, and you’ve now got a demographic, a group of people who are very jittery about the future of the continent.”

Apart from Rwanda and Ghana, where respectively 60% and 56% were optimistic about their country’s direction, in all the other countries at least two-thirds of young people surveyed believed their nations were going in the wrong direction. Attitudes on the direction of the continent as a whole were more divided; only in Ghana did a majority believe Africa was moving in the right direction.

One of the principal concerns was politics: 75% of African youth said they were concerned with political instability, and in Nigeria, racked by Islamist violence and which many consider a failed state, that sentiment rose to 82%. Overall, half of the youth surveyed said that terrorism, insurgency, and conflict had impacted their day-to-day lives.

The survey also showed that the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is a factor in the diminished optimism. 

“The 2022 African Youth Survey provides a valuable update on the ‘Afro-optimism’ uncovered in the inaugural research conducted in 2019. This year’s study conveys the challenges of a generation and continent hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the executive summary stated.

Of the interviewees, 45% said the event that had most impacted their lives in the last five years was death by infectious disease. COVID restrictions and the paralysation of the global economy also put many young people in Africa out of work. In the survey, 19% said the pandemic had left them unemployed. Others had to suspend their schooling. 

The survey also cites a 2020 African Union study, indicating that nearly 20 million jobs were at risk because of COVID-19. It also notes that the World Economic Forum estimated that informal workers on the continent saw their income drop by 81%. Within the African context, workers with casual employment make up 95% of youth employment. This, the survey further points out, is on top of a 10-year trend of increasing unemployment on the continent. 

In the survey, 69% of African youth thought job creation was the highest priority for African progress. 

Still, young Africans expressed hope about their personal futures: 75% of respondents believed their individual situations would improve. Three-quarters said they knew what they wanted to do with their lives, and nearly as many planned to start their own business within the next 5 years. 

Even among those who want to emigrate, most are not planning on a permanent move abroad. Almost 70% said they wanted only to emigrate temporarily and planned to bring the skills and experiences gained abroad back home to Africa. Only 25% planned to emigrate permanently. The main reasons to move abroad were economic, such as pursuing job opportunities, followed closely by pursuing educational opportunities. A quarter said they were adventurers, eager to “experience something new and different” by going abroad. The most popular destinations were South Africa and Europe. 

Results of the survey reflect the experience of Augustin Ndour, a Catholic who immigrated to Spain from Senegal approximately 20 years ago. Then a 29-year-old, who had already travelled and worked his way through various countries neighbouring his homeland, his sense of adventure and desire to improve his life led him to Portugal on a student visa in 1999. A couple years later he moved to Spain, which was granting work permits and residency to immigrants to supply labour for the country’s construction boom. He had not originally intended to stay, but like many who go abroad, he too ended up making a permanent home in a foreign country. Today, he works for Catholic Charities in Granada and is involved with a small, new political party, Por Un Mundo Más Justo (for a more just world). 

“There’s a lot of hope in Africa,” he said. “Young Africans are increasingly aware that Africa needs to be developed from within.” 

Despite the hope, circumstances such as a spike in unemployment and violence can push people to emigrate, he recognizes. He said Senegal has been blessed not to have experienced ethnic or religious violence, but such violence is what he fears most, not only for Senegal but for the entire continent.  

The potential of Africa, which by 2030 will account for 42% of the world’s youth, according to the Population Research Bureau, has yet to be unlocked.

“Looking towards their national leaders and governments, youth have expressed clear concerns for various issues that will need to be addressed in order to reinvigorate and foster the levels of optimism that were identified across the continent in the inaugural survey,” the study concludes. 

Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.

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