We know very little about the fate of immigrants in Africa, a region known for sending migrants elsewhere, not for hosting them. Immigration debates and scholarly work focus overwhelmingly on south-to-north migration, the flow of people from developing to industrialized countries. And when we do turn our attention to migrant flows within the developing world, we typically think of refugees, people fleeing wars and famine. Yet close to half of all international migrants settle in the developing world, including 10 percent in Africa. These are not refugees: In 2013, an estimated 14.6 million immigrants lived in Africa compared to fewer than 3 million refugees.
In many African countries, “immigrant” is more an identity predicated on ethnic heritage than a legal status. As a result, many ethnic minorities face scapegoating and violence. This is true for Kenya’s ethnic Somalis today, who have been scapegoats for the terrorist attacks perpetrated in Kenya by Somalia’s al-Shabaab. It is pervasive throughout South Africa, where black African immigrants – derogatorily called “makwerekwere” – are blamed for the country’s economic hardships. And it has characterized Côte d’Ivoire’s recent civil war, where economic and political competition spurred the Ivoirité movement, an attempt to disenfranchise the country’s northern Muslims.
Individual case studies of immigrant scapegoating in Africa are common. My book, “Immigrant Exclusion and Insecurity in Africa: Coethnic Strangers” not only investigates the prevalence of immigrant scapegoating in sub-Saharan Africa but also explains why some immigrant groups face greater exclusion than others. I collected and analyzed data on mass immigrant expulsions in sub-Saharan African countries, from their year of independence to 1999. The analysis shows that African leaders regularly rely on mass immigrant expulsions (see map below), and that they tend to do so following economic hardship (see figure below). Idi Amin’s notorious expulsion of over 70,000 Asian Ugandans in 1972 comes to mind, but this was hardly the only or most egregious example of immigrant scapegoating.
In 1969, Ghana’s prime minister, Kofi Busia, facing an economic and popularity crisis, decreed his Alien Compliance Order. The executive order gave all aliens in Ghana two weeks to regularize their stay or face expulsion. An official countdown was aired every day on the radio, creating chaos and fear. Eventually, 500,000 people left. The victims of this executive order were, for the most part, ethnic Yorubas who had been living in Ghana for generations. But as members of an ethnic group indigenous to land now located in Nigeria and Benin, not Ghana, and as successful traders in Ghana’s urban centers, they became easy scapegoats.
How do these immigrants protect themselves from such scapegoating? Answering this question required a deeper exploration into the lives and integration strategies of immigrants in Africa. In 2007, I spent a year following two immigrant ethnic groups from Nigeria – the Hausas and the Yorubas – in three West African cities: Accra (Ghana), Cotonou (Benin), and Niamey (Niger) (see map below). I interviewed their leaders and surveyed their community members as well as their hosts in the urban centers in which they settle. I also sought out and interviewed victims of Ghana’s 1969 expulsion; though many have passed away, a number are now living in Ogbomosho (Nigeria). What I found is that immigrants find economic success and security by not integrating into their host societies, a strategy reminiscent of Southeast Asia’s ethnic Chinese or Europe’s Jews.
The immigrant groups I studied settled generations ago into their urban host societies as informal traders and rely heavily on leaders in their own communities for key resources, such as access to loans, customers and supplies.
They also seek and find in these leaders greater security. When local police raid neighborhoods and round up immigrants, immigrant community leaders bail them out. This is possible because these leaders strike bargains with local police. They monitor their own, turn in the bad apples, and in return are recognized as a legitimate authority. In sum, they expend considerable time and energy organizing their members and ensuring they remain identifiable… as immigrants.
The very same strategy that gives immigrants in sub-Saharan Africa the best chances for economic success and physical safety also appears to be what keeps them vulnerable. By eschewing integration, immigrants both protect themselves against scapegoating and ensure that the threat remains.