Migration in and from Africa – rethinking the narrative

In recent years, stories of people taking a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to come to live in Europe and not being rescued at sea have often made the headlines. While it is important that these stories are told, the way they are framed and the lack of alternative accounts affect our perceptions of migration by feeding the narrative of Africa as a continent of emigration and Europe as its main destination. Yet, statistics tell us a different story.

In recent years, representations of African migration in European media and political discourses have been dominated by images of people taking dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean to reach Europe (see Colombo, 2018; Triandafyllidou, 2018). Yet, according to the Africa Migration Report 2019 (AUC & IOM), these representations have fostered three main misconceptions in the way African migration is generally perceived in Europe: 1) African migration is seen as mainly irregular; 2) it is understood as a primarily south-to-north movement; and 3) Africa is often perceived as the major source of emigration worldwide. Based on the Africa Migration Report and other statistics, this article briefly explores how data can help us to deconstruct these misconceptions.

First, the vast majority of African migration to Europe takes on a regular form. At the end of 2019, 8,467,874 African nationals had a valid residence permit in the EU (e.g., work, family, education visa, long-term residence, etc). In comparison, only 202,620 African nationals were found to be illegally present (European Commission, 2020). Thus, the IOM 2017 Data Brief shows that the levels of regular migration from Africa to Europe have far exceeded numbers of irregular arrivals and remained fairly stable over the past few years. Although irregular migration flows to Italy increased in 2015, they dropped dramatically since mid-2017, with fewer than 50,000 African migrants attempting the crossing to Italy in 2019 (AUC & IOM). 

Second, data shows that most African migrants do not come to Europe but migrate to other African countries. In 2019, over 21 million Africans were living in another African country (UN DESA 2019), when only 27% of all African emigrants lived in Europe (European Commission, 2020). The International Migrant Stock 2015 Report (UN DESA 2016) similarly shows that 80% of African migration occurs within Africa itself. Intentions to migrate respond to similar patterns: in the 2018 Afrobarometer survey, only 20 per cent of respondents said they would like to migrate to Europe

Finally, most global emigrants are not from Africa. Africa accounts for 14 per cent of the global migrant population, compared, for example, to 41 per cent from Asia and 24 per cent from Europe (AUC & IOM). Amongst the top 20 countries of emigration in 2019, only two were African countries – the Seychelles and Cabo Verde (UN DESA 2019). 

These statistics remind us that looking at and interpreting data, deconstructing our own perceptions and challenging common narratives is fundamental for us as researchers on the PERCEPTIONS project, as we investigate the potential role of perceptions and narratives about Europe on migration decisions. 


Author: Kahina Le Louvier


African Union & IOM. (2019). Africa Migration Report: Challenging the Narrative. Available at: https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/africa-migration-report.pdf.

Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny, J. and C. Rocca. (2018).  ‘Updata-ing’ the narrative about African migration. Mo Ibrahim Foundation (MIF) Joint Research Paper. MIF and Afrobarometer. Available at: https://afrobarometer.org/publications/updata-ing-narrative-about-african-migration.

Colombo, M. (2018) The Representation of the “European RefugeeCrisis” in Italy: Domopolitics, Securitization, and Humanitarian Communication in Political and Media Discourses, Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 16:1-2, 161-178, DOI:10.1080/15562948.2017.1317896.

European Commission, Joint Research Centre. (2020). Atlas of Migration. Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. Available at: https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC122942

IOM. (2017). African migration to Europe: How can adequate data help improve evidence-based policymaking and reduce possible misconceptions? Global Migration Data Analysis Centre Briefing Series, Issue nº11. Available at: https://publications.iom.int/system/files/pdf/gmdac_data_briefing_series_issue_11.pdf.

Triandafyllidou, A. (2018). A “Refugee Crisis” Unfolding: “Real” Events and Their Interpretation in Media and Political Debates, Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 16:1-2, 198-216, DOI: 10.1080/15562948.2017.1309089.

UN DESA. (2016). International migrant stock 2015. Available at: www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/data/estimates2/estimates15.shtml

UN DESA. (2019). International  Migrant  Stock:  The  2019  Revision.  United  Nations,  New  York.  Available  at:  www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/data/estimates2/estimates19.asp




Migration, Africa, Europe, statistics, misperceptions

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