Document Type

SAMP Special Reports

Publication Date



Department of Geography


The primary goal of this study is to present the results of a comprehensive scope of key opportunities and challenges for harnessing migration for inclusive growth and development at the regional level in Southern Africa. The main objectives were as follows:

  • Provide an overview of regional migration stocks and flows identifying regional trends, drivers and impacts from existing research literature and official data;
  • Profile migrant characteristics at the regional level including demographic composition, types of migration and occupational profile;
  • Examine the relevance of multilateral, continental and regional migration instruments, policies, protocols, agreements and forums with a view to identifying actions required to move the regional migration management agenda forward and align with the goal of enhancing migration for inclusive growth and development in Southern Africa;
  • Analyze the key initiatives, opportunities and obstacles to developing a coherent, integrated and rights-regarding approach to migration management including areas of common commitment and ownership, and points of actual and potential conflict and disagreement between states;
  • Conduct a gender analysis of regional migration dynamics including gender dimensions of migration, challenges, dangers and vulnerabilities confronting migrant women and other vulnerable groups, and gender analysis of migration management in Southern Africa;
  • Identify potential programming areas that are weak or underdeveloped.

The report relies on data and information from four main sources: (a) existing research literature and data on regional migration dynamics and trends in Southern Africa; (b) official data sources, where available, to identify current patterns, trends and types of migration; (c) bilateral global migration data sets compiled by the UNDP and the World Bank; and (d) a programme of field research involving key informant interviews and consultations with stakeholders, international organizations and donors, national government departments, and representatives from civil society, business, labour and the academy. Country visits were undertaken to South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe. A total of 60 interviews were conducted with 86 interviewees.

The first two sections of the report outline the objectives and methodology of the research. The third section provides a contextual analysis of regional migration in Southern Africa to demonstrate that migration is a quintessentially regional issue and development challenge. There are a number of reasons why a regional – as opposed to a purely national – conceptual and policy approach to migration is desirable and necessary:

  • Cross-border movements of people have a long history and constitute one of the major mechanisms of regional integration in Southern Africa (along with trade and investment). Goods and capital move relatively freely and legally across the region but people still face considerable obstacles and barriers to movement;
  • Vast differences in levels of development and employment opportunities across the region have led to extremely uneven migration flows. All countries both send and receive migrants but the balance between the two varies significantly. Zimbabwe was a major destination before 2000 but has since become the region’s single largest exporter of migrants. South Africa is the major destination;
  • Temporary, circular migration is the norm in the region with migrants retaining close ties with home countries and communities through formal and informal transfers of cash and goods in the form of remittances. In effect, migration and remittances have become a major source of development finance across the region;
  • The majority of migration movements within and to the Southern African region fall into the category of South-South migration. This form of migration, from one developing country to another, can have positive and simultaneous development impacts on both countries of origin and destination;
  • From a migration management perspective, regional organizations have recognized the importance of regional harmonization and co-ordinated action. However, governments have been slower to recognize the reality of regional migration, leading to a disjuncture between initiatives to facilitate movement and co-ordinate migration for development at the continental and regional level, and national governments that tend to view migration negatively and avoid any binding commitment to regional migration processes and instruments.

The analysis of migration trends and flows distinguishes between (a) migration within the Southern African region from one country to another; (b) migration to Southern Africa from other countries, especially the rest of Africa; and (c) migration from Southern Africa to other parts of the globe. Each has implications and opportunities for harnessing migration for development and inclusive growth. For example:

  • All of the countries of Southern Africa host some migrants, with the major migration destinations being South Africa, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi and Botswana. All are also migrant-sending countries with the major intra-regional senders being Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Malawi and Angola. Even South Africa sends migrants to other countries in the region. In policy terms, this means that although many countries are threatened by what they view as an uncontrolled influx of migrants, they are themselves also migrant senders and beneficiaries of out-migration to other countries.
  • Migration flows within the region have undergone major changes in the last two decades, including a significant decline in forced (refugee) migration, an equally significant increase in migration for economic and livelihood reasons, more diversity in flows including increasing female and youth migration, a decline in formal contract migration to South African mines, and a concomitant increase in unregulated, informalized migration across borders. Data and reliable information on all of these trends and their drivers are largely absent.
  • In total, 53% of all Southern Africa-born migrants are living outside the region. The five major sending countries are South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, the DRC and Mauritius. The five major destinations are the United Kingdom, Australia, France, the United States and Portugal. Shared histories and common languages have resulted in the emergence of migration corridors that include South Africa-UK, South Africa-Australia, Angola-Portugal, Zimbabwe-UK and Madagascar-France. The majority of migrants who leave the region are relatively skilled, leading to claims that countries of destination are responsible for a “brain drain” from the region. This argument has largely been replaced by the realization that these migrants are actually a resource with a potentially strong development role to play.

Against the backdrop of complex and shifting migration patterns and flows, the report identifies key development-related implications of these migration trends and characteristics and presents relevant information and data on each. This provides substantive context and a link to the programming recommendations later in the report. The five areas are: (a) gender and migration; (b) migrant rights and protections; (c) migration and remittances; (d) migration and informal entrepreneurship and (e) diasporas for development. Although the available information on each area is uneven across the region, evidence is marshalled to suggest that each offers important opportunities for meeting the overall goal of harnessing migration for development and inclusive growth. These areas are united by a focus on the importance and development implications of women’s migration. The major findings from the analysis of these five areas include the following:

  • Southern Africa is undergoing a process of feminization of migration with increased independent women’s migration. The number of female migrants in SADC is now over 2 million. In the major destination country (South Africa), the proportion of female migrants has reached 40% of the total. Gender-disaggregated data on migrant flows and occupations is generally unavailable, although South African data suggests that a migrant woman has only a 56% probability of being employed compared to a migrant man.
  • There is a growing body of case-study evidence on informal temporary migration and the low wage regime and exploitative conditions in sectors such as construction, illicit mining, commercial agriculture and domestic work. For those migrant women who are employed, many are engaged in precarious livelihoods. Some are employed in potentially exploitative conditions with weak oversight or protection of their labour rights, for example as domestic or agricultural workers. Others are engaged in inherently precarious informal occupations such as trading, hair braiding and other beauty services, or craft production and sales, often conducted in unsafe spaces. Related to their precarious working and living conditions, female migrants experience gender-based violence and other health vulnerabilities.
  • Poor treatment of female migrants on the way to and at the workplace exercises an extremely negative impact on the migrants themselves and their households, and is also antithetical to development and inclusive growth in their home countries. Low wages and other forms of financial extortion, for example, significantly reduce the remitting ability of migrants. Precarious employment in the agricultural and domestic service sectors is highly gendered with female migrants being most vulnerable to exploitation by formal and informal labour brokers and recruiters, employers and the authorities (especially the police).
  • There is considerable evidence that remitting is an extremely common practice in Southern Africa. However, much remitting is through informal channels, and accurate data on remittance flows at the regional level is not available. The World Bank calculates that remittance flows to the countries of Southern Africa reached USD1 billion in 2014. Only a third of remittances to Southern African countries come from other countries within the region. Over two-thirds of remittances to Southern African countries therefore come from outside the region.
  • Globally, female migrants send approximately the same per capita amount of remittances as male migrants but women tend to send a higher proportion of their income. Women also usually send money more regularly and for longer periods of time than men. In Southern Africa there is some evidence of distinct gender differences in remitting amounts, frequency and means of remitting, remittance recipients and use of remittances. This suggests that data, research and policy-making on migration and remittances needs to be gender-disaggregated.
  • The number of migrants running small and microenterprises or being employed by these businesses is considerable in towns and cities across the region. In South Africa, as many as one-third of migrants are self-employed in the informal economy. Surveys of migrant entrepreneurs show that the sector is dominated by young people and that women occupy particular niches. Informal business owners have positive development impacts in countries of destination and origin through remittance of business profits, generating employment, rental of business properties, providing cheaper services, supporting formal sector businesses and payment of operating licences to municipalities.
  • The major challenges to business survival and expansion include difficulties of securing start-up capital and business loans from formal financial institutions, especially banks; lack of basic business training and skills; exclusion from formal banking systems; vulnerability to xenophobic attacks and destruction of stock and businesses premises; and hostile operating environments including official harassment, extortion and demands for bribes or protection money.
  • While many governments are developing plans and policies for diaspora engagement, an important information gap concerns the attitudes of diasporas themselves to engagement in development-related activities and initiatives in their countries of origin. A study of the global Zambian diaspora showed that most are interested in making private investments in Zambia, with the greatest sectoral interest in agriculture/horticulture, import/export, manufacturing, tourism and transport. Many expressed interest in contributing to development projects in Zambia related to education, healthcare, infrastructure development, childcare and microfinance initiatives.
  • A study of immigrants from the SADC in Canada found that many felt they have an important role to play in developing their countries of origin. The majority remit money to their country of origin. Preferred avenues of engagement include skills transfer, investing in businesses, participation in development projects, educational exchanges, volunteer work, fundraising for development projects, philanthropy, export and import of goods to and from the country of origin, investing in infrastructural development and providing distance learning. Others specifically mentioned their desire to be involved in activities that would lead to greater empowerment for women and children.

The next section of the report examines the policy implications of the information about migration flows and development implications provided in the previous section. There was a considerable degree of unanimity among the stakeholders interviewed for this study on the importance of seeing migration as a regional development issue requiring a co-ordinated regional response in Southern Africa. There was some expectation of a difference in opinion between regional and national stakeholders. However, many of the latter were also willing to acknowledge that migration was not purely an issue of national importance. Where they differed was on who should be driving the agenda: national governments or regional bodies.

In principle, there is significant awareness among SADC member states about the need to strengthen efforts aimed at harnessing migration for inclusive growth and development. In practice, little progress has been made on mainstreaming migration and development at the national or regional policy level. Regional efforts to forge a common approach to migration appear promising but, while states appear willing to make initial commitments to agreements, instruments and initiatives, they are generally unwilling to ratify and implement anything that appears to infringe on their national sovereignty or the perceived interests of citizens.

At the regional level, there is a paucity of instruments that focus directly on migration and development. An evaluation of the SADC Secretariat’s Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (RISDP) has concluded that “the relationship between migration and poverty is under-represented in the plan’s proposed intervention areas and only addressed in a partial and circumscribed manner.” Freedom of intraregional movement has been a principle of the SADC since its foundation, although this is not explicitly tied to positive development outcomes. Despite this objective, unfettered free movement is very far from being a reality. The Secretariat has had no success in getting all member states to ratify its two major regional mobility policy initiatives: the 1995 Draft Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons and the 2005 Protocol on the Facilitation of Movement of Persons. Greater regional mobility initiatives are trumped by national immigration policies focused on movement control.

SADC member states prefer to act bilaterally in their dealings with each other on migration through instruments such as Joint Permanent Commissions (JPCs) and Memoranda of Understanding. At the level of individual member states, the mandate and expertise required for, and resources devoted to, migration management is often limited to routine and operational capacity requirements, as opposed to a more strategic approach in which migration management is an essential component of development objectives.

Little discernible progress has therefore been made with regard to the implementation of a free movement regime by the SADC Secretariat. In part, this is because there is very little data or analysis on exactly what the impact of removing border controls in the region would be. In many ways, the SADC is already a de facto free movement zone and the removal of controls would not have a massive impact on migration flows. What it would do is provide legal channels for those who want to migrate, reduce the opportunities for personal enrichment by corrupt state functionaries on both sides of borders, eliminate current high levels of corruption and abuse in the immigration system and reduce the exploitation of migrants who enjoy few rights and protections. However, free movement is likely to remain politically unpalatable to most states for the foreseeable future.

One of the key components of inclusive growth strategies is poverty reduction through productive and decent employment. Given the high levels of poverty and inequality throughout Southern Africa, it is important to view migrant employment rights as an integral part of the inclusive growth agenda. The SADC Secretariat has made various efforts to put in place instruments that commit member states to protecting the rights of migrant workers. A recent study for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) examined the issue of migrant protection and rights in the Southern African region as a whole and identified the various regional-level commitments to protecting migrant rights and the obstacles to their implementation.

This report examines various instruments including the UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the Charter of Fundamental Social Rights in SADC, the SADC Code on Social Security, ILO Conventions 87, 100, 111 and 182, the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (Domestic Workers Convention), the SADC Protocol on Employment and Labour, and the SADC Regional Labour Migration Policy Framework and concludes that, as with the effort to implement freedom of movement, ratification and implementation are proving problematical as few member states are willing to ratify the appropriate instruments. A gender analysis of the various African Union (AU) and SADC strategic instruments shows that gender and migration issues feature only in piecemeal fashion.

Regional-level instruments, polices and protocols do exist, but these are barely enforced and national laws and institutions take precedence. The persistent limitations of migration governance on the continent are recognized as an obstacle to regional and continental poverty reduction. Furthermore, policies and instruments to protect migrant and gender rights are implemented within a difficult social and political context in which xenophobic and patriarchal attitudes persist. In sum, there are many challenges in advancing gender-sensitive, rights-based migration governance in the SADC region. The scale, complexity and diversity of migration, combined with incomplete and inconsistent data, make it difficult to measure and monitor the gender composition of migrant flows and stocks, or to understand the particular contributions and vulnerabilities of female migrants. A dual focus on empowerment and protection should guide programming and policy development on gender and migration in the region.

The final section of the report makes specific recommendations for a future regional programme on harnessing migration for development and inclusive growth. Given the lack of progress at regional and national level in advancing a migration and development agenda, we argue that programming should focus on “demonstration” projects that provide clear evidence of the development impacts of migration for countries of origin and destination. These projects could then be scaled up. In order to establish priority entry points, the report does three things:

  • Presents the results of the stakeholder perceptions of priorities in which knowledge and information gaps were a recurrent theme;
  • Analyzes and categorizes the recommendations for making migration work for development in the SDGs, the Valetta Accord and various AU and SADC agreements, protocols and instruments;
  • Develops a Programming Framework (PF) consisting of 10 core migration and development issues and 27 associated potential entry points; and

This analysis leads to the identification of five major entry points in the programming framework under the general rubric of a recommended programme on Gender and Migration for Development and Inclusive Growth in Southern Africa. For each point, the report provides a detailed rationale, examples of similar programmes and likely outcomes. In summary, the five recommended entry points are as follows:

  • Entry Point One: Building a Gendered Knowledge Base on Migration. One of the recurrent themes in the stakeholder interviews was (a) the limited public availability and utility of official data on migration; and (b) the lack of knowledge about regional migration causes, volumes, experiences and impacts. A common failing of official data and the case-study research literature is the absence of systematic and generalizable information on the gendered nature of migration. In order to provide detailed, policy-relevant, gender-disaggregated data on migration and its development impacts, a different methodological approach is needed. There is a need for the collection of national migration data at the household level in countries of origin and destination through the implementation of nationally representative surveys of migrant-sending households. The knowledge and policy value of this kind of methodology is clearly illustrated by previous projects with dated findings that are still widely cited as authoritative sources of data on all aspects of migration, including its gender dimensions. These surveys would ensure the collection of data on a range of critical migration and development issues including migration drivers, migrant characteristics and motivations, migrant occupations and remitting behaviour, remittance channels and uses, and general migration impacts at the household, community and national scales.
  • Entry Point Two: Protecting Female Migrants in Domestic Work. The SADC Labour Migration Policy Framework has as two of its objectives (a) strengthening protection of the rights of migrant workers; and (b) harnessing positive gender considerations and demographic dividends. These objectives urgently need to be realized in the low-wage sectors in which migrant women and girls tend to concentrate, especially domestic work. A programme focus on the rights and protection of women and girl migrants would materially advance the objectives of the Framework and potentially enhance its implementation as well as that of the Domestic Workers Convention. We therefore recommend a regional programme directed at improving the conditions for women and youth migrating to and working in the domestic service sector. The extent to which employers, labour brokers and governments are in breach of the Convention is unknown and needs to be systematically researched. Further, programmes are needed to inform domestic workers of their rights and employers of their obligations. Because most migrant women in domestic work tend to move along major migration corridors there is a strong case for adopting a corridor-focused approach to programme implementation. Two corridors in particular are known to be significant avenues for migrant women in domestic work: the Zimbabwe-Gauteng-Western Cape corridor and the Lesotho-Gauteng corridor. By focusing attention on these two corridors, identifying the problems that migrant domestic workers face and that materially affect the employment conditions of migrant women, this intervention could have a strong demonstration effect on the need to protect and guarantee the rights of vulnerable workers and ensure that they benefit from inclusive economic growth.
  • Entry Point Three: Maximizing Remittance Impacts for Women Migrants. As the primary source of income for the majority of migrant-sending households, remittance earnings are vital in enabling households to meet their basic needs. Food is the most common annual expenditure of remittance money in both male and female migrant-sending households. Remittances do not appear to be spent on non-essential or luxury items but nor are they commonly directed towards savings or investment in business or other productive activities. While there is a need for updated regional data on the gendered dimensions of remitting, the priority now is to devise practical, actionable programmes of support which would turn remittances from meeting basic household consumption needs into sources of productive investment by recipients at the household and community levels. There is considerable global and regional debate about how best to harness remittances for development and inclusive growth. The Scaling Up Remittances (SURE) programme of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is a potential model for this programme. However, IFAD’s rural focus assumes that such programmes should concentrate on rural areas, whereas it is far more likely that the opportunities for the productive use of remittances are greater in urban areas. Thus, we suggest that programming should focus more on urban-urban remitting to have tangible results and benefits for inclusive growth.
  • Entry Point Four: Enhancing Female and Youth Migrant Entrepreneurship. In cities throughout Southern Africa, migrants from other countries (including forced migrants) are involved in the establishment of small businesses to support themselves and their families and to generate remittances to send back to their home countries. There is a common perception that migrant entrepreneurs are “survivalists” , forced to establish their businesses because of a failure to obtain formal employment. However, there is a growing body of research that highlights the entrepreneurial orientation and motivation of the majority of migrant business owners. Studies have identified the following as major business challenges: (a) economic challenges including shortages of start-up capital, lack of access to credit, competition from formal sector outlets and suppliers’ high prices; (b) social challenges such as prejudice against their nationality and xenophobic attacks; and (c) security challenges such as crime and theft, confiscation of goods by the police, harassment and demands for bribes and protection money, and physical attacks. Despite these problems, migrant entrepreneurs deliver important development benefits to countries of origin (through remittances) and destination (including cheaper foodstuffs and consumables, credit facilities, and job creation, as well as generating economic profits for formal sector suppliers such as wholesalers and supermarkets). Migrant entrepreneurs in general, and women and youth in particular, are still in need of programmes of support in order to address some of the obstacles they face and to maximize their entrepreneurial activities and contributions. There is a dearth of programmes supporting migrant youth and women’s small and micro-entrepreneurship activities and initiatives in Southern Africa, particularly as migrants are generally excluded from government training and support programmes.
  • Entry Point Five: Deploying Diaspora Skills for Women/Youth Empowerment. There is increasing interest in the actual and potential role of diasporas as a resource for development and inclusive growth in Africa. Diasporas possess five forms of diaspora capital (the “5 Cs”): intellectual capital, financial capital, political capital, cultural capital and social capital. In order for African governments and regional organizations to engage effectively with diasporas, it is important to understand what motivates diasporas to be involved in African development: the “3 Ps” of pecuniary interests, private interests and public philanthropic interests. The global Southern African diaspora represents a large skills and expertise pool, several million strong, that has not yet been effectively leveraged for development by Southern African countries. A regional diaspora engagement policy for Southern Africa as a whole needs to be based on (a) a mapping of existing development-related initiatives by members of diasporas from Southern Africa; (b) information about the types of engagement activities that members of the diaspora are interested in supporting or participating in at the regional level; and (c) the establishment of mechanisms which would enable and facilitate engagement at the regional level, perhaps initially in the form of a platform or marketplace for supporting regional projects. To align this proposal with the general theme of gender and migration, such a programme could focus on diaspora support for projects that aim to enhance gender equity and the empowerment of women and girls.