African’s Migration and UN Multilateralism

oopération Migratoire

Migration is a cross-cutting issue and a global challenge of our time. It is at the center of international relations and the prospects for building a new migration order that takes into account the configurations of the international system. Indeed, the process of globalization has facilitated the movement of people in different regions of the planet. This is why migration is a real problem for international policies, given the risks and the numerous losses of human life that it entails daily.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the number of international migrants is increasing. It estimates that there will be 281 million international migrants in the world in 2020, i.e., 3.6% of the world population. While South-North mobilities occupy most of the debate, South-South mobilities, also known as intra-African migrations, are much denser. Indeed, according to the IOM, more than 80% of these migrants leave for another sub-Saharan country. This migration growth has led to the establishment of national policies bilateral and multilateral agreements in Africa and at the UN level.

There is a growing need for governments and other migration actors to strengthen intergovernmental cooperation and multilateral coordination on migration policies. Migration is defined as the movement of a person or group of people, either between countries or within a country between two places within its territory. Multilateralism can be defined as a global system of cooperation in which each state seeks to promote its relations with all other states rather than prioritize unilateral or bilateral actions that are considered dangerous or destabilizing. According to John Ruggie, multilateralism refers to any “practice of coordination of their national policies by groups of three or more states,” a form that states create only when attitudes and behaviors conform to certain criteria or principles. There are three such principles: non-discrimination, indivisibility, and reciprocity.

Within the African Union (AU), there is no shortage of initiatives to regulate migratory movements. There are several legal instruments relating to migration in Africa. The first instrument is the 1991 Abuja Treaty, which is considered essential for the integration of the continent. In 2006, two drafts were produced reflecting the AU’s vision of migration at the continental level: the African Common Position on Migration and Development and the African Union Migration Policy Framework (AMPF). On the UN side, the IOM works to promote international cooperation on migration. It became a UN affiliate in 2016. Two ILO conventions refer to migrants. These are the 1949 ILO Convention on Migration for Employment (No. 97) and the 1975 Convention on Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions No. 143).

If the cross-cutting nature of the migration phenomenon obliges States to cooperate, it must be noted that this cooperation is being put to the test in the framework of African and UN multilateralism. What does this test mean? This challenge is reflected in a series of obstacles that hinder the effective implementation of migration cooperation. It is, therefore, appropriate to highlight the pitfalls of African multilateral cooperation on migration (I), to analyze the obstacles of UN multilateralism (II), to question the relevance of the Global Compact on Migration as an instrument for reconfiguring multilateral cooperation on migration (III) and to make some recommendations (IV).

Pitfalls of African Multilateral Cooperation on Migration

The African Union’s global migration agenda faces serious implementation challenges. Some fundamental constraints at the country level, such as visa procedures and health passes, are obstacles to deep integration on migration and mobility of all social strata. In addition, political, economic, and socio-security obstacles contribute to the slowdown of multilateral cooperation on migration at the African level.

At the political level, problems of political egoism among states remain, despite their commitment to regional integration processes. Indeed, some states perceive migration movements as an infringement of their sovereignty. Jealous of their territorial integrity, most African states that are signatories to agreements on migration, such as the 1991 Abuja Treaty, the 2006 African Union Migration Policy Framework, the 2015 Declaration on Migration, the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons, the Right of Residence and Establishment adopted by the African Union in 2018, and subregional agreements on migration, such as the 2013 Agreement on Free Movement in the CEMAC zone, remain reluctant, if not reluctant, to deal with the phenomenon of migration. For example, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea in Central Africa are still slow to implement the agreement on the free movement of goods and people.

In addition, migration management requires financial and technical resources. Although aware of the assets generated by migration, Africa is facing a lack of means to fulfill its commitments related to migration.

Socially, xenophobia is an obstacle to migration. This manifests itself in a rise in intolerance and hostility towards foreigners. Access to certain African countries is also restricted either for health reasons, as in the case of COVID-19, or because of persistent conflicts. If the complexity of the migration phenomenon undermines, in some respects, cooperation between African states, this cooperation is also put to the test in the framework of UN multilateralism.

The Constraints of UN Multilateralism on Migration

The United Nations is a major player in multilateralism on migration. It has adopted legal instruments to better regulate this phenomenon on a global scale. We can mention the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, the Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families, voted in 1990 and entered into force in 2003.

But these UN legal instruments lack follow-up in their application. Moreover, they are not binding. Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, set up the Global Migration Group (GMG) in 2006 to address the issue of multilateral cooperation on migration. This led to the 2016 New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants. There, member states committed to adopting two global compacts in 2018: one on refugees and one on migration. This commitment by States on the migration issue was concretized by the validation and adoption of the Global Compact on Migration in December 2018. This is the first formal framework at the global level coordinated and recognized by the UN on international migration. This compact is seen as a corrective response to the impediments of multilateral cooperation on migration.

The Global Compact on Migration: A Response to Multilateral Cooperation on Migration?

The international community has had the opportunity to conclude the first Global Compact on Migration, and great hopes rest on this instrument. Indeed, the migration crisis of 2015/2016 was a trigger to accelerate the signing of the pact in Marrakech in December 2018. Indeed, the European Union experienced between 2015 and 2016 an unprecedented influx of migrants through the Mediterranean Sea route, mostly fleeing war and insecurity. At the UN General Assembly on December 19, 2018, the Pact was finally adopted. This global consultation once again showed the strengths of multilateralism given the large number of countries that took part in its adoption, 191 countries.

On analysis, this pact takes into account the strategic and guiding frameworks of the African Union on migration. Thus, the Pact sets out a series of guiding principles and twenty-three (23) objectives associated with a commitment. The effectiveness of this compact, however, remains to be demonstrated, as the success of multilateral cooperation on migration depends heavily on it.


To reinvigorate multilateral cooperation on migration in Africa and at the UN, there is a need to harmonize migration standards. Indeed, migration standards within the sub-regions should be in line with those of the AU and the UN to ensure that migrants have the same rights no matter where they are in the world.

It is imperative that the issue of respect for human rights and dignity be greatly taken into account in addressing the migration issue to avert the horrific scenes of migrants being sold into slavery in some North African countries or the refusal of assistance to migrants in distress on the Mediterranean.

In addition, researchers and academics should be consulted to help strengthen interactions in the search for new approaches to cooperation. The UN, for its part, is invited to strengthen the international dialogue on migration, promote a more united multilateralism while respecting differences, and invite all reluctant states to sign the various UN and African conventions on migration. Also, a reform of the United Nations operational system is necessary to integrate new States into the Security Council and facilitate multilateral cooperation.

Finally, it would not be pointless to create an African Migration Agency that would work in collaboration with the IOM to promote the signing and adoption of migration agreements by States.

All in all, the issue of migration cooperation remains a real challenge at both the African and international levels. The adoption of the Global Compact on Migration is a ray of hope for the implementation of multilateralism. Even if it is qualified as soft law, this pact can be advantageous insofar as it does not directly affect the sovereignty of States. It makes it possible to bypass long and politically complicated ratification processes. As such, it is a springboard for the establishment of a governance framework on migration.

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Steve TAMETONG is the Deputy Director of Democracy and Governance Division at the Nkafu Policy Institute of the Denis & Lenora Foundation. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Law from Dschang University. He also holds a Ph.D. in Governance and Regional Integration from the Institute of Governance, Humanities and Social Sciences of the Pan-African University (African Union).

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Pierre Oyono is a former Research Intern at the Nkafu Policy Institute.. He is a PHD candidate in political science, and holds a Master's degree in International Relations with a specialization in Regional Integration and Management of Community Institutions from the Institute of International Relations of Cameroon (IRIC).


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