Migration flows to African towns are slowing
Cities and migration can make an important contribution to development in poor countries. But in many sub-Saharan African countries, migration to large towns is falling and urbanisation is slowing. This is often the result of declining economic opportunities in urban areas.
Research from Kings College London, in the UK, examines urbanisation in sub-Saharan Africa. Using census and survey data, the research looks at recent growth trends in large and medium-sized towns in 14 African countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
In many poor countries, employment opportunities make urban areas very attractive for migrants from rural areas. But experiences differ widely across developing regions. In many sub-Saharan African towns and cities, structural changes have led to falls in formal employment and a rise in dependence on informal, low-paid work.
As urban migrants lack access to economic safety nets, they often have little option but to return home when a crisis hits (for example, if they lose their job). This has led to an increase in circular migration (the continuing movement of people between rural and urban areas), which has always been important in sub-Saharan Africa.
Where urban economies are attractive to migrants, it is often clear that their population growth is mainly derived from in-migration from rural areas. However, the research shows that many towns in Africa – particularly in West Africa – are not growing much faster, and occasionally are growing more slowly, than rural populations.
Other key findings of the research include:
- Across Africa, net migration to towns has slowed significantly.
- Counter-urbanisation has occurred in Zambia, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali.
- Net in-migration has become weak or negligible in most urban centres in Benin, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger and Senegal.
- In Niger, Kenya and Tanzania, the capital cities are still experiencing strong net in-migration but the situation in other main towns is mixed.
- In Uganda, violent conflict has encouraged migration to Gulu and Lira, but migration to other towns is low or negative.
- In Ghana, net migration to towns is low except for Kumasi.
- The research shows that some African countries are now not necessarily becoming more urban, or are only urbanising very slowly. It is important that the economic problems and urban livelihood issues that are driving these trends are fully recognised.
The implications of the research include:
- The appearance of new, unplanned residential areas does not necessarily indicate that a city is attracting and keeping large flows of in-migrants.
- Circular migration has increased as a result of structural change in many sub-Saharan African countries.
- In Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso, many young people are among those leaving the large towns and cities for rural areas.
The trends identified are important indicators of the crisis in urban poverty and livelihood insecurity in many of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban areas. Policymakers need to recognise the urgency of addressing these issues.