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Could African migration stem migrant crisis?

Migrants sit at a naval base after being rescued by Libyan coast guards in Tripoli, Libya on June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

Policy makers are calling for a new approach to the migrant and refugee crisis, after 68.5 million people were displaced last year according to a new report by the UN refugee agency. The new displaced came mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

The report, that coincides with World Refugee Day, illustrates the challenges facing migration.

Ongoing crises in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo contributed in raising the overall figure of those forcibly displaced in 2017 to 68.5 million.

Eighty per cent of refugees are in developing countries, according to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

"The new displaced came mainly from the DRC," UNHCR spokesperson Celine Schmitt told RFI, saying that many Congolese refugees either fled to neighbouring countries or are displaced at home. "They're nearly 5 million in the DRC," she said.

Refugees who fled their countries to escape conflict and persecution accounted for 25.4 million of the 68.5 million, 2.9 million more than in 2016.

"There are definitely very big challenges with migration, and we don't want to underestimate them," Claudia Roethlisberger, an Economics Officer with UNCTAD, the main U.N. body dealing with trade, told RFI.

"But we want to show that there is a different perspective on migration, by highlighting the economic contribution migrants can make inside Africa," she said.

Roethlisberger uses the example of Côte d'Ivoire and Rwanda, where migrants contributed 19 and 13 percent respectively to their countries' GDP.

Changing the narrative

A very different image to the one of African youth drowning in the Mediterranean, lured by the hope of jobs abroad, seemingly suggesting there are no opportunities in Africa.

Wrong, argues Malebogo Bowe, a liaison officer for UNESCO to the African Union.

"We haven't really explored what opportunities there are for us," she told RFI."

"In fact, there's this illusion that if you move to Europe, there are greener pastures there. While in fact the first day when you arrive in France, you don't speak French, just greeting people, or asking for one euro in French, is a challenge," she said.

Intra-African migration might reduce the number of dangerous journeys to Europe, but will African countries fair better than their European counterparts in sharing the burden of migrant arrivals?

Right now, "international responsibility-sharing for displaced people has utterly collapsed," reckons Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council Jan Egeland. In a statement on Tuesday, he said lack of responsibility sharing had led to the rescue vessel Aquarius being stranded in the Mediterranean with 629 refugees and migrants on board after being denied entry to Italian ports.

On the African continent, Engeland added that countries like Uganda had been left alone to provide emergency support to the large number of refugees from South Sudan and DR Congo.

Burden-sharing and visa-free travel

"It's now time and it's urgent to have a global solution based on responsibility-sharing," insists UNHCR spokesperson Celine Schmitt.

She calls for assistance for other host countries such as Niger, where UNCHR commissioner, Filippo Grandi, was due to head Tuesday after visiting a refugee camp in Libya.

“Niger has been very generous first of all in hosting refugees from neighbouring countries, but also in working with us to open a humanitarian transit centre," she told RFI.

"This is extremely important, and Niger now needs as well some help from other countries, who resettle the refugees who are evacuated from Libya," she said.

Long, a favoured transit route for migrants wanting to cross into Europe, Libya has faced accusations of human rights abuses including auctioning migrants off as slaves.

Despite the challenges of migration, Malebogo Bowe, a liaison officer for UNESCO to the African Union, says "it can't be prevented."

"In the ECOWAS region they've opened their borders, where someone from Ghana is free to go to Nigeria to look for opportunities," she says.

"Imagine a situation where Africans don't need a visa within Africa and to trade within ourselves," she says referring to a new treaty signed by 27 countries allowing for visa free travel.

"It's one of the breakthroughs that if it happens for Africa, the migration we talk of in the Mediterranean, would probably reduce," she said.