Guest post from Michael Boampong, Executive Director, Young People We Care

A few weeks ago I was reading a newspaper item in the March 21st 2009 edition of the Daily Graphic. In the course of reading the article, I realized a big and yet timely challenge has been thrown out by the Secretary General of the West African Civil Society Forum (WACSOF), Mr. Oumar N’dongo. Mr. N’dongo has called on governments of member states of the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) to ensure the full implementation of the regional protocols on the freedom of movement people and goods, which was adopted some decades ago.

Prior to reading this, I had participated in TakingITGlobal’s ‘Live Chat on Youth Migration’, which was held in commemoration of the 2008 International Migrants Day celebration. The chat was sponsored by Young People We Care (YPWC), a youth-led organization founded by myself and based in Ghana. The chat brought young people from around the world together to hear from experts and young professionals who are working on migration and youth development issues. This gave them the opportunity to share their thoughts on irregular migration and migrant rights within the context of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW).

International migration has arguably become one of the most topical issues of today’s global order. Migration has been facilitated in the 21st century by ‘globalization’ and the global development disparities of economic development and human development. In recent times, climate change and conflict have also resulted in an increase in migration.

There is currently a new way of thinking that is emerging on the migration and development agenda. Remittances sent through official channels were estimated to have reached US$318 billion in 2007; nearly US$240 billion of these funds went to developing countries. Remittances now exceed Official Development Assistance and can be seen as a new way of financing development and advancing the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. However this relies on remittances being well managed and invested in sustainable forms, such as education and health.

In the past, the idea that migration could contribute to development was overshadowed by the negative implications such as “brain drain.” However, recent studies have shown that there are positive contributions of return migrants and people in the diaspora. Brain drain can now be turned into “brain gain,” provided that migration is well managed.

While considering the prospects of regular migration in the context of international migration, I began to also think of this in the context of sub-regional migration. In the case of a sub-region such as ECOWAS, we have been able to work towards improving migration because we respect the human rights of immigrants, regardless of their status. In retrospect, I realize that we have not fully implemented the protocols on freedom of movement of people and goods to promote development.

It has become a well-known fact that immigration officials as well as some customs and security officials extort money from immigrants who are not aware of their rights. However, those immigrants who are aware of their rights are not safe from harassment either. For example immigrants who try to exercise their rights are intentionally delayed by unnecessarily long queues. The recent massacre of 44 Ghanaians in the Gambia underscores the fact that there have not been credible attempts to promote the freedom of movement protocol.

It was exciting to learn from the live chat that the ICRMW calls on countries to “ensure the rights of migrants in every country regardless of their legal status, inter alia, guaranteeing equal treatments and working conditions par with nationals.” I can – as I’m sure can you – imagine the utopian society that will be created if all human beings are treated with equality and the human rights of immigrants are respected regardless of origin or color.

When there are global forums promoting dialogues on migration, it becomes embarrassing for actors from Africa to call on western countries to change trade strategies and also treatment meted out to immigrants. As a regional body, ECOWAS heads of states cannot work towards promoting migration within its own territory, yet they always want to call on other countries to open up their borders and markets for trade and other activities. We have not been able to deal with our own challenges, which should be a priority for us. There is a wise saying that “before you tell someone ‘let me pull the mote out of your eye’, you should first cast out the beam of your own eye.”

There is a need to promote the protocol on freedom of movement and goods to promote migration within the sub-region. This would provide sustainable jobs to young people who otherwise would consider more dangerous illegal migrating options. Today, migrants – who, more often than not, are youth – are drowning while attempting to cross from North Africa into Spain or Italy, dying in the desert attempting to enter the USA, or becoming victims of forced migration. By extension, there is the need to promote citizenship, job freedom, and residency.

One of the first steps towards reducing the rate of abuse of migrant rights is to educate would-be immigrants on their rights. The government’s openness in dealing with corruption should not only target political offices but should also look carefully into prosecuting public officials that promote corruption through extortion and bribery at the borders of the nation.

It is very important to note that the current global economic crises calls for much greater regional cooperation within the sub-region. This cooperation would promote trade and development since some western countries are adopting protectionism approaches towards protecting their own economies.

Changing people’s perception of migration and immigrants might be the biggest hurdle of all. I thought the xenophobic attacks in our sister country of South Africa was a great reason to think about this issue. I don’t know if ECOWAS has considered creating strategies towards avoiding the kind of horrible situation that occurred in South Africa in this protocol. Nevertheless, there is a need for the ECOWAS Secretariat to work with member states and the media in order to educate people on the current trends of migration and development. Technically, refugees and migrants are considered to be in different categories, but I think any attacks such as those in South Africa speak to the same fear of foreigners, immigrants, migrants or refugees being ‘dangerous’ or ‘bad’.

In fact, communities that welcome these people and make the best use of their skills often benefit from them. Most migrants continue to look for jobs that indigenes would never have considered doing. Albert Einstein is a pretty good example of the benefits and contributions that a foreigner can bring to a nation.