Territorial disputes: Africa (Part 10) [Post 145]

Territorial conflicts and people in Africa: forced migration and where it all started (cont.)

The previous post referred to intra-African and extra-continental migration as a phenomenon that dates back to the origins of humankind. However, these patterns of transcontinental migration were fundamentally altered with the advent of European colonialism in the fifteenth century. Cultural affinities and shared languages have always played a key role in movements across borders, in terms of both people and trade. The colonial era demarcation of international borders often disregarded cultural and ethnic affiliations.

This highlights a path dependency of contemporary migration patterns in Africa due to colonial heritages. Under colonial rule, labour, both skilled and low-skilled, was relocated from one colony to another, establishing migrant labour systems as well as trade patterns that continued beyond the colonial era. 

The temporary international migration patterns prevalent in Eastern and Southern Africa, whereby workers circulate between their homes and work in mines, has its roots in the colonial era. The underlying factors can be traced to the organization of tasks and living and working conditions prevalent at that time. The post-colonial improvement of the employment conditions of workers attracted further labour to, for example, mines in Zambia and plantations in Cameroon and Nigeria. Following independence, such migration was institutionalized, and various restrictive practices related to family reunions, residence and contractual labour systems in Eastern and Western Africa ceased, although some such rules continue to be enforced in South Africa. By imposing arbitrary borders, colonial rule modified the frameworks for labour movement on the continent, affecting international migration patterns. Colonial rule also brought new cultures and languages, which led to longstanding links to the colonial powers that are still apparent in today’s patterns of extra-continental migration. 

For example, France established labour recruitment schemes in Algeria and Morocco during and after colonial rule. Similarly, the United Kingdom recruited labour from colonies, for example for military campaigns.

Due to long-established social, cultural and economic ties, citizens of Commonwealth countries have well-established networks that facilitate further inflows into the United Kingdom by lowering costs and risks of migration. Since the end of colonial rule, new trade and economic ties have been established, and since the late 1980s, there has been an acceleration and spatial diversification (beyond colonial patterns) of emigration out of Africa to Europe, North America, the Gulf States and Asia.

The main migration corridors from Africa to outside the continent still reflect colonial ties. Cultural and linguistic ties between sending and receiving countries are also observed in the increasing levels of migration from Egypt and the Sudan to the Middle East. Existing national borders are often porous and fluid in terms of trade and culture, yet colonial boundaries still retain an economic and social presence in contemporary African life.

Economic Development in Africa Report 2018 (UNCTAD) Link to the complete document


This post is based on Jorge Emilio Núñez, Territorial Disputes and State Sovereignty. International Law and Politics (Routledge 2020).Previous published research monograph about territorial disputes and sovereignty by the author, Jorge Emilio Núñez, Sovereignty Conflicts and International Law and Politics: A Distributive Justice Issue London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2017.


Territorial in Africa: a recap and partial conclusions.

Friday 16th October 2020

Dr Jorge Emilio Núñez

Twitter: @DrJorge_World


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