Irregular Migration in West Africa under the ECOWAS Treaty of Free Movement of Persons

Cite this article: Chrysestom, O. J. (2021). “Irregular Migration in West Africa under the ECOWAS Treaty of Free Movement of Persons”. in Sokoto Journal of History Vol. 10. Pp. 89-98.

Ogirai John Chrysestom

Department of History and International Studies.

Ajayi Crowther University. P.M.B 1066 Oyo, Oyo State, Nigeria.

Tel: +2348075547733. E-mail:- john.ogirai@gmail.com



The history of irregular migration in West African extends over several generations prior to the twentieth century. Migration is an international phenomenon which has been of age and continues in modern times. This paper intends to show that the issue of migration is a complex one and most dynamic process that affects all nations of the world. In West Africa, it is complicated and sentimental issue, as the people are historically culturally and ethically linked. In the West African region, migration can be explained theoretically from economic stand point. Economic theories of migration are one of such theories. Generally, economic, social and environmental factors are among the motivators of migration. The paper found out that migration in West African is weighted down by general poverty, widespread unemployment, unstable politics, ethno religious conflicts, rapidly growing population, declining agricultural productivity, rural exodus to large cities, porous borders and corruption. The irregular and criminally induced migration has become a permanent feature of cross border activities, of which government in West Africa continues to spend great resources to combat it. The effects of globalization have made it increasingly easy for migrants to maintain close links with their country of origin. The paper concludes that the persistent and deepening cases of smuggling and human trafficking in the sub-region should be curtailed because it is causing serious security and political problems in the sub – region.

Keywords: Migration, ECOWAS, Human Trafficking, Poverty, Insecurity,



Over the centuries thousands of people in West Africa, have migrated despite the physical, cultural and economic obstacles in search of better lives for themselves. Prior to the political demarcation of Africa at the Berlin Conference in 1884/85, migration in West Africa went on smoothly without limiting effects of borders.1 This process of migration continued until the attainment of independence by the various West African states, when they started to enact legislative restrictions on entry into their respective countries.

The legislative restrictions imposed by some states for entry into their states on many occasions are not recognized by people who happened to belong to the same ethnic group living between two countries at the border. It is a common practice by these people to cross to neigbhouring states through footpath to visit their relations without being in possession of travel documents. The inter- state migration in West Africa, is also influenced by the facilitative and disruptive effects of globalization. The evolution of globalization has contributed to increased availability and use of modern transportation and communication system which has made movement easier and faster. Inter-state migration in West Africa is also propelled by a variety of factors, these factors include the quest for personal security, human rights violation, civil wars, insurgency, failed states as well


as climate change, global warming, severe artificial environmental degradation and natural disasters in their respective states.2

Most migrants in this sub-category, could not easily afford regular transport costs, or acquire legal travel documents, even for travelling within the West African sub-region. They usually risk travelling without legal documents and in many cases with the aid of human smugglers at a cost many could afford. There are also others who deliberately over stay the time permitted by their visa and resident permits of which their subsequent overstay puts them in the category of being irregular of which their stay remains illegal and are generally referred to as irregular migrants.3

Conceptual and Theoretical Framework

Migration is an international phenomenon which has been of age and continues in modern times. Most countries in West Africa experience immigration and emigration in varying proportions, such that, each country is classified based on the proportions of immigrants who enter or leave a particular state. Some countries in West Africa are classified as transit, as they receive many migrants who often relocate to other states. Migration is either voluntary, that is, when people decide on their own to migrate to other countries. Some times people are forced by circumstances such as natural disasters, depletion of resources, political persecution, armed conflict, insurgency, climate change, terrorism etc to settle somewhere else.

There are different theories of international migration, namely macro and micro theories of new classical economics, new economic theory of migration, labour market theory, world system theory, network migration theory the neo classical theory, the labour market theory, transitional theory, the historical structural approach etc. In West Africa, the phenomenon can be explained theoretically from economic standpoint. Economic theories of migration such as the neo-classical theory by Lewis W.A, Rans This work will adopt the neo classical theory which was propounded by Lewis W.A and Rans. According to this theory and its extensions international migration like its internal migration, is caused by geographical differences in the supply of and demand for labour and it links migration to fluctuations in business cycles. These approaches are known as push-pull factors. The ―push factors compel people to leave their areas of origin, while the ―pull factors do attract them to certain countries.4 ―Push factors‖ include lack of economic opportunities and political  freedom  among  others  an ―pull  factors‖  suc a demand  for  labor,  good  economic opportunities and political freedom compel them to migrate to other states.

In West Africa, the trend of migration has mostly followed this pattern since the advent of statehood. The existence of economic disparities between states is sufficient to generate flows. This type of migration is typical in West Africa, where migrants move towards economically buoyant or prosperous states from weaker economic states.5

The push-pull model also perceives movement from densely populated areas to more sparsely populated region. The ―push-pull‖ model of neo-classical economic theory alone could not be sufficient to explain migration in West Africa, there is also the transitional theory which could be jettisoned. One aspect of globalisation which has enhanced migration is the rapid improvement in technologies of transport and communication.

This has increasingly made it easy for migrants to maintain closer links with their area of origin. This facilitates the growth of circular or temporarily mobility, in which people migrate repeatedly between two or more places where they have economic, social or cultural linkages6.This type of


migration is typical of West African sub region where people migrate towards economically buoyant prosperous countries.6

Historical Background to Migration in West Africa

Migration is common in the world today. Global estimates indicate that 3 percent of the world‘s population are migrants. The West African sub-region is no exception to this growing phenomena. Of the 191 million migrants scattered across the globe nearly 7 million people hail from the West African sub-region.7

Migration During the Pre-colonial Era.

Migration among West Africans in general has been described as a way of life. In the pre-colonial period intra West Africa migration was seen as population movement in response to human needs like favourable ecological conditions fertile land, food, shelter and security. During the period of tribal warfare in the 19th century, there was free migration without any restriction except the fear and harm from wild animals. During the period there was no good transportation and there was security threats posed by slave raids, ethnic warfare and severe climatic conditions. Despite these challenges there were massive movements of people from one location to another. During this period it will difficult to distinguish between internal and external migration.8

Migration During the Colonial Period

The coming of colonialism led to the demarcation of boundaries. The borders were made without any regard to social and cultural realities of the indigenous people and as a result, some ethnic groups like Hausa in (Nigeria, Niger and Mali), Yoruba in (Nigeria and Benin), Ewe in (Ghana and Togo) among others were divided and found themselves in different countries in West Africa and have continued to keep their kinship ties in spite of the boundaries created. Their cultural affinity facilitated their movement across the international borders of West African states. The colonial period witnessed massive movement of people as a result of labor, which was in high demand in mines, plantations infrastructural development and public service. There was also massive migration flows on cocoa farms in Ghana, coffee plantations in Cote d‘Ivoire and the groundnut fields in Senegal and Gambia9

Migration During the Post-Colonial Era

In the early days of post-colonial era, the efforts put in place to consolidate the boundaries created by the colonial government did not hinder the free movement across borders. However, such a situation did not last long restrictions on movement across borders were imposed to protect economic and political interests of the individual countries. The late 1960s witnessed enactment of rules and regulations to control immigration into their countries in order to protect the job security of their nationals. Distinctions were drawn between internal and international migration in an attempt to protect the domestic labor market opportunities available for its citizens10

Factors Influencing Irregular Migration in West Africa

History plays an important role in encouraging migration in West Africa. Majority of irregular migrants in West Africa, are cross-border migrants. The porous nature of the borders makes it easier for irregular migrants to enter West African countries without valid documents. Majority of these irregular migrants enter legally and stay on when their entry permits expires without making no effort to renew it11 Another contributory factor to the high rate of irregular migration in West Africa is colonialism. The demarcation of boundaries resulted in some ethnic tribes being separated from


each other. Autocratic and military regimes across Africa, was another important push factor formigration. Political opponents, academics and professionals who were constantly threatened with arrest and detention were forced to flee their countries for example Zimbabwe, Uganda, Libya etc.12

Major Causes of Migration in West Africa



Push Factors

Pull Factors

1. Economic and demographic

Unemployment, human poverty, low wages, high fertility rates, lack of basic health and education

Possibilities for employment and other generating activities.

Better standard of living perceived opportunities   for   personal   and

professional growth

2. Political

Conflict, insecurity, poor governance, corruption, violence and human rights


Personal    safety,    security    and political freedom

3. Social and cultural

Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender or caste

Family    reunion   freedom   from ethnic, social and discrimination

4. Environmental

Harvest   failure,   resources   depletion, natural and man made disasters.

Less incidence of environmental degradation (natural and artificial) Better management of facilities for

environmental disasters.

5. Political

i.           Poor Governance

ii.         Terrorism

iii.       Human Right Abuses

iv.       Insurgency

v.         Corruption

vi.       Insecurity

vii.     Conflicts

i.                    Political freedom

ii.                  Security

iii.                Personal safety

6. Economic and Demographic

i.           Human poverty

ii.         Unemployment

iii.       Low wages

iv.       Lack of basic health facilities and education

v.         High fertility rate

i.                    Political freedom

ii.                  Security

iii.                Personal safety

7. Environment

i.           Resource depletion

ii.         Harvest failure

iii.       Floods

iv.       Droughts

v.         Earthquakes

vi.                 Good       facilities       for environmental disaster

vii.               Less        incidence        of environmental degradation

8. Socio Cultural

Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender or caste.

Family reunion from ethnic and social discrimination

Source: United Nations Population Division 2020


Balance Sheet of Economic Effects of Migration in West Africa on Countries of Origin




1. Return of skilled workers may increase local human capital transfer of skills and links to foreign networks

1. Loss of highly skilled workers and reduced quality of essential services

2. Technology    transfers    investments    and venture capital contributed by diaspora.

2. Selective migration may cause increased disparities in income in the home country.

3. Can contribute to increased trade flows between sending and receiving countries

3. Loss of fiscal revenue from taxation of workers

4. May ease the effect on the domestic market of the supply of excess labor

4. Reduced growth and productivity because lower stock of highly skilled workers and

its externalities.

5. Inflow of remittances and foreign exchange

5. Lower investments from public in public education

6. Provides    opportunities    to    workers    not available in the home country

6. Loss of skilled professionals reduces the quality of essential services

Source: United Nations Population Division 2018

Background to Establishment of ECOWAS

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was established as a regional organization by the Treaty of Lagos, in May, 1975. The ultimate aim of the ECOWAS is to raise the standard of living of its people, increase and maintain economic stability and contribute to the progress and development of West Africa, through closer regional cooperation of fifteen member states in ECOWAS. Currently, there fifteen member state in ECOWAS. 13 Of particular relevance to this paper, is the provision for the abolition by stages of all obstacles to the free movement of persons, services, and capital. To this end all citizens of member states are to be regarded as community citizens. Accordingly, member states are to undertake to abolish all obstacles to their freedom of movement, residence and establishment within the community. On intra-regional migration, one of the aim and objectives of ECOWAS as stated in the Treaty Article 2(d) is the removal among member states of obstacles to the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital, and to the right of residence and establishment.

Freedom of movement within the community was interpreted by some community citizens to mean unrestricted and unregulated movement within the member states. Some community citizens entered the territories of other member states through unauthorized routes such as footpaths to the violation of ECOWAS and immigration laws of the respective countries. Also, some community citizens accepted gainful employment without the necessary work permits, other were engaged in nefarious activities like kidnapping, armed robbery, prostitution, fraud, insurgency ,human trafficking, terrorism e.t.c. such community citizens contravened Article II of the ECOWAS protocol and were liable for deportation.

Rationale for ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement of Persons

Article 27 of the ECOWAS treaty affirmed the need, for economic integration, which includes free flow of persons, goods and services by calling on the member states to ensure gradual removals of all obstacles to free movement of persons, services and capital.14 Member states were as a matter of


fact required to stop demanding visa and residence permits, and therefore allow community citizens to work and undertake commercial and industrial activities within their territories. The existing bilateral and multilateral forms of economic co-operation within the region, would open up perspectives for more extensive co-operation.

Provisions in the Protocol

i.            The community citizens have the right to enter, reside and establish in the territory of member states;

ii.            The right of entry, residence and establishment is to be progressively established in the course of a maximum transitional period of fifteen (15) years from the definitive entry into force of this protocol by abolishing all other obstacles to free movement of persons and the right of residence and establishment; and

iii.             The right of entry, residence, and establishment which shall be established in the course of a transitional period shall be accomplished in three phases.15

In an attempt to enhance the free movement of persons, restrictions on the entry of private or commercial vehicles in member states were to be removed subject to the possession of valid driving incense.

Categories of ECOWAS Citizens in West Africa

ECOWAS citizens may be divided into two groups namely:

i.            Legal Resident ECOWAS Citizens

ii.            Illegal ECOWAS Citizens.

1.    Legal ECOWAS Citizen

A community citizen is therefore deemed to be legal if his entry, residence, establishment or any other activities of his, comply with the community laws and the laws of the host country. Legal ECOWAS citizens are therefore the law abiding citizens are therefore the law abiding citizens of member states, who are within the territory of ECOWAS

2.  Illegal ECOWAS Citizen

An ECOWAS alien is a community citizen who enters and resides in the territory of any member state in accordance with the community laws of the receiving state. Any community citizen who therefore enters and resides in any community state in contravention of the said rules is an illegal alien. Therefore, any lawfully admitted alien who overstays or resides beyond the permitted time or in contravention of the conditions of entry or remains after the withdraw of resident permit or engages in some business in contravention of the law of the land becomes an illegal alien.

ECOWAS Protocol and Free Movement of Persons

On intra-regional migration, one of the aim and objectives of ECOWAS as stated in the Treaty under Article 2(d) is the removal between member states of obstacles to the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital, and to the right of residence and establishment.

With the coming into force of the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, member states of ECOWAS, abolished visa and other entry requirements for citizens travelling to a sister country.


This means that, a citizen of ECOWAS member state who possesses a valid traveling document and international health certificate could spend a period not exceeding 90 days in another state.16

Specific Provisions on Free Movement

The free movement within ECOWAS was to be accomplished in three phases. Phase I Right of Entry and Abolition of Visa

Phase II Right of Residence Phase III Right of Establishment

Free Movement Phase I

The first phase of the protocol, that is the ―Right of Entry and Abolition of Visa‖, the protocol provided that;

Any citizen of the community who wishes to enter the territory of any other member state, shall be required to possess valid travel documents and international health certification (Article 3(1))

The protocol goes on to prescribe in Article 3(2) that:

A citizen of the community visiting any member state for a period not exceeding ninety (90) days shall enter the territory of that member state through the official entre point free of visa requirement.

Such a citizen shall however be required to obtain permission for an extension of stay from the appropriate authority if after such entry that citizen has a cause to stay for more than (90) days.

Not all travel documents are regarded as being valid. Article I of the protocol clearly defines what is regarded as a valid travel document. It stipulates that:

A valid travel document means a passport, or any other valid travel document establishing the identity of the holder with his photograph, issued by or on behalf of the member state of which he is a citizen and on which endorsement by immigration and emigration authorities may be made. A travel document shall also include laissez-passer issued by the community to its officials establishing the identity of the holder.

The internationally recognized travel documents envisage by the protocol include the following:

1.             Passport (Standard, Joint, Official or Diplomatic)

2.             Non-national passports issued to officials of international organizations such as United Nations Organization, Africa Union, European Union or ECOWAS

3.             Certificate of identity for refugees with the provisions of the United Nations Conventions relating to the status of refugees

4.             Certificate of identity for stateless persons in accordance with Article 27 and 28 of the International Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, 1954

5.             Laisser-passer used mostly in Francophone West Africa Countries


6.             National identity cards

7.             Air – crew identity cards

8.             Seamen identity cards

9.             Emergency traveling certificates

10.          National identity cards

Challenges on Free Movement

ECOWAS has not instituted adequate mechanisms for controlling the entry of illegal immigrants into member states. Many West African nationals do not possess valid travelling documents including birth certificates. Also, the privileges enshrined in the ECOWAS Protocol of Free Movement of Persons have been abused by some citizens, who have been involved in smuggling of goods and illicit trade in narcotics17

Lack of infrastructural facilities in the sub-region does not promote effective movement and very little effort has been made by member states to expand their road and rail networks beyond their borders to enhance effective flow of human traffic, from the neighbouring state.18

There is lack of harmonization of national laws pertaining to migration before the protocol came into force. This has gone a long way to affect the smooth implementation of the protocol on free movement of persons. During the signing into force of the protocol very little attention was given to the varying and diversities in political social and economic background of the member states for example Mali, Burkina Faso, Gambia etc.

The political and ideological differences among the leaders and civil strife have hampered the effective implementation of the protocol. Some member states in the past were associated in supporting insurgents and rebels and allowing their territories to be used as to launch attacks to overthrow their government for example Mali and Liberia.19

The porous nature of border in the region coupled with corrupt border officials does facilitate, illegal smuggling of goods to neighbouring countries for big profit for example Nigeria and Niger Republic.20 Migration within the West Africa sub-region has inhabited the development of countries of origin through the brain drain phenomenon, which has also resulted in labour depletion and over- dependency on remittances. It has also resulted in loss of jobs in the host states to migrants, resulting in tension often resulting in xenophobia, discrimination and other pathologies for example Ghana, Cote d‘e Ivoire and Nigeria. Some irregular migrants have been associated with crime. There has been escalation of international and organized crimes. Human smuggling of economic migrants to the European Union, has escalated in some West Africa countries for example Sengal.21 The migration of highly skilled professionals to host countries often raises concerns for origin countries since brain gain is a brain drain for sending economics.


Irregular migration in West Africa has contributed to the development in host countries by providing profits to farmers and mining companies in some West Africa states. It has also led to the development of skills and contributed to the growth and development of transport infrastructure and manufacturing industry. It has also assisted families in home countries through remittances as in the case of Ghana. The brain drain that accompanies migration to neighbouring states in the region,


resulted in massive proportion of skilled and semi-skilled nationals leaving the countries to search for jobs in other states for example Senegal. Most of the West African nationals are employed in agriculture, domestic sector, construction, commercial agriculture and informal trade for example Senegal and Ghana.

The protocol on free movement of persons have gone a long way to re-create borderless West Africa, which was in existence before the 1884/85, Berlin Conference. The protocol is confronted with a lot of challenges to realization of its objectives in the sub-region. These include, absence of mechanism to control illegal immigrants, political unrest, strict border checks, ideological differences of ECOWAS policies on migration for example Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal.



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