Africa in Perspective Migration, Mobility and Modern Slavery in Africa

The ongoing economic crises in Africa and the ease in mobility occasioned by free movement policies and protocols have made Africans increasingly vulnerable to migration, therefore, allowing different forms of modern slavery to thrive.

The movement of people and goods from one destination to the other is indispensable as far as human life on earth is concerned. The act is so imperative that its enhancement has been put into perspective by most regions of the world. In order to enhance human mobility, ease movement of goods, and strengthen symbiotic relations across national borders, most states across different sub-regions and regions of the world have deferred their sovereignty by collectively signing free movement pacts that permit movement along their borders with little or no restrictions.

Today, there are several free movement pacts and protocols signed by some of the blocs in Africa (although some are yet to be implemented). These agreements are signed under the auspices of blocs within the continent such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Southern African Development Community, Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa, the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, East African Community, the Economic Community of Central African States. From the aforementioned sub-regional organizations, the free movement protocol of the ECOWAS is the most visibly implemented and the comeuppance of its implementation attests to a political recognition that mobility is essential for regional economic integration and development.

However, the easing of migration and mobility in different parts of Africa has in the same breath helped in the facilitation of transnational criminal activities and has created a trellis for different nuances of modern slavery in Africa to flourish. The tentacles of this hydra of modern slavery include sex trade, forced labour, and child slave labour, which are all launched perfectly by way of human trafficking, leveraging on these areas of free movement.

Trans-Mediterranean human trafficking has become very rife in recent decades and the quest to curb it has been marred by complexities and difficulties. These difficulties are largely engendered by the legalization of free movement across different parts of Africa (especially West and North Africa) coupled with the dictates of the Schengen Agreement which has made it easier to move freely in a substantial part of Europe.  Although modern slavery is common in different continents of the world, it is endemic in Africa, especially in West and North Africa. The root cause of this problem is not unconnected with the prevalence of poverty, corruption, amongst others, in the region. These problems are exacerbated by tensions and insurrection, which have led to the internal displacement of people. The quest for survival in the midst of these socio-political and economic crises have engendered high migration from one African state to another; and from one African region to another; and from Africa to other continents. It is as a result of the desire to leave Africa in search of greener pastures in other parts of the world that people become prey in the hands of traffickers who capitalize on people’s ambitions to subject them to acts of slavery.


As briefly highlighted earlier, it is clear that the scope of the topic in view encompasses a wide array of analytical issues which without proper elucidation will make it cumbersome to forge a connection. Therefore, in order to enhance clarity, an overview of the major terms that frame up the topic in view have been dwelled upon as contained below:

Migration and Mobility

Generally, migration as a term refers to the act of moving long distances in pursuit of a new habitat. This is not just peculiar to humans alone as other living things also migrate. However, migration as used in the context of this paper relates strictly to humans. Migration as used in this context involves the movement of people from one place to another with intentions of settling, permanently or temporarily, at a new location (geographic region). The moment often occurs over long distances and from one country to another, but internal migration (within a single country) is also possible; indeed, this is the dominant form of human migration globally.

Mobility on the flipside refers to the measure of how populations and goods move over time. This tilts to the reality that migration and mobility are in concomitance. Taking cognizance of the fact that mankind is social by nature, his movement from one place to the other becomes inevitable as he goes about his endeavours. The advent of globalization has further accentuated the extent of human mobility as demands for labour and other services warrant the movement of people across national boundaries. The importance of migration and mobility generally to the sustenance of mankind cannot be overemphasized as even the United Nations has recognized the worth of migration by enshrining it as a core part of its Sustainable Development Goals. This aims at facilitating orderly, safe and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.

Free Movement

The concept of free movement revolves within the perimeter of mobility rights that relate to the freewill of people to travel from place to place within the geographical territory of a particular country, and to leave such a country and return to it. This mobility right is, however, not without restrictions. These restrictions cut across limitations such as probation and legal sanctions. On a broader view, movements across national borders are restricted by circumstances such as national and regional tariff barriers, and international border restrictions.

Be that as it may, in the realm of transnational mobility, certain policies and protocols have been put in place to lift the rigid border restrictions between neighbouring countries thereby easing the migration of people and movement of goods from one country to the other. Most states in West and North Africa, as well as Europe, are part of free movement areas. In the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Establishment was introduced in 1979. In the European Union (EU), free movement of persons was enshrined in the Treaty of Rome, establishing the European Economic Community in 1957, and was consolidated by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992. In both West Africa and Europe, free movement policies have facilitated intraregional mobility, which is much more prevalent than mobility between regions. The introduction of such policies testifies to a political recognition that mobility is essential for regional economic integration and development. An ambition to extend free movement policies has also been present in the work of the African Union since its beginnings, and recently gained momentum with its 2018 Protocol to the Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community Relating to Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Right of Establishment.

Modern Slavery

Modern slavery in simple terms refers to the institutional contemporary practices of slavery in the society. According to the office of the Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, an agency of the United States Department of State, ‘“modern slavery”, “trafficking in persons”  and “human trafficking” have been used as umbrella terms for the act of recruiting, harbouring, transporting, providing or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.’

The estimated number of slaves is debated, as there is no universally agreed definition of modern slavery; those in slavery are often difficult to identify, and adequate statistics are often not available. However, the International Labour Organization (ILO) as of 2019 reported the number of victims of modern slavery at an estimated number of 40 million. Modern slavery exists in forms such as forced labour, sex trafficking, domestic servitude, bonded labour, child labour, forced marriage, amongst others. Having been abolished internationally, slavery is still being implicitly accepted by some corrupt governments owing to the attendant financial gains that come with it.


Across Africa, intraregional migration is dominant, and economic organizations at sub-regional levels are potential vehicles for migration policy development. While African migration remains overwhelmingly intra-continental 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 and Asia. The factors prompting the massive migration of Africans to other parts of the world especially Europe and vary from one African country to another. However, it is a common fact that the surge in the number of Africa’s emigrants has been occasioned by the quest to find greener pastures and break loose from the shackles of poverty, violence and underdevelopment that has plagued the continent.

Migration trends in Africa are largely shaped by economic, demographic and climate-related changes. The speed and depth of ongoing economic crises make African countries very vulnerable. Due to the present political and socio-economic disequilibrium across African societies and the ease in mobility occasioned by free movement policies and protocols, it has become easier for different forms of modern slavery to thrive.

Acts of human trafficking have become a recurrent phenomenon in Africa. Most victims of human trafficking fall under the category of persons seeking to leave the shores of the continent in pursuit of a better life. Colonial occupation and concomitant practices of the slave trade and the systematic use of forced labour and recruitment have in many ways shaped contemporary migration patterns within and from the continent. African migration to Europe has become the current theme of discourse in national and international media. Even on social media, scholars who are versed in comparative studies of global economies and fundamental human rights have held myriad opinions on African migration. These numerous scholarly opinions positing different reasons behind the massive trans-Mediterranean migrations of Africans to other parts of the world, particularly Europe, are prompted by the increase of irregular migration out of the continent in recent years.

Turning to West Africa, in 1979, ECOWAS set forth the protocol on free movement of persons which confers on ECOWAS citizens the right to enter and reside in the territory of any member state under less stringent restrictions. Since the protocol on free movement makes it easy for citizens of the community members of West Africa to move with little or no restrictions within the sub-region, the trafficking of persons for exploitative reasons within West Africa and to other parts of Africa is enhanced. Perpetrators of modern slavery easily traffic people across national land borders within West Africa to other parts of Africa such as Libya where they are sold to servitude or trafficked to Europe across the high seas. Those who are trafficked abroad especially to Europe are subjected to many inhuman acts such as forced labour, sex slavery, bonded labour (debt bondage) and child labour. ILO estimates that over 40 million people are in some form of slavery today. Additionally, the organization claims that 24.9 million people are in forced labour, of whom 16 million people are exploited in private sectors such as domestic work, construction or agriculture. They highlight 4.8 million people as being in forced sexual exploitation, and 4 million persons in forced labour imposed by state authorities. Moreover, they estimate 15.4 million people to be in forced marriages. As of 2016, an estimated 9.2 million men, women, and children were living in modern slavery in Africa.  Africa has the highest prevalence of modern slavery, with 7.6 people living in modern slavery for every 1,000 people in the region.

In recent years, servitude in the continent has attracted global attention after videos showed slave markets in Libya where African migrants were being auctioned off in car parks, garages, as well as public squares. Migration to places such as Libya takes place across transnational land borders where people desperate to emigrate end up getting themselves entangled in different degrees and forms of modern slavery.

Modern slavery in contemporary Africa is not just aided by free movement protocols within the continent alone; other mobility enhancement and free movement policies established by other continents also play instrumental roles. One of such protocols is the Schengen Agreement which allows free movement through a substantial part of Europe. As a result of this factor, traffickers from Africa with Schengen visas get the opportunity to move their victims across different places in Europe, thereby, making the wavelength of their activities difficult to track.

The different forms of modern slavery across Africa are also facilitated by, among others: cultural assimilation (due to the influence of unwholesome activities from foreign nationals); illiteracy and partial literacy (due to the lack of an adequate educational environment); the lack of accurate information (due to a certain negligence from local authorities and communication channels); and the absence of a central system for the regulation of internet usage (due to an unregulated access to the internet that has encouraged cybercriminal activities), leading ipso facto to disastrous socio-economic instability.


The impact of modern slavery is not just limited to the individual victims alone. To a very large extent, modern slavery impinges negatively on the safety and general outlook of the territories within which such acts are orchestrated. Hence, acts tantamount to slavery in contemporary Africa impose significant boomerang effects which are inextricably woven throughout the weft and warp of the socio-economic and political fabrics of African societies. Hence, such consequences must be pointed out and dissected with statistical evidence that buttresses the relationship between individual exploitation and structural issues surrounding the general progress of Africa as a continent as follows:

Firstly, modern slavery leads to reduced productivity and growth. The resurgence of widespread and pervasive forms of modern slavery has contributed considerably to the decrease in individual resourcefulness and regional African productivity especially as those who are mostly victims of this modern slavery are in their age of youth. In  2016, the global survey index reported that an estimated 9.2 million men, women, and children were living in modern slavery in Africa, with an average of 7.6 people living in modern slavery for every 1,000 people in the region. The rate of forced marriage was estimated to be at 4.8 victims per 1,000 people while forced labour was pegged at 2.8 victims per 1,000 people on the continent. The statistics of the 2016 global index report above have been corroborated by Alliance 8.7, (an inclusive global partnership committed to achieving target 8.7 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals). Alliance 8.7’s 2017 regional brief for Africa’s global estimates of modern slavery and child labour puts the number of young African adults in modern slavery at 9,240 and that of child labourers between the age range of 5-17 years at 72,113. As a result of this loss of human resources to exploitative labour and slavery, productivity at its peak is reduced, thereby stifling economic growth.

Secondly, modern slavery strains human relationships. Most victims of modern slavery are separated from their families and places of origin, thus, creating a social disconnect. This further imposes a negative impact on the dynamics of regional integration thereby compromising the national and regional efforts of African states towards transforming the state of things on the continent.

Children and women make up a disproportionately high number of those who face the brunt of modern slavery in African societies. This factor poses a lot of negative implications on the growth and development of the children who are victims, thus reducing or totally jeopardizing their potential productivity in the long run. Child victims are exposed to a myriad of societal vices at a young age and thus develop under a lot of psychological trauma capable of impeding their future levels of socialization and resourcefulness.


The growth of modern slavery in Africa and its latent intensification by migratory and free movement policies across national borders has had many consequences on Africa’s progress. We need spontaneous measures to douse off the devastating effects of modern slavery on the socio-economic life of the continent in the long run and even on the people at the individual level. These moves should be taken by individuals, Non-government Organization (NGOs), governments and even blocs within the region.

One of such steps to the right footing involves the commitment of African states towards being more intentional about developing their countries so as to create opportunities for their citizenry to earn a living. If resources are maximally utilized to enhance the socio-economic and political atmosphere of these countries, then the quest to earn a living by enslaving others or looking for greener pastures would be reduced to the barest minimum.

Also, African states should improve the institutional capacity for managing migratory flows and for effective policy formulation and implementations. Migration data collection and retrieval systems should be put in place to keep tabs on the rate of emigrants and immigrants and the various reasons warranting their movement from one country to the other within the zones of free movement. In the same vein, officials dealing with functions pertaining to migration should be given sufficient training to manage and supervise the exit and entry of people.

Not to be left out is the fact that more efforts should be made by the various African state governments and Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) within the continent and beyond towards sensitizing people about the dangers and repercussions of indulging in modern slavery.

Furthermore, the implementation of existing laws aimed at curbing modern slavery in its different forms should be intensified. Additionally, people caught subjecting others to such dehumanizing treatments should be made to face the full force of its provisions without prejudice to social status and influence in the society. Moreover, outmoded provisions of such laws should be amended so as to consent to contemporary demands necessitated by the present state of things.

Even at the individual level, people should aid the fight against modern slavery by shunning acts akin to any of its forms while engaging in active activism towards curbing the menace. Programs aimed at sensitisation and mass awareness of this menace should be encouraged and promoted in a fight to combat the scourge of modern slavery.

Concludingly, migration is one of the major factors that drive humanity’s survival on earth and the creation of free movement zones among different countries heightens the extent of man’s survival. It is, however, regrettable that instead of using such zones positively, some Africans have opted to use it to propagate slavery. Such actions pose many threats to the progress of the continent and constitute a breach to the ideals of the contemporary human society. Hence, African states in conjunction with humanitarian bodies should take pragmatic efforts to curb this menace and restore the continent to the right footing

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