Olumayowa Okediran: Africa is about to take a big step towards open borders

This month, the African Union will strengthen its bid to ensure freer movement across the continent by issuing electronic  passports to heads of states and other government officials. These passports will allow them access to any country in Africa, the first step in an experiment to give civilians the ability to travel across the continent without visas by 2018.

Migration, visa openness, and free movement in Africa continue to top the agendas of high-level discussions, from the World Economic Forum to African Union summits. It’s promising to hear that African officials are taking seriously the need to eliminate travel restrictions to create better integration and development. But, how open is Africa for continental migration realistically?

Currently, only Seychelles has eliminated the need for a visa to  enter  the country. Rwanda and Mauritius provide visas on arrival to immigrants. Ghana recently followed suit and will begin implementation in July 2016.

Besides these few countries, statistics on free movement in Africa are not encouraging. According to a 2016 report by the African Development Bank, only 13 countries offer liberal access to all African citizens. The Visa Openness Index indicates that, on average, Africans need visas for 55 percent of other African countries, can receive visas on arrival in only 25 percent, and don’t need visas at all for only the remaining 20 percent of African countries. The least-open countries are in Central and Northern Africa, while the most open countries are in West and East Africa. Africa’s prosperous nations are generally less open to immigration, as only one in nine Upper Middle Income Countries according to the World Bank have high visa openness scores.

Strict border controls make countries less open to foreign investment, especially from fellow African economic leaders. To give just one example, the billionaire investor Fred Swaniker had to relocate a 20 million dollar project to Mauritius due to restrictions in South Africa’s migration policies. The International Chamber of Commerce’s (ICC) far-reaching 2015 Open Markets Index (OMI) validates that African countries are the most closed, globally. Of the 33 most open and above average open countries listed, none of them is an African country, with most African countries featured in the “below average openness” or “very weak” categories.  This is a tragedy considering what enormous good more open borders could bring to such a desperate continent.

African countries would enjoy greater gains if fewer restrictions were placed on the borders. One of the most significant rewards of open borders would be the rise in tourism revenues. Countries with great tourist attractions would enjoy more patronage, as visitors would find the countries more easily accessible.

Just take Seychelles for an example. The island nation experienced a 7% annual growth in international tourism arrivals between 2009 and 2014 after it repealed its visa requirement. The Travel and Tourism Report 2015 by the World Economic Forum ranks the country as one of the most tourism-ready economies in Sub-Saharan Africa. Seychelles’ GDP was $1.423 billion USD in 2014 and has since moved from being an Upper Middle Income Country to a High Income Country according to the World Bank’s 2015 classification.

But, Seychelles isn’t the only success story. Mauritius earned grossly $1.24 billion USD in 2014 from tourism. Rwanda also experienced a GDP growth of 7% in 2014 and tourism revenues rose by 4% to USD 305 million.

Open borders would promote entrepreneurship, bridge skill gaps, and increase local and international trade. Economic diversification, competitiveness, and integration are also some benefits of visa openness. It would also reduce the amount of Africans risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

Of course, open borders isn’t without its challenges. Cases like the 2015 xenophobic attacks in South Africa that led to the deaths of eight foreigners and the arrest of  1,600 more remain fresh in Africans’ minds. Unfortunately, the old populist argument that foreigners compete with locals for cheap labor holds strong on the continent.

Economists have suggested, however, that certain policies could allay such fears in an open borders regime. Governments may raise taxes on immigrants, refuse them the right to vote, or make them ineligible to certain benefits in order to protect its citizens. However, total restrictions to movement would be closing doors to development.

Another concern is that bureaucracies will hinder the collection of the African Union passports once the general public can start applying for them. Corruption already infests the current system that issues international passports, and obtaining an important document like one that allows access to all of Africa might even be harder.  A unanimous agreement by member states of the African Union to accept holders of passports issued by other member states into their territories without the need for a visa would be a more appropriate scenario.

While the AU’s open borders goal will certainly face challenges to come, the goal of removing obstacles to free movement across Africa could greatly boost the continent’s economic development. In that sense, the African Union’s new passport policy is a step in the right direction.

Olumayowa Okediran is a Young Voices Advocate and Director of African Programs at Students For Liberty.