Migration is a complex and dynamic phenomenon that affects millions of people around the world. In recent years, Africa has witnessed a surge of migration within and outside the continent, driven by various factors such as conflict, economic downturns and political instability. Among the destinations for African migrants, the United Kingdom (UK) has been one of the most popular, especially for those from former British colonies such as Nigeria.
According to the UK Office for National Statistics, there were about 2.3 million people born in Africa living in the UK in 2019, accounting for 7% of the foreign-born population and 3% of the total population. Nigeria, South Africa, Somalia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya were the top five countries of birth for African migrants in the UK. However, the volume of migration from Africa to the UK fluctuates, depending on the changes in the UK’s immigration policies, the economic and political conditions in both regions and the availability of alternative destinations. For example, the number of African migrants in the UK peaked in 2006 at 118,000 and then declined to 47,000 in 2016. In 2019, it increased again to 77,000 partly due to the uncertainty over Brexit and the possibility of more restrictive policies in the future.
One of the primary motivations behind this migration has been the vast economic disparity between Africa and the UK. According to the World Bank, the average income per capita in sub-Saharan Africa is a mere $1,700, compared to $47,000 in the UK. This stark difference has been a powerful pull factor, enticing many Africans to seek higher wages and improved living standards. There has also been increased migration from countries like Somalia and Eritrea, where citizens are increasingly seeking refuge in the UK due to political and social unrest in their home countries.
In 2022, the UK’s legal net migration hit a record 745,000. Africa’s most populated country accounted for 25% of that increase, a testament to the japa wave sweeping across the continent. In an attempt to curb this influx, the UK government has implemented a series of stringent visa regulations. The latest one, which was enacted on the 4th of December, significantly raised the bar for how many people come and go from the UK.
The minimum salary requirement for skilled worker visas now stands at £38,700 from £18,600 a year, an almost 50% increase. This means people who want to work in the UK will have to have a job offer with a higher salary to get a work visa. People who already live in the UK and want to bring their family or partner from another country, also need to earn more money. This requirement greatly affects many low-wage workers, such as domestic workers, cleaners, or farm workers, as they earn low. Also, an estimated 70,000 people came to the UK on family visas in the year ending June 2023.
Although this specific rule exempts crucial health and care workers, who account for almost half of the people on work visas, from the increase, care workers have been banned from bringing family dependents. UK’s Migration Transparency Data, suggests health and care workers are more likely to be joined by family members than people on other work visas. Again, this effectively excludes many Africans from pursuing opportunities in the UK. More than 101,000 visas were issued to care workers, with an estimated 120,000 visas granted to associated dependants in September 2022. The UK is still working on its plan to result in 300,000 fewer people coming to the UK in the coming years.
The impact of these changes is multifaceted. Last year, the Japa wave caused a significant brain drain that hampered development efforts and weakened crucial sectors in Africa. Yet, it also significantly fueled economies. Remittances sent by African migrants abroad, largely to the UK, exceeded $80 billion in 2022. The continent continues to face multiple challenges, such as increasing inflation, tougher economies, and political unrest and wars in some regions. These factors create push and pull forces that drive people to seek better opportunities elsewhere. Moreover, African migrants have a proven track record of resilience and resourcefulness. They may adapt their strategies to meet the new requirements, such as pursuing higher qualifications or seeking alternative migration pathways.
Countries like Canada and Australia are increasingly welcoming skilled immigrants, offering alternative destinations for African professionals. Canada has increased its immigration targets, aiming to admit 1.2 million new permanent residents, many of whom will come from Africa. Similarly, Australia announced a new skilled migration program that will offer 22,000 visas to migrants from Africa and the Middle East. As the UK becomes less accessible, African migrants may increasingly look towards other European countries or emerging economies with less restrictive immigration policies. This could lead to a diversification of migration patterns and increased competition for skilled professionals among different countries.
While the initial impact of the UK’s new visa rules may be a decline in migration to the UK, it is likely a temporary adjustment. Migration patterns are dynamic and respond to changing circumstances. Over time, we may witness a resurgence in migration to the UK, albeit with a different profile of migrants.