As global migration has increased in recent years, international attention has focused on the electoral success of anti-immigrant political parties and populist leaders in Europe and North America. But just as the movement of people across international borders is not limited to countries in those regions, nor is the politicization of the immigration issue. In Africa, where nearly two-thirds of international migrants move to other countries within the continent, immigration has been the subject of intense political debate in many host countries.
Although immigrant exclusion has a long history in Africa, increasing hostility in many countries since the early 1990s has coincided with a period of political liberalization. As political parties compete with one another for votes, particularly in the absence of strong ideological differences or clear policy achievements, some candidates blame migrants and refugees for complex social problems such as unemployment, crime, and violence. Such rhetoric often increases around the time of elections, legitimizing underlying anti-immigrant sentiment and fueling its spread.
In our analysis of cross-national survey data, Jason Giersch and I found that opposition to immigration was higher in African countries that were more democratic, that had a dominant political party facing emerging opposition challenges, and where the survey was conducted closer to a national election. These findings suggest that increasing political competition creates an opportunity for the circulation of anti-immigrant rhetoric, particularly around election time, and that this rhetoric resonates with some portion of the host country population.
Immigration has been a recurring theme in South African politics, for example, and the 2019 election was no exception. In a country where the promises of the end of apartheid have yet to be realized, and millions still live in poverty, many people are frustrated. For years, ruling party politicians have lashed out at the growing number of immigrants from other African countries, blaming them for social problems and deflecting criticism for their own policy failures. Such rhetoric has fueled periodic episodes of anti-immigrant violence, spurring ineffectual efforts to rein in xenophobia. In the most recent election, the official opposition joined the populist chorus, pandering to anti-immigrant sentiment across the racial and economic spectrum.
Recent immigration debates in Kenya have focused on security. Government officials have long questioned the loyalty of Somalis, including those with Kenyan citizenship, but a rise in terrorism has prompted aggressive efforts to round up Somali refugees and concentrate them in camps near the border. Officials blame Somali refugees for the attacks, overlooking the role of their own policies in generating home-grown terrorists. A year before the 2017 elections, the government announced it would close the Somali camps by the end of the year, eliciting praise from some circles. Although the High Court ultimately blocked it as unconstitutional, critics raised questions about the political and financial motivations behind the planned closure.
Côte d’Ivoire is still recovering from a civil war driven by debates about migration and citizenship. After decades of recruiting laborers from neighboring countries to expand cocoa and coffee production, the shift to multipartyism in the 1990s prompted ruling party politicians to blame migrants as the cause of economic woes. Exclusionary rhetoric targeted both foreigners and citizens from the north, fueling a violent conflict. A complicated series of events led to a northerner becoming president, but he is constitutionally barred from seeking another term. Underlying debates about the terms of Ivorian citizenship have yet to be fully resolved, making immigration a likely focus of political campaigns once again in the 2020 elections.
Uganda, in contrast, has been widely praised for its approach to refugees. Instead of being confined to camps, refugees are provided with land and permitted to work and move about the country. Life is still tough for refugees in Uganda, but they are not subject to many of the same restrictions as refugees elsewhere. Interestingly, Uganda is an authoritarian country whose president seized power 33 years ago. Elections are not fair and opposition is restricted, yielding few opportunities for politicians to generate support by scapegoating immigrants. This could change, however, if the number of refugees continues to rise or the political landscape shifts.
In many African countries, then, political liberalization has created a fertile ground for the emergence of exclusionary politics. In part because they cannot vote, immigrants and refugees are convenient targets as politicians seek someone to blame for economic and social problems. Incumbents try to deflect criticism of their own policies, while opponents seek to divide ruling elites while generating electoral support across ethnic and class lines. Such rhetoric from the top, often circulated without challenge by media outlets, serves to legitimize underlying anti-immigrant sentiment within the population, fueling broader xenophobia.
These patterns clearly represent a dark side of democracy, but they do not hold true everywhere. Presidential elections in Ghana have been very competitive in recent years, often decided by just a few points. Although the country has a long history of migrant labor and a past record of expelling foreigners, present-day political candidates generally reach out to the immigrant community instead of rallying against it. In 2016, for example, the incumbent president and his challenger campaigned frequently among immigrants and appealed for the votes of their citizen children. Immigrants also have constituted themselves as a swing constituency, making their support crucial in close elections. While anti-immigrant sentiment is still widespread in Ghana, electoral incentives have helped to temper its politicization in national politics.
Finally, one cannot overlook the fact that these patterns are not limited to Africa. In France, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, and elsewhere, we have seen politicians blame immigrants for economic and security problems in an effort to generate support and win elections. Some candidates have held anti-immigration views for a long time, while others seem to have come to such positions more recently. As the number of migrants continues to rise around the globe, the politics of exclusion are likely to become even more pervasive.