East African authorities are looking at ways of managing the growing phenomenon of migration. Many countries view the exodus of manpower as a threat, while others see it as a potential boost for development. VOA Correspondent Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports the flow of economic migrants out of East Africa may be greater than the better-publicized exit from West Africa.
There have been many reports about the 'brain drain' sapping the intellectual strength of developing countries by drawing the best and the brightest to higher paying jobs abroad. And also many horror stories about economic migrants being victimized by dishonest transporters or drowning when their boats sink as they make their way to foreign shores.
At the opening of the conference being held at the Africa Union headquarters this week, International Organization for Migration chief Brunson McKinley said if migration is managed correctly, both sending and receiving countries can benefit.
"There is a growing consensus about migration and development," he said. "The consensus is not on one side or the other, positive or negative. I think the consensus in the international community today is there are both costs and benefits, both positive and negative elements in migration."
McKinley urged representatives of East African countries to institute laws and policies that will maximize the benefits of the manpower exodus and minimize the negative aspects.
"Countries on this planet have profited by the talent and money of their work force overseas," he said. "India is a good example of that ... That is why so many countries these days, Ethiopia is one of them, are setting up institutions to contact their diasporas, their foreign communities, and enlist their patriotism. But also the economic self-interest of those diasporas in coming back to invest in the country, create jobs, and turn the migration phenomena into a positive feedback loop for the country."
African Union Social Affairs Commissioner Bience Gawanas says the key to normalizing economic migration lies in agreements between countries of origin and receiving countries on protecting the rights of migrants.
"Why should Africans migrate only through clandestine means? When they arrive on the other side, either by legal or illegal means, they are working in those countries and making a contribution in those countries," he said. "It is the exploitative nature and the denial of rights to migrants, whether legal or illegal that we have to address."
The three-day migration workshop drew representatives of Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda, considered 'countries of origin', as well as transit countries such as Chad, Egypt, Libya, Niger, Tunisia and Yemen.
IOM chief McKinley says while the exodus of human resources from West Africa gets the headlines, East African migration may be greater.
"Although the West African flows get more attention in the international media, because of the boat tragedies from Senegal, Mauritania to the Canary Islands and what not, my impression is that the flows in East Africa between the Arabian peninsula across the Horn of Africa across the Red Sea are just as big, maybe bigger," he said.
McKinley downplayed the effects of Ethiopia's decision last week to ban economic migration to Lebanon. He said given the surge of violence and insecurity there, trying to discourage people from putting themselves in harm's way is not a bad idea. Officials estimate there are more than 50,000 Ethiopians working in Lebanon, most of them unregistered.