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Europe Is Closing the Door on Immigrants. What If Africa Does the Same?

African migrants on a boat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Jason Florio/The Guardian

Last weekend, Italy became the latest Western country to embrace anti-immigration political parties. In the country’s closely watched general election, voters rebuffed both the center-right and center-left parties in support of upstart populist parties with strong anti-immigration and pro-nationalist platforms. Given the success of the Brexit vote, President Donald Trump’s election, and the rise of populist politics from Hungary to France over the last two years, one would think the majority of the world’s immigrants are all headed to the West. But they aren’t.

African countries are now home to the world’s largest migrant populations. According to a new Pew Research Center report, sub-Saharan Africa has some of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the world. According to one particularly astounding finding, “the number of emigrants from each of these sub-Saharan countries [South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan] grew by 50% or more between 2010 and 2017, significantly more than the 17% worldwide average increase for the same period.” By 2050, more than half of the world’s population growth will be in Africa. Assuming countries on the continent don’t pursue the same policies Italy has, how will they develop sustainable solutions to manage their ever-increasing immigrant populations?

Managing concerns about legal and illegal immigration are an ongoing challenge for any government. With the embrace of anti-immigration rhetoric in the West, what are the implications of closed borders? Countries outside the West with swelling immigrant populations will require more humanitarian aid, especially for those displaced by war. If the United States and other Western donors go through with planned cuts to aid budgets, what are the implications for these populations? Even if assistance isn’t as drastic as expected, can we expect aid alone to solve the problem of better integrating immigrants into local economies?

It’s arguable that immigrants already play a vital role in many economies. But there is room to do more. One solution is to recast immigrants as a means to greater economic growth rather than solely as participants. Harnessing the power of smartphones and growing digital infrastructure around the world, entrepreneurs are creating applications that help immigrants with everything from preventative healthcare to financial services. These small developments have a profound impact on immigrants’ lives and their positive impact on the economy. Look at financial inclusion in Africa over the last decade. Research has shown that a 1% increase in financial inclusion can increase real GDP per capita by 3.6%.

Kenya’s M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money transfer service, has made the country into a financial inclusion leader. From 2006 to 2016, the number of Kenyan adults without any financial products dropped from 40% to 17% largely because of high mobile phone penetration and M-Pesa’s clear marketing strategy and education efforts about mobile money. Migrants already depend on mobile phones, as reporting by The Economist and others has shown, and mobile money accounts are a gateway to other financial products.

While African tech startups don’t compete with international giants at the moment, helping lift economic migrants out of poverty and into the global financial system is a challenge that local entrepreneurs are the best equipped to solve. They might not be able to solve all facets of the immigration issue, but they can help clear the hurdles that often prevent immigrants from meeting their full economic potential.