By Sharon Atieno

Despite African countries making progress in free movement of persons within the region, there is need to speed up the process.

It is estimated that between 2000 and 2017, intra-African migration had risen from 12.5 million to 19.4 million, with key drivers of migration being climate change, conflict and opportunity to unleash economic potential.

However, the movement has not been easy due to challenges such as those related to border management, irregular migration, forced displacement, the human rights of migrants; and inter-State cooperation and partnerships.

The first 10-year implementation plan (2014-2023) of Agenda 2063 of the African Union emphasized among others, the need to domesticate all free movement of person protocols; that visa requirements for intra-African travel should be waived by 2018; that opportunities offered to regional economic citizens should be extended to non-community citizens; and that legal frameworks for the issuance of an African common passport should be adopted by 2023.

So far, there has been gradual progress in ratifications and implementations of protocols that deal with free movement of persons within different regional communities.

Out of the eight regional economic communities only all the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) members have ratified the Protocol on the Free movement of persons, residence and establishment as well as using the labour and employment policy (2009) which addresses labour migration.

The 2018 report on Economic Development in Africa by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) notes that 17 of the 21 member States of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) have ratified the Protocol on the gradual relaxation and eventual elimination of visa requirements.

However, only two of the 21 member States have ratified the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons, Labour, Services, Right of Establishment and Residence. In addition, there is limited progress on implementation of labour mobility though it is envisaged in its treaty.

With regards to the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), only three of the five member States have ratified the respective protocol on the free movement of persons, with reciprocity agreements for short term mobility.

While the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has a Migration Action Plan (2015-2020) which identifies priority actions to better manage labour migration, its Protocol on the free movement of persons is still in development.

The UNCTAD 2018 report reveals that, although the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has 15 members, only 7 have ratified the Protocol on the Facilitation of Movement of Persons (2005) but it is not yet operational as it requires ratification by at least 10 member States. However, there is a regional Labour Migration Policy Framework and a revised SADC Labour Migration Action Plan.

Though the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) addresses labour mobility in its protocol, only four of the 11 member States have ratified the respective protocol on free movement of persons.

The Community of Sahel -Saharan States (CENSAD) is still developing its protocol on free movement and drafting agreement on establishment of persons within the territory of its member States. Also, there is no labour mobility framework in place.

All the member States of the East African Community (EAC) have ratified the Protocol on the Establishment of the EAC Common Market but only Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda have abolished work permit fees for their respective nationals with Rwanda also having a temporary work permit for semi-skilled workers.

Furthermore, when it comes to visa requirements for fellow regional economic community nationals, the UNCTAD report notes that only ECOWAS allows visa-free entry for all ECOWAS citizens. For the other economic blocks, there is no uniform restriction on visa requirements. For IGAD, nationals do not require a visa for entry in 50 percent of the member States whereas nationals are issued a visa upon arrival in 50 percent of member States. For others, there are also bilateral agreements for visa exemptions within the blocks.

Free movement of persons is not only central to regional integration but also the success of the African continental free trade area. It is only through strengthening different policies and frameworks at the regional economic communities that will lead to the achievement of continental goals with regards to free movement of persons.