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Country study: Public narratives and attitudes towards refugees and other migrants - Nigeria country profile, Karen Hargrave (October 2021)

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Executive summary

In mid-2020 Nigeria hosted 1.3 million migrants, including refugees, representing just 0.6% of the country’s population (UN DESA, 2020) – far below both the overall global average and the average for West Africa, and the lowest proportion of any Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) country. Significant groups hosted in Nigeria include migrants from other ECOWAS countries – in particular Benin, Ghana, Mali, Togo and Niger – as well as a modest but growing refugee population from Cameroon.

While Nigeria is a country of net emigration, this has not always been the case. In particular,
Nigeria has long played host to migrants from across West Africa, whose presence has largely tracked the ebb and flow of Africa’s largest economy. These immigration dynamics have roots in long-standing West African patterns of mobility, facilitated by Nigeria’s adoption of the 1979 ECOWAS Protocol Relating to Free Movement of Persons, Residence and Establishment. While immigration into Nigeria was later more heavily politicised – most notably with the expulsion in 1983 of up to 2.5 million ECOWAS migrants – in the early years of ECOWAS Nigeria took on a role of ‘good neighbourliness’ towards its regional counterparts, as one of the community’s strongest proponents for closer regional integration.

The past decade has seen significant reforms to migration policy in Nigeria, including the development of extensive legal and policy frameworks. While largely focused on emigration patterns and Nigeria’s diaspora, these frameworks have reflected a shift from an approach centred around control of immigration to one of easing mobility. In terms of refugees, the overall policy environment in Nigeria is permissive, enabling refugees to reside in the location of their choice, with access to national health and education systems.

Today, migration is not considered a high-stakes political issue in Nigeria, or indeed a political priority compared to other issues. Where migration is covered in national public and political debate, this is predominantly in terms of the emigration of Nigeria’s own citizens and, particularly in recent years, opportunities to better leverage development gains from Nigeria’s significant diaspora. Immigration and refugee-hosting appear to have greater public profile at local levels, for example in states hosting large numbers of Cameroonian refugees.

Where migrants, including refugees, hosted within Nigeria do feature in public discourse, there are two distinct narratives:

  • A dominant narrative of Nigeria as a country of welcome, rooted in shared history and longstanding socio-economic and cultural ties with specific groups of foreign nationals in the country.

  • Narratives, though far from widespread, explicitly portraying specific groups hosted in the country – and irregular migrants in particular – as a threat or expressing concerns about the perceived impacts of their presence.

The relative absence of immigration from national public, political and media discourse is reflected in data measuring the salience of different issues to the Nigerian public. Recent polling indicates that immigration and refugee-hosting are not considered key issues affecting the country, with Nigerians instead prioritising issues such as infrastructure, electricity, crime and security and unemployment. Survey data has also repeatedly demonstrated high levels of acceptance towards migrants living in the country. Likewise, while available data on attitudes towards migrants in Nigeria largely does not distinguish specific attitudes towards refugees, qualitative and more anecdotal evidence suggests an overall welcoming environment for Cameroonian refugees in their immediate host communities.

However, this climate of tolerance does not necessarily translate into liberal policy preferences.
Just under half of Nigerians support either completely prohibiting or putting strict limits on immigration. While the vast majority of Nigerians feel positively about the impacts of immigrants on the country’s development, there are also notable concerns, particularly around perceived links between immigration and unemployment. There are also significant differences between different parts of the country, and between demographic groups. In particular, contrary to trends elsewhere in the world, attitudes appear less open among young Nigerians and those with higher levels of education.

Actors seeking to engage with narratives and attitudes towards migrants, including refugees, in Nigeria can do so in several ways, including by:

  1. Ensuring that engagement on migration and development includes a focus on migrants, including refugees, within Nigeria, in particular by prioritising efforts to strengthen data on their skills profiles, labour market participation and broader development contributions.

  2. Further strengthening the evidence base on attitudes towards immigration and refugeehosting in Nigeria, including by collecting more targeted data regarding attitudes towards refugees.

  3. Celebrating Nigeria as a country of welcome, while acknowledging complexities and concerns. In particular, efforts should be made to address concerns related to perceived links between immigration and unemployment. Trusted actors, such asreligious and traditional leaders, the private sector and civil society, have a key role to play.