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Nowhere is the dearth of current migration data more striking than in Africa, a continent shaped by migration over many centuries. There is minimal knowledge about the forms and patterns of migration across large parts of the continent. As a result, many statements about African mobility are based more on supposition rather than empirical evidence. Much of the current migration research in Africa is grounded in theories and conceptualisations that have emerged from research in industrialised states or a limited set of relatively wealthy developing countries; these are not necessarily applicable to the African context. This combination of the lack of empirical data and the use of inappropriate conceptual frameworks has contributed to distorted and highly simplistic views on the nature of African migrations. More empirical research on African migrations is absolutely essential in order to achieve an improved understanding.

In the first year of the 'African Perspectives on Human Mobility' project, more precise research questions and strategies were developed in close collaboration with the research partners in African universities. Initial discussions revealed a shared interest in reconceptualising mobility by challenging notions of destination, transit and arrival. International migration is commonly conceptualised as a movement of people from a sending state to a final destination state, with temporary stops in ‘transit’ along the way. The notion of transit migration has recently been introduced to the research and policy agenda but has been very poorly defined and weakly conceptualised. The failure to explain recent changes in African migration systems is related to lack of empirical research that explores these mixed and changing motivations of African migrants along their migration itineraries.