Migration from Africa to Europe has become a lightning rod issue for politicians and citizens on both continents. Europeans are battling amongst themselves and with immigrants over questions of national identity, race, and pluralism. Media report regularly on the deaths of migrants at sea or in the desert. 

Lost in the conversation are the voices of migrants themselves. A UN Development Program (UNDP) team, led by its Africa bureau director Ahunna Eziakonwa, has worked to change this. “It is time to listen to those who have made the journey,” wrote the team in its recent report, titled “Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe.

Previous studies of Africa-to-Europe migration often lacked input from the people whose lives they analyzed. The UNDP research team, including migrants themselves, surveyed nearly 2,000 irregular migrants from 43 African countries living in 13 European ones.

Migration is “a reverberation of uneven development and particularly of a development trajectory that is failing young people.”

The results shine a light on the complex factors pushing and pulling people to migrate. It brings into clearer focus the reality of their journeys and lives in Europe. The authors distilled the data into the one key idea: migration is “a reverberation of uneven development and particularly of a development trajectory that is failing young people.” 

The Maghreb and Migration 

The Maghreb, Morocco in particular, is a region of both origin and transit for Europe-bound migrants. Although Maghrebis (Moroccans, Tunisians, and Algerians) account for less than 10 percent of the respondents in “Scaling Fences,” the drive to emigrate to Europe is strong. At the same time, their countries have become crossroads—and destinations—for the scores of sub-Saharan African migrants who share their goal. 

Maghrebi governments need to step up efforts to humanely and effectively govern migration from Africa to Europe. As “Scaling Fences” suggests, perhaps the most important action is to concretely respond to the political and economic needs of their youth. They also need to create safe, legal pathways for foreign migrants moving through or staying in the Maghreb. 

Ham-fisted policies shared by the EU and Maghreb that criminalize and deter migration are entirely unable to govern the will and needs of people to move. “Efforts to coercively prevent or otherwise deter [migration] are questionable, even unrealistic,” the report states. 

Greener Pastures at Home

Throughout the Maghreb, over a third of the population have considered emigrating.

Throughout the Maghreb, over a third of the population have considered emigrating, according to the 2019 Arab Barometer surveys. In Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, over half of all youth are aiming for life abroad, mostly in Europe. These numbers shoot up for the higher educated, threatening a severe and consequential brain drain. Young Maghrebis cite deep frustrations with stubborn but solvable problems as reasons to leave: a stifling lack of economic, political, and social opportunities.

Algerians, though they successfully forced the ouster of the aging President Abdelaziz Bouteflika through peaceful protest, have little faith in their government. Just ten percent of Algerians feel the state is adequately tackling unemployment, corruption, and inequality — powerful drivers of emigration. Protests are ongoing to overturn the stagnant, military-dominated power structure. 

At least 155 migrants entered the Spanish enclave of Ceuta after climbing over fences or walking through a border post separating the territory from Morocco. Aug. 30 2019 AP Photo Reduan Ben Zakour

At least 155 migrants entered the Spanish enclave of Ceuta after climbing over fences or walking through a border post separating the territory from Morocco. Aug. 30, 2019 (AP Photo Reduan Ben Zakour)

Likewise, many Tunisians, disillusioned by the lack of progress since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, are looking abroad. Over half of young respondents have considered emigrating, the majority naming economic conditions as the reason and Europe as the destination. 

Moroccans, though, seem to be the most desperate: nearly half of respondents of any age have considered emigrating. A remarkable 70 percent of Moroccans under the age of 30 have considered leaving home, the largest proportion of any country surveyed by Arab Barometer. Older Moroccans, unlike the younger generations, still retain confidence in state institutions and fewer want to leave. 

Young people have cultivated a kind of hopelessness about economic equality and a persistent lack of good jobs, political agency, and social freedom.

Young people, however, have cultivated a kind of hopelessness about economic equality and a persistent lack of good jobs, political agency, and social freedom. Some see potential at home, but conversations with young Moroccans about the future almost always include a desire to leave. Most, though, would only emigrate to Europe by legal means. 

Laying a Foundation

The findings in “Scaling Fences” clarified misconceptions about who is migrating. Irregular African migrants to Europe are mostly young, educated, and from large families in urban areas. They aren’t the poorest of the poor — half of them were working when they left home — nor the most desperate. 

Yet 93 percent of respondents said they had little or no satisfaction with job opportunities at home and 80 percent with the available educational opportunities. Nearly identical numbers voiced a distrust in their governments and militaries. Many felt unable to live the way they wanted to, persecuted for their ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or political leanings. 

Migration policy and programs will inevitably fail if states do not invest in developing their countries equitably.

If governments across Africa want to keep their educated youth, they must respond to their needs, the report suggests. Migration policy and programs will inevitably fail if states do not invest in developing their countries equitably. 

African governments, including those in the Maghreb, must “build societies that attract young Africans to channel their energies and aspirations” into their home countries, says the report. Economic growth must benefit the majority, not cultivate inequality and exclusion. 

Likewise, international aid providers must ensure funds are spent to structurally transform economies instead of being drained by corruption or myopic efforts to suppress migration. Europe and other wealthy powers also are responsible for supporting African states in these goals. This includes allowing them to profit from their own resources. 

Failing to “advance systemic approaches to migration” will only lead to “destabilizing political consequences,” the report states. Rosy perceptions of life abroad also play a major role in attracting migrants, but at the root is inequality and a lack of options. 

The report quotes the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has written about a young generation of Africans who are “now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”

Legal Pathways

Young Africans have “a will to migrate and an ability to do so,” the report writes, “yet legal channels facilitating migration remain largely closed to this class of traveler.” Rather than halt migration, this only leads migrants to illegal, exploitative, and deadly channels, both en route and in Europe. Over 18,500 people have died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean since 2014. Several thousand more have died or disappeared while crossing the Sahara. 

Over half of the respondents in “Scaling Fences” had reached Europe from the coast of Libya, where a crumbled political system and deterrence efforts from Italy foreclosed legal means to move. Some Libyans ended up buying and selling Sub-Saharan African migrants into slavery in parts of the country in 2017-18.

EU-supported migration programs in Morocco focused heavily on controlling the border and the movement of migrants, with only a fraction committed to their protection and integration.

Twenty-six percent of respondents had reached Europe through Morocco, either crossing the sea to reach mainland Spain or literally scaling the fences of the Spanish semi-enclaves Ceuta and Melilla. As of late 2018, EU-supported migration programs in Morocco focused heavily on controlling the border and the movement of migrants, with only a fraction committed to their protection and integration.

At the same time that the state has provided token, temporary legal options for sub-Saharan migrants to stay, it has continued to forcibly displace migrants from northern to southern cities. Allegedly, a major bus company recently refused transport to any northbound sub-Saharan Africans that did not show residency papers (the company denies this). These tactics, as the report makes clear, serve only to engender illegal trafficking networks and endanger migrants’ lives. 

Emigration from Africa to Europe cannot be humanely governed by brute force or simple policy, reports the UNDP’s “Scaling Fences.” Positioned at a crossroads of migration, the governments of the Maghreb would benefit from integrating the report’s findings.