African migration: From polarization to win-win

With the 2019 European Parliament elections, the EU may be approaching a turning point on migration. The initiatives like the UN Compact on Migration and the EU Trust Fund for Africa face growing misgivings. But “outsourcing” of migrants may increase the vulnerability of the EU to political shocks in states like Sudan or Libya.

Increased flows of migrant workers within Africa could boost local economies
Intra-African migration promises to help create a more efficient division of labor, resolve skills mismatches, curb high unemployment and relieve land scarcity. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • The migration crisis has roiled European politics and eroded trust in global approaches
  • European Union aid to countries of transit and origin will likely prove counterproductive
  • Recent initiatives to encourage free movement within Africa hold more promise
  • Migration’s positive effects could be derailed by political resistance and security shocks

Migration has become a political dividing line within the European Union. The “refugee crisis” has given way to a vicious cycle, in which the debate has become so politicized and security-oriented that it has fed further polarization, reducing the prospects of a common, sustainable long-term strategy.

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that this crisis – and the way it was perceived by Europeans and addressed by political actors – has produced a watershed moment for the EU. In this regard, the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament may provide distinctly different before and after pictures. Internationally, Europe has lost much of its soft power. Domestically, the bloc’s inability to overcome its internal crises has exposed its inefficient structures and mechanisms, along with the fragility of the European project.

Migration has reshaped the political debate in key EU states, including Germany, Italy, France and Austria, while fostering new political alliances based on euroskeptic and nationalist principles. In Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Sweden, nationalist parties have achieved significant electoral gains.

These results do not merely reflect anti-immigration sentiment. They are also a gauge of how the legitimacy of European institutions and “global governance” has declined among certain segments of the population. The power of this shift in public opinion was made evident by the negative reactions to the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). While the GCM is a voluntary and nonbinding document, its “global governance” approach to migration provoked reservations and tensions in countries like the United States, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia and Switzerland – just to name a few.

The numbers

According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), international migrants represented 10.5 percent of Europe’s population in 2017. Between 2000 and 2017, Europe was the second main destination region for international migrants, attracting a total of 22 million during the period.

These numbers reflect the fact that the search for better living conditions is a fundamental determinant of human mobility. Not surprisingly, roughly two-thirds of international migrants reside in high-income economies, according to the UN’s International Migration Report from 2017. Besides the geographic, demographic and economic context, however, migration patterns are also highly responsive to geopolitical events. In this context, Europe’s current “migration crisis” was mainly a consequence of Syria’s civil war and the disintegration of Libya. These events explain the doubling of asylum applications to the EU in 2014-2015 (from 627,000 to 1.32 million), with the highest increases registered in Germany, Austria and Hungary (Eurostat).

According to Frontex, entries of illegal migrants to Europe have decreased by 90 percent since 2015.

By 2018, the migrant influx seemed to have subsided. According to Frontex, irregular entries had decreased by 90 percent from 2015, while asylum applications in 2017 were down by 43 percent from the previous year. This does not mean that fewer people wish to enter Europe illegally, only that tighter border controls – particularly along the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Balkan routes – have made it substantially more difficult.

Questionable strategy

While struggling to keep its internal cohesion, the EU responded to the migration crisis with two broad initiatives: the 2016 EU-Turkey statement and the EU Trust Fund for Africa.

The fundamental logic of the EU-Turkey statement is not very different from that underlying the 2008 Italian-Libyan friendship treaty. In practice, acknowledging the crimes committed by Italy during colonial times, Italy paid $5 billion in compensation to Libya. In exchange, Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi (1969-2011) made sure that migrants would not reach Europe’s coast. Under the EU-Turkey statement, Europe pledged to extend a 3 billion-euro Refugee Facility, which was fully contracted in 2017. Turkey is now the world’s largest host country for refugees (3.5 million, according to UNHCR).

The EU’s 3.4 billion-euro Trust Fund for Africa, in turn, focuses mainly on three regions (the Sahel and Lake Chad, the Horn of Africa and North Africa). Its twofold approach combines short-term measures to manage migration with a long-term strategy to address its root causes. After reaching record levels in 2016 (212,600), the number of asylum claims by Africans in the EU fell to 140,000 in 2017. These figures include both refugees (from Eritrea or Somalia) and economic migrants (mainly from Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Senegal).

In the long run, however, the EU Trust Fund’s assumptions may prove misguided. In low-income countries, up to a certain level of development, increasing per capita income and access to education are apt to encourage more – not less – emigration. More than half of the sub-Saharan African migrants residing in the U.S. in 2017, for example, came from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana or Kenya, which are among Africa’s most developed economies. Europe remains the main destination for African-born migrants (9.1 million of whom lived in the EU-28 countries in 2017, according to Eurostat).

Migration opportunity

Unlike the EU, the African Union is still in an integrative phase, as reflected in the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area, the Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons and plans for a Single African Air Transport Market. Human mobility, in this context, is seen more as an opportunity than as a threat. Intra-African and intercontinental migration has had a strong and positive economic impact. For several African countries, including Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia and Zimbabwe, remittances have become a key driver of growth or are helping mitigate poverty.

Most of the population movements that do take place in Africa are intraregional.

It is important to note that most African migrants stay in Africa. According to the UN DESA, between 2015 and 2017, international migrants residing in the continent increased from 16 million to 19 million, while the number of Africans migrating overseas rose from 16 million to 17 million. Most of the population movements that do take place in Africa are intraregional: in 2017, for example, four out of every five international migrants residing in Eastern, Middle and Western Africa came from the same African region (UNCTAD). Opportunities for legal intercontinental migration, in turn, remain severely limited for ordinary Africans due to financial and bureaucratic constraints.

While there was a substantial increase in flows of illegal migrants between 2014 and 2016, regular migration from Africa into Europe has been declining since 2008. Between 2008 and 2016, for example, the number of work permits issued to African immigrants decreased by about 70 percent, according to a recent estimate by the European Commission.

Trends and patterns

Migration is determined not only by personal aspirations but also by the capacity to pursue them. This suggests that the lifting of barriers envisaged in the African Union’s Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons – including the progressive abolition of visa requirements, the institution of a single passport and the harmonization of migration policies – will likely contribute to an increase of intra-African migration. Similar policies adopted within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the East African Community (EAC) led to increased intra-regional flows.

Illegal migrant boy on a bus in Malaga, Spain
Jan. 16, 2019: A young boy draws on the steamy window of a bus in Malaga, Spain after his family of illegal migrants was rescued from a raft in the Mediterranean. © dpa

While some forecasts about the positive effect of migration may be overoptimistic (UNCTAD, for example, estimates that properly managed migration could boost Africa’s GDP per capita from $2,008 in 2016 to $3,249 in 2030), there is little question that human mobility could help spur economic growth and transformation in Africa. There is strong evidence that legal migration has a positive impact on both sending and receiving countries. In the African context, free movement policies – by increasing and diversifying migration opportunities – creates synergies between regions through a more efficient division of labor, resolving skills mismatches, reducing high unemployment rates, and relieving land scarcity or demographic imbalances.

However, migration’s positive effects on Africa will probably be compromised by two factors. First, the low quality of governance in most states means that policies and services necessary to spur growth and employment are mostly absent. Second, intra-African migration is particularly vulnerable to security and economic shocks. This vulnerability is not confined to regions of widespread poverty, armed conflict or state fragility: the recent terrorist attacks in Kenya and riots against migrant workers in South Africa, for example, reflect the perils and limits of free movement in Africa.



Migration to Europe from the south can be expected to continue and probably intensify in the next decade, reflecting Africa’s overall demographic growth and especially a rapid increase in its working-age population, which is forecast to expand by 70 percent between 2015 and 2035. Other contributing factors are increasing mobility and connectivity, rapid urbanization, high unemployment and rising disposable income in many African countries.

With external pressure constant or rising, the key variable determining African migration’s impact on its neighbor to the north will be Europe’s policy response. Here, two scenarios must be considered.

Weaker EU

The kick start of this slightly more likely scenario would be a transformation of EU politics after this year’s elections to the European Parliament and wholesale changes in the bloc’s leadership.

With the possibility of a chaotic Brexit looming ever larger, antiestablishment and euroskeptic parties could post significant gains, further eroding the cohesion and legitimacy of the EU project. This, in turn, would dramatically undermine the possibility of a common, long-term migration strategy. While the “European Spring” envisaged by anti-EU, anti-immigration leaders like Italy’s Matteo Salvini may not fully materialize, they may still pick up enough strength to challenge the “Franco-German axis” that has given Europe direction.

In a more polarized political context, EU member countries would deal with migration and security issues through temporary alliances of adjustable geometry. This would perpetuate migration as a divisive issue, while delaying the design and implementation of integration policies and labor market reforms in key EU countries.

Under this scenario, regular immigration from Africa would decrease, but the flow of “illegals” would persist. This would keep driving up the political and financial costs of curbing the migrant influx. The EU’s recent attempt to “outsource” the management of migration flows to transit countries only increases its vulnerability to political shocks or security challenges in buffer states like Sudan, Libya or Algeria. The increase in smuggling activities in the Sahel and the Maghreb would contribute to further destabilization and insecurity in those regions.

Two unrelated events could accelerate this scenario. The outbreak of an economic and financial crisis within the EU, triggered perhaps by a German economic slowdown or by a banking or sovereign debt crisis, could lead to calls for even more restrictive immigration policies. The same applies to increased security concerns, perhaps triggered by more terrorist attacks in Europe or destabilization of a Maghreb country.

Rational approach

Under this scenario, conservatives and socialists would retain their majority in the European Parliament, allowing a sober attitude toward migration to prevail over the nationalist approach or “global governance” advocates.

Even a temporary boost to the EU’s political legitimacy would give the bloc’s containment strategy time to reduce and stabilize the inflow of illegal immigrants. This, in turn, could help gradually depoliticize the migration debate.

The rational scenario, however, depends on the absence of major economic shocks or security threats (whether perceived or real). Only then can the economic case be made for migration’s benefits to host countries, and especially to an aging Europe. Legal migration could then be allowed to increase, while keeping controls in place against potential threats. EU member countries would have more incentive to introduce essential reforms, injecting needed flexibility into labor markets and pursuing integration strategies that could strengthen migration’s potential as a win-win situation.

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