Uptick in African Refugees Expected to Continue

Philippe Fargues
Founding Director, Migration Policy Centre, European University Institute

Irregular migration from Africa to Europe is increasing. As Africa’s population continues to grow, the European Union (EU) will need to figure out how to deal with what is expected to be even more African migrants in the coming years. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with Philippe Fargues, founding Director of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Italy, about migration patterns, now and in the future, and the EU response.

The Cipher Brief: Paint a picture for me of migration from Africa to Europe over the past few years. Are there a lot of migrants? Which countries are they coming from and going to? 

Philippe Fargues: First of all, migration from Africa to Europe is not new. Second of all, it is not currently on a large scale. Developments in the last two years are characterized by a rise in irregular migration across the Mediterranean – that is, people trying to reach Europe with no visa and doing this at risk to their lives using the services of smugglers. Most of these smugglers are now based in Libya.

Libya is an important part of recent developments. Since the removal of the dictator in Libya, the country is under the control of militias, and there is a big smuggling business there. That smuggling business has been working to bring people mostly from Africa and mostly to Italy. Another big smuggling route was from Turkey to the Greek islands, but that was more for people originating from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. Still, a lot of Africans also took that road.

The context over the past couple years is irregular migration has been growing, yet it is small in comparison to the total stock of international migrants in Europe. Last year, one million people arrived irregularly in Europe, the majority of them not Africans but rather Middle Easterners. If we look at Africans, we are talking of only a few hundred or thousand people reaching irregularly to Europe out of the total migrant population in the EU, which is about 50 million.

What I think is important is the vision that some people have of the future of African migration to Europe, and here we may be talking of much bigger numbers.

TCB: Can you expand on that a bit? First of all, why has irregular migration been increasing? Are the factors that are leading to an increase in irregular migration going to contribute to bigger migration numbers in the future?

PF: Why is irregular migration increasing? Simply because you don’t have channels for regular migration. You don’t have visas available for migrants today. If you don’t have a visa and you want to migrate, you do it with no visa. There is no other reason. This, of course, could change.

To answer your second question, we must discuss Africa’s growing population. After WWII, Africa was half the population of Europe. Today, Africa is twice the population of Europe. In 2050, it will be four times the population of Europe, and it is projected at the end of this century to be ten times the population of Europe. Africa is growing extremely rapidly today.

There is another important aspect in Africa. Africans have always migrated, but most migration until recently has been intra-African migration – that is, people who move to countries like Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Nigeria, where there is employment. But what happened in Africa is they imported the Western model of nation states, and they invented all the things that go with nation states: borders, identity, etc. So intra-African migration is becoming increasingly difficult.

There is a sense in many political circles in Europe that what’s happening today is just the beginning of a much bigger movement that could reach Europe tomorrow. And in the context of shrinking populations and a shrinking workforce in Europe, that is something that politicians factor in to decision-making. So it is this whole context that we have, where there is, in the policy circle, the fear of being invaded by migrants.

TCB: In the context of these developments in Africa after many African nations absorbed the Western model of the nation state, is what the EU doing right now – for example, providing more development aid to Africa – going to work in minimizing the future flows of migrants?

PF: At the beginning of June this year, the European Commission created these comprehensive partnerships on migration with African states. In these compacts, you have the goal of containing migration and curbing irregular migration, across the Mediterranean in particular, by addressing the smuggling and trafficking issue. The second part of these compacts is increasing returns, or readmission, of migrants to African states. Thirdly, once you send the people back, you must enable the local economies to absorb these people. So a third part of the compacts is reintegration of the migrant. And the fourth point is tackling the root causes, which of course are very big. I just mentioned the political development in Africa, which is part of the root causes. But there’s also the economic development aspect, which is another huge root cause.

Europe committed 1.8 billion euros – 2 billion dollars – for the whole of Africa on this. This is just a drop in the bucket, because developing the countries costs much more than this. It is just a first step. Moreover, migration will grow, not be contained, because people will have more education and money. Education offers opportunity and money offers the means for migration. We should be aware of this, that developing Africa will in the first stage translate into more migration from these countries.

I think we are completely wrong in our policies. The amount of money contributed to African development is too small, but also in the short-term and medium-term, development will not be curb migration. However, our politicians believe that development will contain migration.

TCB: So what do you think that the EU could and should be doing differently?

PF: We have to get prepared for migration. It will happen, and we have to prepare as best as we can. Can you imagine that in Africa, a continent that now has 1.2 billion inhabitants but will have close to 4.5 billion by the end of this century, all these people will stay where they are? Unless there is an extraordinary economic boom and Africa becomes like the most brilliant emerging economies of today, people will migrate. The likelihood of this happening is extremely low. Migration will certainly grow in the coming decades.

Part of getting prepared means selecting the people who we need to accept. Whether we like it or not, migrants will be useful if we want Europe to remain the the largest post-industrial bloc in the world today, because Europe currently has a big demography problem. We have a decreasing young working population. And you cannot replace this group with older workers who do not have the new skills that are required in post-industrial economies.

So what we have to do is count on external pools of talented young people. They will come from Africa and other parts of the world. I can’t see any other possibility.

TCB: Shifting gears now to national security, what is the impact on European security from flows of migrants from Africa and, in particular, the irregular migrants going to Europe? What do you think the impact will be in the future if these flows increase substantially?

PF: It’s absolutely obvious that someone who you don’t know anything about because that person entered with no visa, with no controls, is not good for security. Although most of our security problems today are not linked directly with irregular migration, they are linked with what is happening in our own societies and populations. Still, it is not good to have people who you don’t know entering your country. My response is that if you want to avoid irregular migration, you have to open channels for regular migration.

Yet today work permits and work visas in Europe are hard to come by. On the one side, Europe has high unemployment, but on the other side, we continue to need specific people to work in our economies, and these people should be admitted on a regular basis. If we keep our borders closed to people who want to enter Europe, irregular migration will continue to increase.

It’s difficult. You know this in the U.S. with a President-elect who advocates a wall between Mexico and the U.S. A wall in the Mediterranean is even more difficult. Plus, we know walls in Europe. You don’t know walls in the U.S. We have had many walls in Europe, and we don’t want that today. We must have a more efficient way of controlling the people who enter without closing the door. It could be good for our security to open the border to controlled migration.

TCB: Your comment about how the United States doesn’t know walls is very interesting, especially in light of the fact that the African population is expected to grow exponentially while the countries in Africa are developing at an increasingly rapid rate. Will migration from Africa become a concern for the United States in the future because of potential flows of migrants from Africa to the U.S.?

PF: African migration may well become global migration. On African migration to the U.S., this would not be the first time in history that this would happen. You have a population of Africans in the U.S. which is already big. This population is not perfectly integrated in terms of equal opportunities in the U.S. Yet the population coming from Africa can bring a tremendous amount to the U.S. economy. Why would it be different in the future? One should not look at this as an issue of security, but rather as an opportunity. America’s own history is an example. 

The Author is Philippe Fargues

Philippe Fargues is the founding Director of the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He is a sociologist and demographer. He has been Director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo, a senior researcher at the French National Institute for Demographic Studies in Paris, a visiting profes­sor at Harvard, and the Director of the Centre for Economic Legal and Social Studies (CEDEJ) in Cairo.

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