African migration calls for an intercontinental outlook

Migration26 Nov 2015Frank van Kesteren

Although African migration is no new phenomenon, migration from Africa to Europe has increased in recent years. What is driving these people to move to Europe right now? When answering this question it becomes clear that effective migration policies need to target development inside Africa, with a particular focus on the rule of law and decent employment opportunities. 

This expert opinion is part of our living analysis on migration

The Migration Trail

While European policymakers are challenged to formulate unified migration policies, blind spots along the migration trails hamper our ability to understand the situation as it is.

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When placing the data on African migration to Europe into historical and regional context, the idea of an abrupt en masse migration of Africans cannot be upheld. First, the idea of a lack of borders and an easy journey for Africans is flawed. Due to Israeli immigration policies, Yemen’s implosion plus repressive migration policies at the Moroccan border, migrants can only use the Central Mediterranean route. These people take long, dangerous and costly journeys where more often than not they end up being stranded in Algeria or Morocco.

Overview of recent African migration to Europe
African migration to Europe traditionally occurs over two routes: the Western Mediterranean route and the Central Mediterranean route. In 2014, the use of the Central Mediterranean route to Europe (from Libya or Egypt to Italy or Malta) sharply increased: from approximately 40,000 in 2013 to 170,000 in 2014. In 2015 this number will probably stay the same. Syrian refugees have the highest share in this growth, but African migrants also account for a huge part. Figure 1 shows that Eritreans, Sub-Saharan Africans, Nigerians and Somali’s make up the majority of the African share.

Graph 1: Six main nationalities of irregular migrants from Africa to Europe (source: Frontex, 2015)

Secondly, the idea of African migration as a new phenomenon is incorrect. The figures on African migration are not remarkably different from the past, except from the fact that migrants are now continuing to Europe. The increase in migration from Africa to Europe is relatively small in comparison to migration numbers between African countries. In West Africa for instance, regional migration is still seven times larger than migration to other parts of the world. Many African refugees reside in African countries (see Graph 2 below). As an example, most of the Somali refugees reside in neighbouring countries as Kenya, Ethiopia or Yemen. In fact, the amount of migrants as a piece of the total African population decreases.

Therefore, those claiming that Africans have discovered European luxuries and have all of a sudden started to relocate are essentially wrong.

Graph 2: Amount of refugees inside Africa by country of origin (source: UNHCR, 2015)

From regional to international migration

In fact, African migrants are primarily driven by a lack of security and economic opportunities, influenced by scarcity of resources due to population growth. For instance, conflict and repression are important drivers for Eritreans, Nigerians and Somalians to move. However, the extent, moment and destination of migration depend on different factors. Historically, African refugees move mostly within their own countries or to neighboring countries, because of the proximity and cultural linkages. The shift to large-distance migration patterns within or outside Africa we see today have three different explanations.

First, the rise of migration within Africa is partly the result of policies aimed at free movement, such as the ECOWAS in West-Africa. In parallel to the economic development in these nations, many have moved to Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria to work there. Not all are able to find (decent) employment, either because of a lack of rights (residences, employment rights, etc.) or a lack of jobs in general. Particularly the many youth in Sub-Saharan Africa see little opportunities in terms of decent employment, which leaves many to search jobs elsewhere.

Second, the rising middle class in many African nations provides more Africans with the money needed for a long distance journey. As argued by Paul Collier the propensity to migrate is highest for the economic middle class. In comparison to lower economic classes they possess the means to migrate, but as opposed to higher economic classes they also still have the incentive to look for better opportunities elsewhere.

Finally, the possibility to migrate is increased by the professionalized organisation of smuggling networks in particularly Mali, Niger, Sudan and Libya. More information on this is provided in the slide below.

The political economy of migrant smuggling in the Sahel

Willemse et al.:

The routes taken in the past by Muslim pilgrims, Islamic teachers, traders and travellers along the many trans-Saharan routes from West Africa across the desert are now used by nomadic people such as the Fulani and Tuareg in search of better pastures for their herds, as well as migrant workers looking for work in the region or attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Read more.


The Tuareg are among the main protagonists in this trade and have developed a transnational operational space in the Sahara, where the boundaries between legal and illegal are merged, and the distinction between trade, smuggling and migration is blurred. Three skills and strategies explain why the Tuareg have been successful in operating border crossings and are likely to continue in the future: their know-how of the desert, tribal and kin cross-border relations, and sophisticated use of multiple identities allow the Tuareg to engage in an economic niche: transportation through the Sahara. Read more.


The extraordinary opportunity to permeate ‘fortress Europe’ thanks to the chaos in Libya is proving a strong siren song for West Africans. Their route to the North African coast requires traversing the treacherous Sahara – which is impossible without a smuggler. An estimated 3,000 people are travelling through Agadez in Niger each week, with each one paying an average of US $800. The nomadic groups that have long trafficked and smuggled people along the trans-Saharan trails are using these windfall profits to consolidate their control over routes. For nomadic tribes like the Tuareg, migrants are one more form of cross-border illicit trade to be facilitated or taxed. The result is a rise in state corruption and violence, driven by competition as well as new inflows of cash for the region’s various armed groups. The implications are serious for efforts at stability and state consolidation in the Sahel and Maghreb. Read more.

These are co-authors of the living analysis.

A comprehensive policy approach

Which measures can be taken to regulate the influx of irregular migrants to Europe? When examining the routes that migrants take to Europe (see figure 3 below), this question can be answered by discussing the role of two countries: Niger and Libya.

Figure 1: Key migrant routes from Africa to Europe (source: BBC, 2015)

Niger is a major hub in terms of human trafficking, particularly because the costs of travelling to Libya are relatively low compared to the route through Algeria. At the absence of a strong, democratic state, nomadic tribes have been able to expand their influence and organize human trafficking along the Sahara.

In the meantime, Libya has developed as the major transit country in Africa, where migrants are transferred into boats to cross the Mediterranean sea. The Libyan Civil War has led to a lack of enforcement of border posts and coastline guards, as well as an increased belief amongst migrants that the doors to Europe were open.

These two examples show that curbing in migration to Europe requires curbing in migration inside Africa, which in turn requires a comprehensive approach. At the absence of rule of law, the smuggling industry provides or maintains the idea of a prosperous Europe to move to. General investments in Africa’s economies will therefore not suffice to prevent these movements.

On the one hand, a long-term approach to institutional strength and political stability is required to eliminate trafficking activities. On the other hand, policies should focus on creating decent, long-term jobs, both in rural and urban areas, for specific groups such as youth to provide employment opportunities and make Africa’s development more inclusive. This binary approach takes away both the causes and organized exploitation of migration. This approach is not only cheaper than investing in strengthened European border controls, but is also a more humanitarian response to the reason why many Africans feel the need to desert their homes.