Denying irregular African migrants the right to work in Europe is driving them to stay put

African migrants wait as they enter the immigrant center CETI in the Spanish enclave Ceuta
African migrants wait as they enter the immigrant center CETI in the Spanish enclave Ceuta
Image: REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer
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Government policies which deny so-called “irregular” African migrants the right to work in Europe may be encouraging many migrants to stay, despite a desire among migrants to ultimately return to their home countries.

Scaling Fences, a report from the United Nations Development Program interviewed 1,970 migrants from 39 African countries in 13 EU nations—those who arrived in Europe through irregular means and not for asylum or protection-related reasons. The authors discovered a substantial number of the migrants do not move to Europe to settle permanently, but to work and send money back to their families and communities.

About 81% of the respondents said working and sending money back is their primary or secondary factor in their decision to migrate, while only 3% said a better life was the single biggest factor driving that decision.

Remittances represent a significant boon to the African economy—money sent back to Sub-Saharan Africa grew by almost 10% to $46 billion in 2018. Once in Europe, the report found, these economic migrants who began earning were actually less likely to want to stay permanently compared to those not earning, as the apparent shame of not achieving their “mission” arose as a main factor in keeping migrants from returning home.

The study paints a “sometimes surprising portrait of the typical irregular African migrant to Europe,” said Mohamed Yahya, the UNDP’s lead author of the report and resident representative in Nigeria. More than half of the migrants surveyed were educated and even had jobs in their home countries before making the perilous voyage to Europe.

But the lack of opportunities and options on the continent fueled their decision to leave. A majority of the migrants are from West Africa. Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium and France are the top five host countries for migrants.

The findings come even as the EU continues to crack down on migration via the Mediterranean. Europe agreed to disperse 1 billion euros ($1.15 billion) in development aid to Niger over four years to curb illegal migration. Italy and Spain have struck deals with Libya and Morocco respectively. All these efforts have served to cut migration to Europe from the West African peninsula through Niger and Libya or Morocco and along the Mediterranean by almost 90% since its peak in 2015.

But, as the reports suggests, the crackdown will do little to curb the appetite to migrate to the West as long as economic problems on the continent persist. It reiterates the long-held notion that development is taking place in Africa, but not at a pace that is fast and evenly enough, especially for Africa’s youth (a bulk of the migrants were between the ages of 20-29).

Policymakers, therefore, need to move from “ungoverned” to “governed” migration, according to Scaling Fences, in order to harness young Africans’ potential in order to enable them work in Europe before returning to their home countries, while their host countries benefit more fully from their contributions.

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