By Assoc. Prof. Eduard Marinov, Ph.D. New Bulgarian University; Economic Research Institute at BAS
It is not a coincidence that in the span of just one week in the beginning of December, we witnessed several major developments in different parts of the world and by different actors concerning migration and human trafficking. And they are all somehow related to Africa. In the complex tapestry of migration between Africa and the European Union, the dynamics are multifaceted, shaped by historical, economic, and demographic factors. Migration from Africa has a lot of nuanced layers, but we need some data-backed insights to dispel common myths and foster a deeper understanding. Anchored by recent developments such as the significant step in Niger with the repealment of anti-migration law that had helped reduce the flow of West Africans to Europe but which was reviled by desert dwellers whose economies had long relied on the traffic, the International Conference on a Global Alliance to Counter Migrant Smuggling and the impactful 2023 State of the Union address by Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, the narrative extends beyond restrictive policies.
African migrations: Back to facts
Contrary to alarmist narratives, recent trends in African migration do not indicate a sudden and critical surge. Migration, a historical constant, has indeed shaped nations and cultures. Over the past three decades, the global number of migrants has steadily increased, with 127.6 million more people living outside their home country in 2020 than in 1990. Despite this, the proportion of migrants to the global population has only marginally risen, from 2.9% in 1990 to 3.6% in 2020.
A closer look at African migration challenges prevailing misconceptions. In 2020, only 3.0% of the African population lived outside their home country, in stark contrast to the 8.5% of the European population. Since 2010, migrations from Africa have surged, with a remarkable +43.6% increase, yet the majority of this movement has been intra-African. In comparison, migrations from Africa to Europe increased by +26.0% during the same period.
Crucially, the portrayal of Africa overwhelming Europe with migrants is not supported by the data. In 2020, the total number of African migrants globally is 40.6 million, constituting only 14.5% of the global migrant population. Europe hosts only 27.2% of African migrants, significantly less than Asia's (41.0%) and Europe's (22.5%) shares. African migrants constitute less than 15% of the total migrant population in all world regions except Africa. These statistics challenge prevailing narratives and underscore the need for a nuanced, data-driven understanding of African migration on the global stage.
Understanding African migrations: Beyond stereotypes
Dispelling stereotypes surrounding African migrations requires a nuanced examination of the data, revealing a more complex reality. Africa is not a continent experiencing a massive exodus; in fact, more than half of African migrants, precisely 51.6%, reside within the continent as of 2020. Contrary to notions of depopulation, Africa hosts an increasing share of the global migrant population, with a noteworthy growth of +42.6% from 2010 to 2020, welcoming migrants from all world regions.
The motivations behind African migrations toward Europe are predominantly economic rather than driven solely by humanitarian crises. The image of uneducated single men seeking welfare coverage does not align with the data. African migrants, mostly young and educated, are seeking job opportunities, with nearly half of them being women. Economic prospects drive approximately 80% of African migrations, challenging assumptions about the nature of these movements. Furthermore, the data reveals that only 7.2% of African migrants in EU countries are refugees, a number notably lower than the total Syrian refugee population in EU countries in 2020.
Contrary to the narrative of chaotic irregular migrations, the majority of African migrations into Europe occur through regular channels. Although limited regular channels often lead migrants to engage in unsafe journeys across the Mediterranean, the data paints a different picture. In 2019, Frontex registered approximately 40,000 irregular border crossings into the EU from Africa, representing less than 10% of regular migrations from Africa to Europe between 2019 and 2020. Irregular border crossings from Africa to Europe constituted less than one-third of all irregular crossings into Europe in 2019. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), between 2011 and 2016, about 80% of all those arriving from Northern and Western Africa to Europe migrated through regular channels. These statistics challenge common misconceptions and underscore the importance of understanding the diverse motivations and routes characterizing African migrations.
A deeper look at migration realities
Despite efforts to manage migration, the rate of effective returns remains notably insufficient and has, in fact, declined over recent years. In 2020, approximately 400,000 non-EU citizens were ordered to leave the EU, with only around 18% of those individuals actually returning to their home countries. The return rates were particularly low for nationals from countries such as Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, Guinea, Senegal, and Algeria. Among the EU Member States reporting return breakdowns in 2020, 25% of the returns were assisted, indicating logistical, financial, or other material support, while 75% were non-assisted returns.
Contrary to the perception of migrants being a burden on local services, they often constitute a valuable and sought-after resource. As Europe's population ages, migrants become a key solution to labour shortages. By 2055, Europe is projected to have the world's largest dependency ratio, creating a demand for labour. This is especially evident in the healthcare sector, where African migrants contribute significantly to the workforce. In 2020, 13.7% of all doctors in Germany were migrants, with around 8% of them hailing from Africa. Despite the brain-drain concerns, the positive impact of migrants on the economy is evident, with migrants spending approximately 85% of their incomes in the hosting country. The estimated contribution of migrants to national GDPs is substantial, reaching 19% in Côte d’Ivoire, 13% in Rwanda, and 9% in South Africa.
Public opinion and approaches toward migration diverge starkly between Europe and Africa. Gallup's 2019 Migration Acceptance Index highlights that eight of the ten least accepting countries are in Europe, while four of the ten most accepting countries globally are in Africa. Notably, no African country features among the ten least accepting countries, while four of the ten most accepting countries at world level are in Africa (in order: Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Chad, Rwanda). An IOM survey in 2021 reveals that only 4% of the world’s countries fully meet SDG target 10.7.2 on policies to facilitate orderly, safe, regular, and responsible migration. When it comes to granting migrants equal rights, 18% of African countries fully provide this, the second-highest share of all regions, while only 11% of European countries do so. These disparities underscore the need for nuanced and context-specific approaches to migration policies and perceptions.
The key challenge: the lack of relevant job prospects for Africa’s fast-growing youth
At the core of Africa's migration narrative lies a formidable challenge: the profound lack of viable employment opportunities for its burgeoning youth population. Presently, approximately 60% of Africa's populace is under 25, marking a demographic reality characterized by a substantial youth bulge. Projections for the century's end are striking, foreseeing Africa's youth population (15-34 years) to surge by an astonishing +168%. In contrast, Europe's and Asia's youth populations are set to decline by -24.7% and -30.1%, respectively, by 2100, potentially leaving Africa with a youth population twice the entire population of Europe.
However, the promising demographic dividend of Africa's youth is starkly juxtaposed with a dearth of prospects. Education outcomes are deteriorating, and a disconcerting mismatch between education and business-demanded skills is more pronounced in Africa than in other regions. Economic prospects are grim, leading to heightened unemployment, informality, and the risk of migration or involvement in extremist groups and transnational criminal networks. Despite significant economic growth in Africa over the last decade, it has been primarily jobless, further exacerbating the burgeoning youth unemployment crisis.
As Africa grapples with this intricate challenge, the data speaks volumes. The continent's economic growth, while commendable, trails behind its demographic expansion. Between 2010 and 2026, Africa's population is anticipated to almost double, while its GDP per capita is projected to grow by only around one-third. By 2026, the EU's GDP per capita is expected to be more than 18 times larger than Africa's (and its population will remain the same or even shrink), emphasizing the economic disparities. In this milieu, African youth consistently identify unemployment as the paramount concern that their governments must urgently address. South Africa, boasting the continent's second-largest GDP, exemplifies the severity of the situation with a staggering 59.6% youth unemployment rate, painting a stark picture of the challenges that must be tackled to empower Africa's youth and redirect their potential away from migration-related risks.
As Africa braces for the future, the numbers paint a compelling picture of the impending youth employment challenge. By 2030, an estimated 30 million youths are expected to enter the African labour market annually, intensifying the pressure to generate adequate job opportunities. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, the disconnection between the demand and supply of employment is stark. While 18 million new jobs would be required each year to absorb new entrants into the labour market, only 3 million are currently being created. This widening gap highlights the urgent need for innovative solutions to address the impending youth employment crisis.
In confronting these challenges, Africa stands at a critical juncture, requiring comprehensive and innovative strategies to bridge the employment gap and equip its youth for the evolving demands of the job market. The urgency to address premature deindustrialization, invest in human capital, and prepare for the transformative impacts of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is paramount for sustainable and inclusive economic growth.
Framing migration as a threat and prioritising restrictions at all costs is counter-productive and worsens the conditions that drive people to migrate. This approach comes at severe costs to democracy, safety and lives. Meanwhile, most African migrants – including those forced to leave their homes and seek asylum – choose neighbouring countries on the continent to settle over destinations in Europe or the Middle East. In light of the formidable challenges posed by Africa's burgeoning youth population and the imperative to address the root causes of migration, the European Union stands at a pivotal crossroads. Rather than adopting an approach solely focused on curbing migration, the EU has a unique opportunity to craft a strategic vision that harnesses the potential of Africa's youth. By creating avenues for legal integration into the EU labour market, the Union can not only address its own demographic and labour force needs but also contribute significantly to the sustainable development of African nations. Strategic investments in education, skills development, and job creation initiatives can serve as the cornerstone of this collaborative effort, fostering a win-win scenario where African youth find meaningful opportunities and the EU secures a skilled and diverse workforce. This approach aligns with a vision of migration as a positive force for both continents, forging a path towards mutual prosperity and shared opportunities in the years to come.