German-Polish European BLOG

“I bless the rains down in Africa”. Migrations from Africa to Europe

  1. migrants of Africa

Most of EU citizens see the migration crisis of 2015 as a one-off event. However, mass migration is a part of human history – and Poland with its massive diasporas in the U.S., Canada or France is a good example. The upcoming decades may see historical movements of population especially from Africa caused by a mix of poverty, development disparities, and climate change. How could EU respond to these challenges through its migration policy?

Wojciech Wilk*

According to the current demographic projections drawn by the United Nations, in 2100 Africa will be inhabited by some 4 billion people (currently: 1.2 billion). Nigeria will become the third most populous country in the world with 750 million (currently: 190 million). Niger, where arable and pasture land constitutes only 11% of the country’s territory, will reach 200 million inhabitants (currently: 20 million). As such, those people will need billions of new job opportunities in order to escape poverty. However, the situation of the labor markets is already bleak for most African countries. For example, in Kenya, some 1 million people join the workforce every year, but the economy is only able to generate 200,000 new jobs. Consequently, there is a general feeling of social backsliding in these countries. The high unemployment of young people and lack of prospects are the two major factors that influence the African societies today and can explain the phenomenon of migration or radicalization.

Climate change

Climate change will also affect population movements. While Central and Northern Europe will benefit from climate change, with an expected increase of agricultural production (25-50%), African cereal crops will experience a significant decrease. This issue, combined with population growth, could be dramatic for the African continent. And so while in the 2100s the population in the developed countries may dream of space travel and the colonization of Mars, several countries in Africa may face recurrent famines due to overpopulation and insufficient agricultural production, further impacted by the climate change. Hunger, possible conflicts over land and water, and high levels of unemployment and poverty are bound to contribute to levels of migration that may be unprecedented in human history.

European labor market

The economies of the European Union need to add hundreds of thousands of new employees every year to fill in the posts vacated by an aging population. However, the  unmanaged and unofficial migration it faces today is not the recipe to address these challenges. Surprisingly, a high number of Syrian refugees arriving in Germany have university and doctoral degrees, as it is the well-educated elite that fled the war. This doesn’t however apply to other groups of migrants. In Sub-Saharan Africa even secondary school graduation rates are very low. While some 50% of young Nigerians complete secondary education, this rate drops to 2%, 4% and 9% in Niger, Burkina Faso and Senegal respectively. Undoubtedly, the European economy will not need a large migrant workforce with limited skillsets in the future. Unqualified labor is being increasingly substituted by robots and computers (e.g. driverless cars or self-checkout in supermarkets).
On the other hand, an aging population and the high-tech EU economies are in need of migration that can support it with employees that are adequately educated and resourceful enough to quickly enter the job market. Here is where the European Union migration policy falters. While political attention is focused on irregular migration, there are hardly any channels open to address the specific needs of the labor markets with a legal and organized migration. Interestingly, in 2016, the highest number of resident permits for non-EU citizens was issued in the UK (866,000) and Poland (585,000). 84% of the migrants coming to Poland did so for employment-related reasons, while 56% of the migrants arriving in Germany in 2016 gave “other reasons”, mainly asylum or refugee status. European Commission’s “Blue Card” policy, facilitating entry of third-country nationals for the purposes of highly qualified employment is, at best, underutilized. Instead of qualified migrants, who arrive in Europe legally and in a dignified manner, the European Union is a destination for a massive illegal immigration, organized by smugglers, mafias and terrorist groups selling wild dreams to desperate populations, abusing them on the way, and placing them on boats that sink in the Mediterranean.

diagram: top countries of IDP

Source: UNHCR

Asylum system and refugees

Arguably, a very liberal interpretation of the international refugee law and Europe’s own asylum laws pave the way for illegal migration. The 1951 refugee convention states that illegal crossing of international boundaries should not be penalized when a refugee is fleeing a country where he/she is actively persecuted. However, the interpretation of this law gives this person up to one month to file for refugee status, while it takes not more than a few days to cross some countries on foot. Prima facie refugee status – a legal tweak to grant refugee status to almost any person fleeing some of the war-torn countries – is used by those refugees as a virtual entitlement to migrate and request asylum in a country of their choosing.
Also, personal experience impacts how Western and Eastern Europeans perceive the border and illegal border crossing, whether it is a human right or a breach of law. While the majority of Western Europeans have for decades traveled freely across European borders, my generation of Eastern Europeans still remembers borders as physical barriers, being reinforced with barb wires and concrete barricades. Finally, the EU does not have valid readmission agreements with any of the African countries, with the exception of Cape Verde. In parallel, organized destruction of identity documents hampers authorities’ efforts to extradite migrants to their countries of origin in case of asylum refusal. As a result, illegal migrants arriving in Europe expect at least few months-, if not a few years-long stay, even if found not eligible for asylum, instead of being returned to their country of origin or a safe third country without delay. This situation led the European Union leaders to consider placing “hotspots” on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, but none of these countries is willing to collaborate.

Three principles

EU migration policy needs to be based on three principles:
a) the EU needs to accept more legal migrants to address shortages in its employment market.
b) Migration challenges will not be resolved within Europe or on its borders. In order to manage these processes, Europe’s best interest would be served by addressing the root causes of migration in Africa, notably unemployment and the possible impact of climate change.
c) Liberal and conservative camps in Europe need to come out from their entrenched positions on migration and cooperate.

*Wojciech Wilk is Chief Executive Officer of the Polish Centre for International Aid (PCPM).
Illustration from