African migration is a ‘generational’ issue, say UN officials

The raw numbers of migrants may have fallen, but the migration of many African youth to Europe is set to continue. That is the message from top officials in the UN Development Programme.. [Fabian Melber/Flickr]

The raw numbers of migrants may have fallen but the migration of many African youth to Europe is set to continue. That is the message from top officials in the UN Development Programme.

The UNDP launched its ‘Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular Migrants to Europe’ report earlier this month, based on the testimonies of almost 2,000 migrants from 39 African countries in 13 European nations, in a bid to shine a spotlight on the motivations that drove their journey, and their experiences once in Europe.

“A lot of policy is being made on the basis of emotions and perceptions rather than evidence and this surprised us because there is a huge commitment of assets and resources to migration,” Ahunna Eziakonwa, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of UNDP Africa, told EURACTIV.

“What the UNDP is saying is that if this is so important a topic to the EU it’s worth trying to gather some evidence that can at least guide policy,” she added.

That appears to be a tall order. According to Eurobarometer polls ahead of May’s European elections, some 40% of Europeans considered immigration to be one of the two most important issues facing the EU.

The survey does not include those who said they had fled their homes because of war or political persecution. This reduced the sample group to those Africans who were looking for a better life in Europe but were not allowed to do so because of European immigration laws.

“You have to look at the question of legal pathways. There is no way of getting around this. And legal pathways that are not based on philanthropy but based on what kind of migrants Europe needs. That debate has to start,” Eziakonwa said.

Mohamed Yayha, the lead author of the UNDP report, said Europe’s leaders risk creating a vicious cycle by not doing more to encourage legal pathways for migrants.

The result is that “people come irregularly and then you are creating an environment of anxiety among European citizens because nobody wants people to come to their country who they do not know and who have no papers.”

“Essentially, you are creating a vicious cycle of lose-lose for Europe and Africa,” he added.

“Migration and migrants have been discussed everywhere but it’s been more about the tyranny of numbers. Policymakers “forget that there are stories behind each number,” she adds, reminding of the ongoing human tragedy of would-be migrants dying on the way to Europe.

“We’ve lost more than 30,000 (people) in the Mediterranean Sea and everywhere else and we will never know their stories.”

Part of the purpose of the report was in “helping people to understand that these are human beings and that their aspirations and dreams are very human,” says Eziakonwa.

“We need to understand who they were before they left and who they are currently in Europe and what their dreams are.”

Migrants tend to be “urbanised, slightly better educated,” says Eziakonwa. “They are looking for hope elsewhere,” she adds.

The vast majority of those surveyed were between 20 and 29 years old when they left for Europe, and 71% were from West Africa, primarily Nigeria and Senegal. 58% held down jobs in their home countries, earning wages that were higher than the national average, or were in education.

“The core message arising from this study, that migration is a reverberation of uneven development and particularly of a development trajectory that is failing young people, sends a strong signal to policymakers,” wrote Achim Steiner, the Administrator of UNDP, in a forward to the report.

Uneven trade

Yayha told EURACTIV, that unequal trade relations between the EU and Africa are one of the root causes of emigration.

“Essentially the report says that the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world has to be more holistic in that it cannot be deduced solely to aid. It needs to be an equal partnership which involves looking at a host of other issues like trade,” said Yahya, who is the Resident Representative of UNDP Nigeria.

“Africa’s slow-paced growth is partly also related to Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world on trade. You can’t add value to your resources. For example, if I start processing coffee and chocolate the taxes and tariffs go up because Europe protects its own industries in those areas,” he added.

That reflects the criticism many African leaders and regional blocs have for the Economic Partnership Agreements offered by the EU which, they argue, forces African countries to open up their markets but does not allow them the space to build up local industries.

The result is that African states tend to export raw materials rather than finished products.

For its part, the United States’ government suspended Rwanda from its tariff-free African Growth and Opportunity Act and threatened the other members of the East African Community with trade sanctions after they decided to impose tariffs on imported US clothing as part of a drive to develop their local textiles industry.

“We are quite well positioned to tell both sides that the status quo works for nobody. Africa is losing its most dynamic people,” said Yayha.

“For Europe the report says: first have a different kind of relationship with Africa and those discussions have started, but also that these young people will continue to come in the short-term, and what are you going to do about it.”

Although the migration numbers are down, Yayha believes the flight of African youth to Europe is going to be a generational issue.

“If Africa as a continent sustains growth of 10-11% over a decade then the situation will change because people will find opportunities in their own countries,” he said.

“But that is not happening. The growth is anaemic. I live in Nigeria where growth is 1.9%, it is nowhere close to meeting the demands of people,” he added.

Partnership built on respect

For much of the Jean-Claude Juncker Commission, European governments were deadlocked over plans to overhaul the bloc’s migration and asylum policies, with debate focused almost exclusively on reducing migrant numbers.

But both Eziakonwa and Yayha believe that the environment for debate on migration policy is in a better place and welcome the remarks made by incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who has appointed Jutta Urpilainen to the International Partnerships portfolio, itself a sign of changing attitudes in the EU institutions.

“Build a partnership based on respect. Short-term fixes on policy are not going to get us there,” said Eziakonwa.

Africa’s burden

Given Europe’s preoccupation with migration control, it is easy to forget that more than 80% of African migration is within the continent.

Eziakonwa said Europe should “recognise that African countries on behalf of the world are also hosting a lot of displaced people. Ethiopia one million, Uganda one million, Kenya 600,000 – there are 2.6 million people in three countries that could ill-afford to host those numbers of people, compare that to the numbers in Europe.”

“You could argue that there is a difference between refugees and economic migrants, but the fact is that some of these less well-to-do countries have a refugee burden on a scale that no European country has ever seen,” she said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe

Want to know what's going on in the EU Capitals daily? Subscribe now to our new 9am newsletter.