What factors will influence migration across the Mediterranean today and in the future?

By Reiner Klingholz and Stephan Sievert

The key points

Strong population growth in Africa and the Middle East

Unlike in Europe, populations in the southern and eastern Mediterranean are still growing strongly. In North, West, Central and East Africa and in the Middle East – where the countries of origin of most potential migrants to the EU are located – the number of people is likely to more than double by 2050, to reach a total of over 2.7 billion. Yet population growth is only one reason behind the growing pressure for people to migrate from these regions to Europe.

Many factors lead to migration

Migration results from a complex interaction of many different factors. One is the enormous wealth, security and development gap between the EU and the regions in question. Around 60 percent of the African population live on less than two US dollars a day. The average per capita income (when adjusted for purchasing power) is around eight times lower than in the EU. Africa and the Middle East are home to most of the world’s least developed states. Yet we should bear in mind that migrants to Europe are not these nations’ poorest citizens but rather those equipped with the knowledge, resources and opportunities required to emigrate. Thus migrants from Africa and the Middle East rarely originate from among the poor rural population; they are much more likely to be members of the better-educated urban middle classes.

Unlike Asia and Latin America, Africa and the Middle East are scarcely able to use the economic potential offered by their very young populations. Here the world’s biggest youth surplus coincides with the highest rates of underemployment. Because there are not nearly enough jobs for the strongly growing population of young people entering the job market, discontent among young people is rising and with it the danger of social and armed conflict. This in turn is a major reason for the recent rapid increase in numbers of refugees from these regions.

Political crises as a main reason for growing numbers of refugees

The migrants from Africa and the Middle East come mainly from crisis states like Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia. As a rule they enter Europe not through regular immigration channels but as asylum seekers and refugees. In most cases applying for asylum hinges on first finding a way to cross the EU’s external borders illegally. In 2014, 200,000 people are expected to have unlawfully entered the EU.

Migration pressure increasing

It is considered likely that the pressure to migrate will continue to increase. This supposition is based not only on steadily continuing population growth but also on the rapid urbanisation process and fundamentally positive economic developments in Africa and the Middle East. Only in this way can an urban middle class emerge that is in a position to organise and finance emigration at all. For the same reasons, improvements in education also raise the migration potential.

It is to be feared that the security situation in Africa and the Middle East will continue to deteriorate. As Sudan and Syria have shown, fragile states may fail, a fate possibly soon to be shared by Iraq or Libya. One consequence of state failure is that people are driven out or forced to flee from their homes. The latter usually results initially in internal displacement, but then spills over into neighbouring states and leads with a certain time lag to rising numbers of asylum seekers and economic refugees arriving in the EU. Environmental crises and climate change, by contrast, have so far produced regional migration flows but few international ones.

Political challenges

The high rate of irregular migration, the mixture of motives for migrating and the growing pressure on the EU’s external borders pose a multitude of challenges for the EU. In the medium term there will simply be no solution to the problems that have led to rising migration pressure. Precisely for this reason both Germany and the EU require a strategic concept for their policies on asylum, refugees, development aid and immigration that, firstly, can respond flexibly to crises and new, unforeseen developments; secondly, will improve the prospects of countries’ in the Middle East and Africa becoming economically strong enough to drive their own development; and thirdly, will cover the rising requirements of European labour markets. In addition, immigration must be organised in a socially acceptable manner, so that potential associated problems do not play into the hands of populist parties hostile to the EU.

The following points should be taken into account:

  • The EU should ensure that a standard asylum policy in the shape of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) becomes enshrined in national law and is implemented in practice. It should also find a fair way of distributing asylum seekers among the EU member states.
  • The EU member states should make it easier for asylum seekers to work while their applications are being processed. Fundamentally, this process should include informing asylum seekers about other existing immigration channels.
  • The European Border Protection Agency Frontex needs to be equipped with sufficient resources to prevent illegal border crossings and human trafficking. In addition, operation “Mare Nostrum”, until now led by Italy, should be continued with EU funding in order to ensure safety for refugees at sea.
  • In order to stop the work of gangs of smugglers organising illegal migration and human trafficking, the EU should cooperate more closely with those states from which migrants embark on Mediterranean crossings. In return the EU should offer these states a development partnership.
  • EU countries in need of immigrants should send clear signals to this effect to non-EU states and inform suitably qualified people of options to immigrate legally. Partnerships with individual countries would be a good way of launching projects designed to forge links between migration and development aid goals.
  • Growing migration pressure requires coordination between the many actors in the field of international migration. As a leading economic power Germany should become more involved in multilateral forums such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD).
  • If they are to take preventive action with respect to crises and refugee flows, the EU member states should be prepared to face up to their responsibilities concerning development aid and humanitarian issues. Alongside emergency humanitarian aid, the most important development measures would include improving healthcare and education systems, dismantling trade barriers, and the free development of the private sector. Efforts should focus on creating jobs for the growing numbers of young people. Such interventions have already been shown to stem strong population growth, which has a negative effect on a country’s development potential. The fact that better education and growing prosperity in the countries in question also raises migration potential should simply be tacitly accepted – not only because poor education and poverty are not viable alternatives, but also because more highly qualified migrants are precisely what Europe itself needs.
  • For this reason too, migration and population development should receive more attention in the forthcoming formulation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).




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