Rethinking how to address irregular migration from Africa

Rethinking how to address irregular migration from Africa

Rethinking how to address irregular migration from Africa
Ivory Coast nationals living in Tunisia and seeking repatriation, wait outside the embassy of Ivory Coast in Tunis. (Reuters)
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Irregular migration from Africa has been a growing concern since the mid-2000s and continues to dominate news headlines. According to the International Organization for Migration, 40,868 migrants attempted the dangerous journey from West Africa to the Canary Islands in 2023. Of these, 39,910 reached their destination, more than double the number recorded in 2022.
The resurgence of irregular migration, particularly from West Africa and other parts of Africa, underscores the urgent need to understand and address its root causes. While most African migration occurs within the continent, the increasing trend of irregular migration to Europe is characterized by severe human rights violations, significant loss of life and economic inefficiencies in migrants’ home countries, as well as in transit and destination countries.
Political instability, macroeconomic shocks, violent conflict and a lack of opportunity often fuel migration pressures. In recent years, these issues have been compounded by climate change, which has exacerbated food and water insecurity and destroyed lives and livelihoods. With rising debts squeezing African governments’ already-strained budgets and undermining poverty-reduction efforts, many Africans risk perilous journeys in search of a better life abroad.
Tackling irregular migration requires creating conditions for a fulfilling life in Africa. Empowering young Africans, in particular, is critical to reducing irregular migration. In many African societies, success is often associated with relatives who have migrated, leaving those who stay behind feeling marginalized. This form of “social death” drives more people to migrate, despite the risks.
But while irregular migration flows from Africa to Europe continue, a growing number of young diaspora Africans are returning to the continent, viewing it as a land of opportunity and showing that migration, if it is well managed, can be beneficial. By tapping into the diaspora’s great potential, young Africans can gain money, skills, knowledge and experience, which they can bring back and invest in their communities, fostering economic and social development and in the process helping to redefine success within potential migrants’ home countries.
To restore hope, improving young people’s job prospects is crucial. A 2019 policy research document by the African Development Bank estimated that, to accommodate its growing population and keep unemployment rates from rising, Africa would need to add nearly 1.7 million jobs per month until 2063.
With 70 percent of its population under the age of 30, sub-Saharan Africa’s demographic dividend represents an immense opportunity, especially as developed economies grapple with aging populations. But this opportunity will materialize only if young people have good jobs, adequate social protection systems and decent living conditions.
Although education systems across Africa have improved, the continent’s young people still suffer from a lack of marketable skills and limited access to financial assets, shortcomings that are exacerbated for young women by gender inequality. At the same time, increased connectivity has made young Africans more aware of opportunities elsewhere, raising their expectations and demands. 

Political instability, macroeconomic shocks, violent conflict and a lack of opportunity often fuel migration pressures.

Linguere Mously Mbaye

Against this background, the African Development Bank’s Jobs for Youth in Africa Strategy and Youth Entrepreneurship Investment Bank Initiative represent a positive step. Both initiatives aim to create jobs and foster entrepreneurship, thereby providing young Africans with the opportunities they need to thrive at home. Furthermore, investing in young people is a cross-cutting priority of the African Development Bank’s new 10-year strategy.
In addition to seeking economic opportunities, people often migrate in search of social justice and freedom. Young people, who make up most of Africa’s population, frequently find themselves economically and politically marginalized by older generations, which can generate frustration and social tensions that lead many young Africans to view migration as a form of emancipation.
To avoid this scenario, African countries must ensure that the concerns of young people are heard and that their ideas, creativity and experiences are valued. By harnessing younger citizens’ potential to drive positive change, African governments can create vibrant and resilient communities, mitigating the factors that drive irregular migration.
Addressing irregular migration effectively also requires a paradigm shift in how immigration policies are discussed, designed and implemented. Too often, destination countries devise these policies without considering migrants’ agency and backgrounds. Instead, policymakers should focus on young migrants’ needs and aspirations, ensuring that policy debates are grounded in evidence rather than ideologically driven rhetoric.
By bridging the gap between evidence and policymaking, both destination and transit countries can ensure that their policies are attuned to migrants’ specific needs, thereby encouraging legal migration pathways and reducing irregular migration pressures.
But the best way to tackle irregular migration is to provide potential migrants with viable, safe alternatives. To this end, African policymakers must focus on expanding the choices available to young people, providing them with the skills and opportunities needed to drive economic growth and sustainable development in Africa. If successful, these policy shifts could transform migration from an act of despair into a deliberate choice that benefits all: migrants, their home countries and destination countries.

Linguere Mously Mbaye is principal fragility and resilience officer at the African Development Bank Group.
©Project Syndicate

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