By Steve Tametong, Ph.D & Martial Fabrice Eteme Ongono
Discovered in December 2019 in the small Chinese town of Wuhan, COVID-19 has gradually migrated and affected the whole world. At a time when the imminence of a vaccine is rekindling hopes of eradicating this deadly hydra, we have not finished assessing its impact and testing the new codes of human sociability it has imposed. In this case, African migration finds itself at a pandemic-proof crossroads. According to the International Organization for Migration, migration can be defined as: “The movement of people from their place of habitual residence, either across an international border or within a state” (IOM, 2019). Through this definition, it appears that migration includes both internal displacement and the movement of people between nations.
Traditionally, there are two types of migration: regular migration and irregular migration. The present reflection places particular emphasis on irregular migration. Irregular migration is the movement of people on the margins or in violation of migration policies that are structurally organized by States. This analysis aims to take stock of African migration to Europe in a context marked by the horrors of the coronavirus pandemic and the restriction of movement through closed state borders. Therefore, the whole question is to know whether irregular migration by land, sea, or any other means has been slowed down or accelerated in the time of COVID-19. By analyzing the data made available by the IOM and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, it appears that African migration has undergone a double dynamic that has been put to the test by COVID-19.
On the one hand, it has led to a considerable reduction in the irregular migration flow of populations from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe. On the other hand, it has accelerated the irregular migration movement from the Maghreb to the West. The populations of this part of the continent saw this as an opportunity for better social welfare.
The Decrease in Migratory Flows From Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe
Two indicators make it possible to measure the decrease in migratory flows from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe under the COVID-19 test: the return of migrants to their respective countries and the subsequent discouragement of potential migrants.
The dismantling of the economic and social fabric of the transit countries under the effect of the COVID-19 led many migrants to turn back for lack of jobs found locally and the necessary means of subsistence. Indeed, precarious jobs in transit countries help migrants make the small savings needed to pay the “transit fees” for crossing the Mediterranean. Stripped of all resources and discouraged by the increased surveillance at the borders of European countries, returning home has become the only plausible option. As an illustration, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mali were ranked in 2019 among the top 10 countries with the largest contingent of irregular migrants with 5,700; 4,200; 4,100; and 3,800 migrants respectively arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean (UNHCR, 2020, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/documents/download/74670). In 2020, these figures dropped considerably due to the occurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, the number of Guinean migrants has halved to 2,320 migrants. From 4,200 migrants in Côte d’Ivoire, the number of migrants in 2020 rose to 3,346. In contrast to Mali, where the number of migrants just went from 3,800 to 3,078 migrants, the Democratic Republic of Congo offers the most considerable decrease. From 4,100 migrants in 2019, it simply totals 951 migrants in 2020 (UNHCR, 2021, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/mediterranean). This unexpected return of migrants discourages potential ‘adventurers’ obsessed with the dream of the stranger. The narration of the misadventures and atrocities of the journey in a context marked by COVID-19 has the merit of dissuading the most zealous to the point where migration from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe seems to have genuinely decreased. This is not the case for migrants from North Africa.
The Increase of Maghrebi Migrants
The increase in the number of Maghrebi migrants in the Mediterranean relates to the opportunity that migration in COVID-19 times represents the despair generated by the loss of jobs. Firstly, migration is considered by some Maghrebians as a godsend for employment in Europe. The search for seasonal work is one of the determinants of migration from the Maghreb to Europe. The territorial proximity of Maghreb Africa to Europe means that Maghreb migrants are used to doing seasonal work in Europe. This proximity reduces the journey of a Maghreb compared to a sub-Saharan who has to spend more money and brave the risks of the adventure. In Spain, for example, migrants from Morocco work there seasonally. Europe’s economic recovery will require more labor. Maghrebian migrants consider themselves as this labor force necessary for Europeans during the COVID-19. This explains this rush of Maghrebi migrants to Europe.
The economies of the Maghreb countries, like those of other African countries, are in a recession because of COVID-19. The malaise of the Maghreb economies is at the root of the increase in unemployment in this region of Africa. The search for improved living conditions is necessary for Maghreb migrants to meet their needs. Moreover, among the African migrants declared in 2020, Tunisians, Algerians, and Moroccans comprise the most significant number (IOM, 2021 https://missingmigrants.iom.int/region/mediterranean). In 2019, Tunisia and Algeria counted precisely 3,900 and 6,100 migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean. On the other hand, in 2020, these migrant figures are clearly on the increase. Thus, in 2020, Tunisia and Algeria respectively recorded 13,264 and 9,120 migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean.
In the end, the curve of migratory flows from Africans to Europe experienced a double dynamic that was put to the test by the COVID-19. While it was seized as an opportunity by Africans from the Maghreb, it considerably slowed down the migratory flow of Africans from the South Sahara. Far from encouraging it, one of the solutions to illicit migration flows lies in the implementation by States of employment policies in favor of young people. Creating these opportunities will allow the emergence of young talent motivated by innovation and structural transformation in Africa.
Steve TAMETONG is the Deputy Director of Democracy and Governance Division at the Nkafu Policy Institute of the Denis & Lenora Foundation. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Law from Dschang University. He also holds a Ph.D. in Governance and Regional Integration from the Institute of Governance, Humanities and Social Sciences of the Pan-African University (African Union).