Maghreb Migration: Ready or Not
December 10, 2018Nearly every challenge related to migration converges in some way in the North African Maghreb. The region has exported migrants to Europe for decades and has been a transit zone for nearly one million people crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Europe from Africa in the last several years. Scenes of migrants reaching European shores have created a political crisis in Europe, but the real migration crisis ahead will be in North Africa. That might not be such a bad thing.
Looking forward, the mass movement of people in Africa will have profound effects on the social, economic, and political landscapes in the Maghreb and pose risks at a time when governments are struggling to address widespread popular grievances. But the trend could also create opportunities for growth and spark a new dynamism in the region. The challenge for governments is to look beyond security-centered policies aimed at blocking illegal migration and harness the potential rewards of integrating skilled labor from sub-Saharan Africa to address the Maghreb’s own brain drain.
Although more than 17,000 have died trying to cross the Mediterranean in search of a better life, a combination of trends in sub-Saharan Africa will create pressure for more people to leave their homes and attempt the journey northward. Africa’s population is expected to double in the next generation to more than two billion people; endemic conflicts have created millions of refugees; economic conditions and income remain among the lowest in the world; corruption and poor governance alienate and marginalize people; and the effects of climate change, including drought, will further restrict access to food, water, and jobs. All of these factors will continue forcing people from their homes in search of better opportunities.
While most accounts describe an influx of migrants into Europe, the majority of Africans fleeing their homes actually remain in Africa. And while most sub-Saharan African migrants who are currently in the Maghreb dream of reaching Europe, more are staying in North Africa, where, despite the numerous challenges, economic and security conditions are better than in their home countries. Changing asylum laws in Europe, combined with stronger security measures to prevent illegal departures from North Africa, will make the journey to Europe more difficult precisely as the pressures driving migration increase. Most governments in the Maghreb are not prepared to face this new reality.
The risks for Maghreb governments are clear. Beyond the economic costs of assisting with healthcare, housing, and education for migrants, the potential for disrupting fragile social balances is high. Migrants need jobs, which are already scarce, and their children need to attend schools. But providing migrants with jobs and benefits could enflame an already tense environment in the region. Most economies in the region are creating less than a third of the jobs needed every year to absorb new entrants into the job market. Under such conditions, racism and fear can rise, which politicians can exploit. The needs of migrants could, therefore, compound many of the socioeconomic grievances driving protests across the region.
These grievances, including high youth unemployment, are the same factors that have pushed Maghreb citizens to migrate legally and illegally to Europe in search of opportunity. For decades, the region has suffered a brain drain as many graduates seek higher salaries and opportunities in Europe and, increasingly, North America.
Since its 2011 revolution, more than 94,000 highly skilled Tunisians left the country, and more want to leave. In Morocco, which is trying to expand its technology and manufacturing industry, thousands of skilled workers including hundreds of engineers leave the country every year. Algeria has a widespread shortage of skilled laborers in the construction field and other sectors.
In many of these sectors, locals oftentimes lack the necessary skills or are unwilling to take available jobs because they are low wage or not considered prestigious enough. While the numbers ebb and flow depending on conditions in each country, the Maghreb’s brain drain will continue. Rebuilding these sectors with educated migrants won’t solve the Maghreb’s youth unemployment problem or ease social protest, but it could help improve basic services including healthcare and infrastructure which are an ongoing source of frustration.
Counter to public perceptions, many sub-Saharan migrants traveling to and through North Africa are not poverty-stricken but educated people. In fact, it is not the poor who tend to migrate, but upwardly mobile people with ambitions and income to pay for the expensive journey. The opportunity for governments is therefore to articulate migration policies which attract educated migrants from sub-Saharan Africa with specific skills to fill sectors that lack capable workforces.
Beyond new skills, migrants can bring new ideas. The United States has been defined by migration. Despite it recently emerging as a divisive political issue, America’s creativity, entrepreneurship, and dynamism have been the result of multiple waves of migration. Centuries ago, the Maghreb emerged as a culturally and intellectually advanced region precisely because it was a crossroads of migration. Today, migration could become a part of the effort to modernize and integrate North Africa into the global economy. Given the Maghreb’s own experience as a source of migration to Europe, governments and people in the region should have a unique understanding of the challenges and opportunities.
Some countries in the region are thinking more strategically about the issue. Morocco—like its neighbors—has used a security-driven approach at times, but it has also granted legal status to more than 40,000 migrants living in the country and is in the process of overhauling legislation to protect the rights of migrants and asylum seekers. It has made important strides, but much of the critical legislation remains stalled in parliament.
Those governments with the vision and the confidence to manage the risks stand to gain. The biggest question is whether governments and societies are ready for a shift in mentality that challenges long-held stereotypes and accepts people from other cultures. Whether they are ready or not, governments and people in the Maghreb will have to answer this question. Their future will depend on it.
(This commentary originally appeared in the December issue of Middle East Notes and Comment, a newsletter of the CSIS Middle East Program.)
Haim Malka is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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