Middle East Notes and Comment: Maghreb Migration: Ready or Not
December 7, 2018
Maghreb Migration: Ready or Not: North African governments need to look beyond security-centered policies aimed at blocking illegal migration and harness its potential rewards.
Santa Claus is Coming to Tehran: Iranians of all faiths gather annually to admire Christmas trees and Santa figurines, but their government sends a strong message that other Western-style holidays will not be tolerated.
New Report: The Gulf Scramble for Africa: The CSIS Middle East Program released a new report by Will Todman that explores Arab Gulf states' interventions, and rivalries, in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the Media: Jon Alterman spoke with The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other outlets about developments in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
By Haim Malka
Nearly 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.
Last December, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted, “A very happy and peaceful Christmas to all” and that he hoped that “Christ’s universal message be embraced.”
Christmas is a big deal in Iran. It is not only celebrated by Iran’s small Christian communities, but also by tens of millions of Muslims who consider Jesus a prophet. While the Islamic Republic normally bristles at foreign influence, Iranians embrace almost every trope of Western celebrations of Christmas: fir trees and wreaths, strings of lights, and Santa figurines line the streets and shop windows of major Iranian cities in the run-up to December 25.
Other secularized Christian holidays, though, such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day, are out of bounds. Rebellious teens don costumes every October 31 to the consternation of authorities. On February 14, restaurants fill with young couples celebrating, and house parties rock until late in the evening. Security services are on the lookout for businesses promoting the holidays, but public enthusiasm continues unabated.
And despite the Christmas cheer, Christians in Iran face stiff restrictions. At least 193 Protestant Christians were arrested in 2016 as presumed converts to Western denominations. Staunch efforts to prevent conversions among Muslims mandate Armenians and Assyrians to check identification at churches to prevent Muslims from entering.
But the restrictions do little to dampen the warm hospitality on the Armenian streets of major Iranian cities every December. There, Muslims and non-Muslims alike line up in droves to find the perfect tree while sipping traditional Armenian coffee from decidedly untraditional Santa Claus mugs.
This article is part of the CSIS Middle East Program series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.
In a recent report from CSIS’s Middle East Program, “The Gulf Scramble for Africa: GCC states’ foreign policy laboratory,” Associate Fellow Will Todman explores Arab Gulf states’ interventions in sub-Saharan Africa as they seek to capitalize on economic opportunities and protect their security interests. He argues that the interventions are part of their strategy to prove their rising status on the world stage. The paper highlights the dangers of Gulf states’ zero-sum rivalry provoking retaliations, which have destabilized vulnerable parts of Africa. Read the full report HERE.
Jon Alterman spoke with The Wall Street Journal about the implications of the CIA’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 11/18/18
Jon Alterman also spoke with The Guardian, The Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times about Mohammed bin Salman’s attendance of the G20 summit. 11/20/18 and 11/29/18
The Associated Press interviewed Jon Alterman about President Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia and a foreign policy rift in the Republican Party. 11/21/18
In an interview with The New York Times, Jon Alterman said “For the next two years, Saudi Arabia is going to get beaten up in public by its chief ally, which is a problem for a country that has bet its entire future on a partnership with the U.S.” 11/27/18