Maghreb Roundtable: The Maghreb as a Migration Source, Transit Point, and Destination
The Maghreb region has been a migration source and transit point for decades. Now, changing dynamics could make the Maghreb an increasingly important destination for immigration. To discuss the impact of shifting migration patterns on Maghreb countries, Kirsten Schuettler, a senior program officer at the World Bank, and Anaïs Elbassil, the then-Tunis-based manager of Mercy Corps’s migration program in Mali, Niger, and Tunisia, spoke at a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) roundtable titled “The Maghreb as a Migration Source, Transit Point, and Destination” on September 27, 2017.
Maghreb governments have long used emigration to relieve excess labor capacity and reduce poverty through remittances.
Emigration routes from the Maghreb to Europe are well worn and represent an important social and economic factor in the Maghreb. In the years following Maghreb states’ independence, Europe welcomed temporary North African migrants who filled labor shortages. Today, five to ten percent of Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians are migrants, living mostly in Europe, Schuettler noted. Maghreb governments have long used emigration to relieve excess labor capacity and reduce poverty through remittances. In Morocco, for example, remittances account for some seven percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Maghreb emigrant communities also bring home “social remittances” that over time have influenced political and cultural attitudes, Schuettler argued.
In recent years, destinations for Maghreb emigration have changed in several ways, as has the profile of migrants. Migration has become less circular since the end of the guest worker programs and the introduction of a stricter visa regime with the creation of the Schengen Area in Europe. Those who reach Europe tend to stay more permanently. Opportunities for migration to North American and Gulf Arab states have also expanded. Yet, as legal pathways to Europe have constricted, illegal entry and residence in Europe by Maghreb nationals has also risen. Many overstay visas or remain in Europe after being refused asylum. Schuettler noted that overall emigration flows from some Maghreb countries decreased after the 2008 financial crisis—with Moroccan emigration slowing from roughly 170,000 in 2008 to around 100,000 in 2015. However, aspirations to emigrate remain strong, especially among youth. There are signs this migratory pressure is translating into some renewed movement in 2017 as Europe’s border agency Frontex has reported an increase in Tunisian, Algerian, and Moroccan nationals among irregular arrivals in Spain and Italy. The number of Tunisians arriving on Italy’s shores in the first nine months of 2017, for example, was more than double those recorded in all of 2016.
European efforts to patrol Libya’s coast have prompted some [transit] migrants to shift west.
The Maghreb has also historically been a transit point for sub-Saharan African migrants fleeing conflict or seeking economic opportunity in Europe. These flows have accelerated since the breakdown of Libya’s central government in 2011. In the following five years, the vast majority of migrants crossing irregularly into Europe from North Africa transited through “the Central Mediterranean route.” Flows there are significant. In 2016, of roughly 182,000 migrants recorded along the Central Mediterranean route, 89 percent departed from Libya. However, European efforts to patrol Libya’s coast have prompted some migrants to shift west. The route to Spain via Morocco, or less commonly Algeria, is witnessing a sharp uptick in traffic. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported nearly 17,500 arrivals in Spain in the first nine months of 2017, nearly double the number recorded in the same period in 2016. Departures from Tunisia to Italy are also rising—the Tunisian coast guard detected 900 departure attempts in September 2017, compared to just 170 the prior month.
Sub-Saharan migrants, many of whom resort to work in the informal sector in North Africa to save money for the sea crossing to Europe, are increasingly staying longer in the Maghreb. This raises challenges not only for vulnerable migrant populations, but also for Maghreb governments grappling with the economic and social impact of hosting them in greater numbers. According to Elbassil, challenges for migrants in Tunisia include negative perceptions of some of the local population towards them and exclusion from formal labor markets. A weekly fine on illegal stays in Tunisia further incentivizes some migrants to leave the country—and forces those unable to afford a sea fare or exit fee into a state of limbo.
As migrants continue to flow northward and Europe tightens its borders, the Maghreb’s appeal as a destination could broaden.
Looking forward, key questions include whether the Maghreb will become a more attractive destination for sub-Saharan migrants, and how Maghreb governments will respond. Education partnerships with sub-Saharan African countries have brought students to Tunisia and Morocco since the early 2000s, Elbassil pointed out. Work opportunities in areas such as Algeria’s construction industry also attract labor migrants. As migrants continue to flow northward and Europe tightens its borders, the Maghreb’s appeal as a destination could broaden.
In response to these shifts, Maghreb governments have begun to rethink their approaches to migration. Morocco has made “a radical departure from the [previous] stricter security-based approach,” Schuettler contended, and three draft bills regarding immigration, asylum, and trafficking have been introduced to parliament to replace the 2003 immigration law. Morocco’s revised policy is partly informed by its Africa outreach strategy, which seeks to strengthen Morocco’s diplomatic and economic role in Africa. In 2014 and 2015, Morocco’s government “regularized” the status of over 25,000 migrants by giving them residency, and it is currently undertaking a second regularization campaign. Tunisia has also been rethinking its migration framework since 2011, Elbassil observed. While a national migration strategy and asylum law have yet to be fully put in place, new policies such as a 2016 anti-trafficking law have been successfully implemented. Algeria is also debating how to address the challenge, but its approach beyond law-enforcement responses has been less clear.
Concerns over the political and diplomatic consequences of meeting Europe’s expectations constrain progress on the full adoption of new policies.
While migration occupies a higher place on Maghreb policymakers’ agendas, competing pressures complicate the implementation of new policies, the speakers explained. Legal frameworks have stalled in every country. Absent an asylum law, UNHCR still conducts refugee determinations in Morocco. In Tunisia, Elbassil noted, “antiquated” laws criminalize both entry and departure and deny migrants access to labor permits. Balancing between migration and other priorities has also proven difficult. Tunisia’s government seeks European aid, yet it is weary of yielding to European pressure to readmit third-country nationals who crossed irregularly from Tunisia into Europe, Elbassil argued. Thus, while monetary assistance and policy support from the European Union is attractive, concerns over the political and diplomatic consequences of meeting Europe’s expectations constrain progress on the full adoption of new policies.
While governments are grappling with policy, public debate has intensified across the Maghreb since 2011, the speakers agreed. Civil society groups have brought issues of migrant rights and protections to the public agenda. Focusing on migrants’ skills and economic contributions to the Maghreb could help foster more positive attitudes towards migration among local populations, Schuettler suggested. Doing so, however, requires a push at the national level to counter negative stereotypes and biases towards migrants. More broadly, addressing structural challenges of rising migration to the region will require the Maghreb to reckon with its identity as both a source and destination of migration.
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