The African Clandestine Migration Between European Facts and Policies

Clandestine migration from Africa to Europe has been a prominent issue in recent decades. Hundreds of thousands of African migrants and refugees make perilous journeys across the Mediterranean each year in hopes of reaching European shores. This phenomena is driven by a confluence of factors – poverty, violence, climate change, lack of opportunity, and more. Meanwhile, European governments struggle to balance humane policies with border control amidst rising anti-immigrant sentiments. This complex situation raises many ethical and practical challenges regarding facts, policies and human lives.

Background on African Migration to Europe

Migration from Africa to Europe has a long history, but took on new dimensions after World War II. During the 1950s-70s, post-war rebuilding and labor shortages led European nations like France, Germany and Britain to recruit migrant laborers from former colonies in North and Sub-Saharan Africa. These migrants were seen as temporary guest workers, but many settled permanently (De Hass 2014).

In the 1980s-90s, family reunification, conflicts and environmental issues spurred further migration from Africa. However, restrictive policies increasingly limited legal migration options. This laid the groundwork for current clandestine migration, as aspiring migrants turn to unauthorized channels (Klepp 2010).

Four key routes for irregular African migration to Europe exist today:

  • Western Mediterranean route (morocco to Spain)
  • Central Mediterranean route (Tunisia/Libya to Italy/Malta)
  • Apulia and Calabria route (Turkey/Albania to Italy)
  • Western African route (West African coast to Spain/Portugal) (Frontex 2019)

The Central Mediterranean route from North Africa saw particular growth after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. But the journey is perilous – 2,276 migrants died crossing the Mediterranean in 2018 (IOM 2018).

Demographic and Development Factors

Various demographic and developmental factors drive irregular migration from Africa.

  • High population growth in many African countries means large numbers of working-age youths with limited domestic opportunities (Owoaje et al 2016).
  • Chronic poverty and unemployment, with over 40% of people in sub-Saharan Africa living in extreme poverty (UN 2019).
  • Environmental degradation and resource pressures related to climate change are impacting farming and livelihoods (Wodon et al 2014).
  • Ongoing conflicts, human rights abuses, and lack of political freedom in parts of Africa compel people to seek security abroad (Flahaux and De Hass 2016).
  • Established African diasporas in Europe provide migration networks and opportunities lacking at home (Lessault and Beauchemin 2009).
  • Pervasive perceptions of Europe as a land of peace, jobs and prosperity act as a migration pull, fueled by globalization and media (Klepp 2010).

These dynamics ensure continuing migration pressures despite the risks. For young Africans facing poverty or violence, possible European opportunities appear worth pursuing (Mbaye 2014).

European Policy Responses

European nations have implemented various policies to curb clandestine migration from Africa. But approaches have often been fragmented and shifting.

  • Spain has sought bilateral agreements with African nations like Senegal to increase border policing, prosecute smugglers and repatriate migrants (Arditis 2016). Italy has done similarly with Libya (Paoletti 2011).
  • The EU has also attempted to leverage development aid and trade accords with African states to facilitate harsher migration controls and re-admission policies (Reslow 2012).
  • Militarized naval operations in the Mediterranean aim to disrupt migrant smuggling operations and prevent loss of life, but have faced criticism (McMahon and Sigona 2018).
  • Expanded border fences in the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla attempt to block land crossings (Zaiotti 2016).
  • Increased surveillance of EU external borders and coastlines monitors unauthorized movements (European Council 2020).

However, these suppression focused policies have had limited effects. Tighter controls often divert migrants to new hazardous routes rather than stopping movement altogether (De Hass 2008). Migrant smuggling networks also readily adapt to enforcement crackdowns (Sanchez 2015). More developmentally focused approaches have stalled due to African regimes’ reluctance to readily re-admit deported migrants and implement desired border controls (Reslow 2012).

While the EU has harmonized policies to some degree, national interests still dominate (Ucarer 2006). Migrant destination states like Italy and Greece have pushed for greater shared burdens. But wealthier Northern states have offered limited intra-EU relocation or resettlement programs (Hatton 2017).

Right wing and anti-immigrant populist movements are also ascendant across Europe, further complicating cohesive policy making (Goodwin and Eatwell 2018). Many advocates argue that suppressive policies contravene humanitarian obligations and principles of free movement (Walters 2002). Policies may also violate refugee rights if they fail to distinguish between true asylum seekers and economic migrants.

Key Ethical Debates

Three major ethical debates permeate the issue of African clandestine migration:

  1. Border Security vs. Human Rights

European governments maintain that restrictive policies are necessary for orderly, secure immigration systems. But critics argue militarized borders and harsh repatriation violate migrant rights and dignity (Walters 2002). Deaths at sea also challenge policy morality.

  1. State Sovereignty vs. Individual Agency

Some posit that states have a sovereign prerogative to control borders and determine membership. However, others say this overrides individuals’ right to migrate and seek opportunity (Carens 2013).

  1. Economic Utility vs. Justice

Policymakers justify restrictive policies by arguing states should admit migrants who benefit the economy. But many contend states have obligations to consider humanitarian needs and global inequity as well (Miller 2016).

These debates revolve around contested notions of states’ interests, human rights, global citizenship and more. There are no easy answers, but ethical policy demands grappling with fundamental moral questions.

Recommendations for Progress

The current stalemate on African clandestine migration requires creative new approaches. Some possible policy recommendations include:

  • Greater intra-EU responsibility sharing for processing and integrating migrants.
  • Increased legal migration opportunities, to undermine risky irregular channels.
  • Sustained investment in African development, to address root causes long-term.
  • Enhanced regional cooperation frameworks with African origin/transit states.
  • More robust search and rescue operations, to prevent Mediterranean deaths.
  • Information campaigns in Africa about migration realities, to balance perceptions.
  • Dedicated refugee resettlement programs, separate from general immigration.
  • Alternative legal migration categories like temporary worker visas.
  • Case-by-case regularization options for long-term irregular migrants.

Policies must balance state interests, public opinion, ethics and evidence on migration management. While solutions are challenging, sustainable progress requires policy innovation, regional partnership and development focused investments. With vision and courage, European and African leaders can potentially craft new models that uphold both human dignity and border integrity.


African clandestine migration to Europe has reached critical proportions, driven by complex demographic, developmental and geopolitical dynamics. European nations have implemented restrictive policies with limited success. Ethical debates center on balancing human rights, state sovereignty and moral obligations. Improving this intractable situation requires policy creativity, African partnership and addressing root causes. With pragmatic optimism, evidence-based policy and moral clarity, Europe can potentially manage migration challenges in a more ethical, constructive manner. But easy solutions are unlikely, as values and interests collide. Ultimately, navigating these difficult waters comes down to purposeful leadership, policy innovation and dialog across cultures.


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SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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