Migrant Crisis: Subsaharan Africa to North Africa

North Africa (NA), is made up of five countries with demographic, geographical and regional disparities: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. In terms of regional organizations, four of these five countries (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) are members of the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU), frozen since 1994. All countries in this region strongly claim their dimensions and African “depths”.

For years now sub-Saharan Africans have been traveling North, whether it’s to seek refuge from civil unrest or escape living disadvantages that their nation has been victim to. This situation has been subject to much controversy amongst the diaspora, but rarely is it understood in such angles: historical, political, and economic. The humanitarian aspect is a given: The right to safety is unalienable. 

We are left with a question: Is North Africa the final destination, or is it Europe? How does this affect all parties involved?

Similarities between the countries in respect to the migrant crisis:

  • The predominance of certain destinations: Europe through the Maghreb
    •  Two countries play the role of major axes for the passage of migrants: Tunisia and Morocco (The reason is obvious: neighborhood with Europe).
  • The geographical and migratory “centrality” of Libya as a country

The Differences:

  • The massive nature of the departures of the issuing region (Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt) differs from country to country depending on destination
  • Egypt is mainly the destination of asylum seekers and refugees from the major poles of tension and war south of its borders: South Sudan, Darfur, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia
  • Libya has lost its importance as a migrant country of main destination for these groups since the mid-1980s.

The emigrants in Libya were regularly exposed to evictions, discrimination or ill-treatment on the part of the security forces. However labor requirements, on-site relationships and networks with local society by these migrant groups would have allowed them to survive and sometimes even escape eviction or checks. At this time, the Maghreb marked the beginning of a period, depending on the country, of fragility, instability and profound changes (demographic, social and economic) which had, among other things, regular flow and irregular migration to Europe.

Since the mid-1970s, Tunisian and Moroccan countries have been engaged in liberalization policies and economic reforms that were initially timid. During the mid-1980s, Tunisia and Morocco were confronted with serious financial and economic crises. Economic policies that have resulted in shock therapy through the implementation of structural adjustment plans under the IMF and the World Bank. The effects are now well known: shrinking public employment capacities by states facing fiscal deficits and rigorous policy requirements, deregulation of the labor market and precariousness of wage labor, redundancies and unemployment linked to privatization, etc.

The Maghreb economies made it difficult to generate growth rates sufficient to allow national labor markets to absorb the cumulative and additional demand for employment.

For Algeria and Libya, during the 15 years from the mid-1980s to the end of the last century, went through a context of high tensions, internal for Algeria and more international for Libya. Already in the early 1980s, the fall in oil prices sharply undermined the oil economies of these countries and, in turn, destabilized these rentier states.

The same economic difficulties have led the Libyan state to tighten its management of migration (mass expulsions of Subsaharan Africans in 1986), while the relations of the regime with its international environment had not stopped tensing and deteriorating (tensions with Tunisia and with European countries, indirect confrontation with France in Chad concerning the Aozou strip claimed by Libya, US bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986).

Economic liberalization and the implementation of rigorous economic plans in most African countries in debt during the 1980s and 1990s (price liberalization and investments, privatization, devaluations of national and regional currencies such as the CFA franc, tariff dismantling) under the supervision of the international financial institutions (World Bank, IMF, World Trade, etc.) have clearly undermined social policies in these countries and the resources devoted to them. States have become less and less capable of assuming their former economic and social role (public employment, subsidies for necessity, social services such as health, education or social defense). It was against this backdrop that inter-ethnic conflicts, civil wars and humanitarian crises were also exacerbated in Africa during the 1990s. People of sub-Saharan African countries have fled these areas of instability (Sudan, Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Great Lakes region, Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria). The ongoing conflict in Darfur, (South-eastern Chad, the eastern regions of the Central African Republic, etc) continue to feed the departures, to relatively prosperous countries such as Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. It is undoubtedly true that many of the migrants are refugees who flee danger and are in need of protection.

The renewal of Saharan geography has paved the way for the renewal of the migratory geography of the region and its southern margins. This huge desert zone is no longer as empty as it has been since the decline of the caravan trade after modern times and during the colonial era, but is now, for two to three decades more or less, an area for intense circulation of people and goods between North Africa on one side and Sahel Africa on the other. Three major factors explain the “rehabilitation” of the Sahara as an area of ​​articulation and links between these two geographical groups:

  1. The human and historical ties that have been maintained or strengthened between populations and ethnic groups united for centuries (Arabs, Touareg, Toubous) on territories that extended equally well on the Sahara than on its southern and northern peripheries.
  2. Regional and economic integration and development in the Saharan regions of North Africa. Agriculture, road infrastructure and cities are the main beneficiaries of this development regional. An extensive network of local centers, relay cities and national and regional metropoles ended up covering the whole of the Sahara and its peripheries (In the north, the major cities: Layoune, Tamanrasset, Sebha and Koufra are the most dynamic Saharan metropolises). On the southern shore, cities and highways have developed through the tertiary sector of the economy itself benefiting from the intensification of the movement of people and goods between the two shores (pastors, traders, transport professionals, migrants and refugees). Anonymous and eclipsed for centuries, the Nigerian city of Agadez has in turn become a major crossroads of migrants’ circulation, and the flows of exchanges and transactions that accompany it become the main support of this new Saharan dynamic.
  3. Migration flows have contributed enormously to the development of social and economic networks built around the circulation of people and material exchanges, which now extend from different areas of sub-Saharan Africa (Eastern, Central and Western) to the Mediterranean North Africa.

Historically, Egypt was a land of immigration rather than emigration. It is only since the beginning of the 20th century that the country began sending its migrants abroad. Egypt has welcomed foreign individuals, groups or communities since Biblical times. In the 20th century, sub-Saharan Africans have emigrated or took refuge in Egypt. According to the last census of 1996, 115,589 foreigners resided in Egypt. 19,605 people from 51 African countries representing 17% of total immigration, including 11,004 Sudanese people (56.1%).

The geographical location of Egypt, at the crossroads of areas of armed conflict, ethnic tensions and instability, has made it a major host country for refugees. In 2001, less than 3,000 Sudanese refugees were recognized by the Egyptian authorities. This figure is very far from reflecting the real number of refugees and asylum seekers in the country. Besides the direct persecution and the effects of civil war, the reasons for asylum also amount to famine and the difficulties of daily life in refugee or IDP camps in the interior of Sudan and especially around Khartoum.

According to the UNHCR, in 2003 there were 1832 recognized Somali refugees, 1544 Asylum seekers and 952 applicants who have been refused. Somali refugees and residents in Egypt benefit from the effectiveness and solidity of the social networks active in the Somali diaspora, which allows the Somalis to benefit from the transfers made by the members of the diaspora settled in Western countries and Saudi Arabia.

The oppression and insecurity due to the nature of the current and past authoritarian regimes (of Mengistu for example) in Ethiopia and Eritrea, to civil wars within these same countries or even war between them are the main causes of continuity of flows of Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees from the 1970s to other neighboring countries in Africa, like Egypt. Only 13% of asylum seekers are granted refugee status.

Public practices in the field of immigration administration are deliberately unclear and changing as internal and external contexts evolve. Letting go of the extreme rigor, even the repression of migrants, has always alternated in the management of foreigners in the country. The free movement of people in North African countries make controls, censuses and estimates even more difficult. The liberalization of economic activities and the enormous requirements for foreign personnel in the local labor market have had the last word to render ineffective the episodic attempts to reduce the foreign labor force or its total control. The Libyan statistical apparatus, like those of other States in the region, is in its turn inadequate and inefficient. For all these reasons, it isn’t anytime soon that we’ll know the exact number of foreigners in the country. While all official and unofficial information from this country places the number of foreigners between 1.5 and 2.5 million people from sub-Saharan countries and agrees on the increase in their numbers since the 1990s, the results of the 2006 general population census show that the number of foreigners registered in the country does not exceed 350,000 people out of a total population of 5,673,000. The detailed results of the 2006 Census, relating to the “non-Libyan population” in the country, are not yet available. We rely on the results of the General Census of the Population of Libya from 1995. The country at that time had 40,9326 “non-Libyan” residents out of a total population of 4,799,065 inhabitants.

These figures are lagged behind the data provided by some countries of origin. Even if the data provided by the countries of origin are more recent (2001 for Egypt, 2004 for Morocco and 2003 for Tunisia), the gaps remain enormous.

Urban services, education, commerce, the building and public works sector, agriculture and domestic services are the main sectors of employment for foreigners. Sub-Saharan migrants find themselves in virtually all sectors of activity. However, their main sectors of employment are the private economy, activities related to the maintenance of urban spaces and infrastructures (pavements, parks and public places, electricity, drinking water and sanitation networks, etc.) and agricultural work on public and private farms (fields and livestock). One should expect in the next few years a spectacular development of immigration in Libya. The movement may have already begun. Several indicators tend to reinforce this perspective:

  • Liberalization and rampant privatization of whole sections of the Libyan economy (trade, telecommunications, tourism, ports and airports, banks and insurance, agriculture, etc.)
  • The increase in oil prices over the past two years has more than doubled Libya’s oil revenues. An ambitious economic development program and social policy, with a budget of $80 billion, is announced.

Politicians, economic operators, bosses and businessmen are jostling in Libya. The country is destined to become, again, as a massive construction site that will absorb even more migrants, despite the regulations and restrictions which the public authorities would announce or apply, or which the European countries would claim.

All the emitting countries (sub-Saharan African countries), transit (mainly from the Maghreb) and recipients (mainly Europe) are participating in the gradual introduction of this mechanism.

The external borders of Europe are no longer only on the northern shore of the Mediterranean but also in North Africa with two lines of control of foreigners and travelers:

  1. control at border crossing points to Europe;
  2. control of foreigners (especially sub-Saharans) within these states

Since the dramas of the irregular migration attempts in Ceuta, Melilla and Morocco in October 2005, diplomatic ballets, negotiations and pressures have not stopped for the conclusion of a new series of readmission agreements between this time, the countries of North Africa (especially the Maghreb countries) and their southern neighbors in sub-Saharan Africa, which are not only countries that generate flows but also transit.

The European Union devotes substantial funds to the financing of projects and programs, in partnership with transit countries in particular, aimed at improving better knowledge of flows and greater control capacities by its members or its Southern partners (such as the AENEAS Community Program).

But it is in the security field that the European Union is more active and more generous. The different “generations” of Association Agreements are of this policy. Many European programs are designed to improve the operational capacities for control and information on migration flows for the benefit of government agencies, security forces and naval forces in countries of transit or departure (North Africa and Sahel) like logistical equipment, personnel training, joint activities (information exchange, mixed patrols). The European Union’s determination to proceed with the blockade of the North African and European coasts in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic is to prevent crossings and attempts at crossings, from the African coasts. These are mainly means and equipment for surveillance and interception at sea (aircraft, speedboats, boats, radars, infrared cameras)

The evolution of the Libyan position and policy on the issue of irregular migration is spectacular in such a short time. This country turned its attention to the Arab world, by direction to sub-Saharan Africa by developing a policy of cooperation, alliances and development aid. A regional organization such as the “Regrouping of the Sahel and Sahara States” or the new “African Union” are the result of this Libyan diplomatic voluntarism.

During 2001-2004, during which Libya negotiated its reintegration into the Mediterranean and international scene (lifting of the global arms embargo, abandonment and dismantling of the weapons of mass destruction program), the difficulties of controlling the long Libyan land borders, which extend over 4000 km, had been a Libyan argument of Libya’s “cooperation” in the fight against the flow of clandestine migration.

Less exposed and less vulnerable than other countries in the region, which are under pressure from Europe to “cooperate” more in the migration issue, Libya blows hot and cold. Libyan officials say earlier that “Africans have the right to migrate to Europe after the colonial powers have plundered the continent …”, and that “Libya is also a victim of illegal migration, as is Europe”.

Like Tunisia, Morocco or Algeria, Libya has become one of the pillars of the measures to combat illegal migration in the Maghreb and the Mediterranean.

Since 1998, Morocco and Tunisia have been the first countries in North Africa to sign readmission agreements with Spain and Italy. Morocco has been subjected to strong Spanish pressure in particular (Seville European summit in 2002), for a commitment to the fight against illegal migration.

The Moroccan security forces participated, alongside the Spanish police, in the bloody repression (dozens of deaths) of sub-Saharan Africans who tried to cross the walls and barbed wire that protected the Spanish enclaves. Morocco then proceeded, during the days and weeks following these events, to the expulsion of illegal migrants, in the desert at first and then by air. This “migratory crisis” in the autumn of 2005 led to intense diplomatic activities about the “role of Morocco as a key partner in the region for the fight against illegal migration” (European emergency aid). Dialogue and regional consultations have since been launched, involving the countries of the Maghreb, the countries of the Sahel, the most numerous among the illegal immigrants (Senegal, Mali, Niger, Gambia, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire) and the countries of the European Union.

The fight against irregular migration is gradually transforming into an activity of the security forces of the countries of the region. Balances are established and information is made public about police and naval operations: interceptions and arrests, rescue at sea, and expulsion.

From East to West, South to North, the flow of irregular migrants increased markedly in 2006: especially from West Africa to the Mediterranean. The populations involved are not only poor people but students, graduates and businessmen. They are not only Africans from the south of the Sahara, but many Maghrebis continue to leave illegally as well. This is proof that an international will and a regional co-operation will make it possible to ensure a better management of the flows.

On the other hand, the social transformations that these population movements reflect or excite are of paramount importance for understanding the evolution of the societies from which they are derived. However, this should not hide the major risks of tensions or misunderstandings that might arise if these movements are not well governed. Racism and discrimination in the host countries of the region, especially to African migrants from the south of the Sahara, are among these risks.

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Sabrina Amrane
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18 years old. Inquisitive Algerian, lover of languages. African history and culture enthusiast, aspiring journalist.

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