Africa Map
Africa Map


The Challenge of Irregular Migration in Africa.

  • Author : John Chika Ejinaka
  • 2019-08-29


Irregular migration from Africa to Europe has been in existence for a very long time. The quest for cheap labour by European companies, especially in sectors not patronized by European workers, had encouraged European employers to scout for alternative sources of cheap labour elsewhere, outside Europe, in particular, from Africa, and the Middle East. The contiguous nature of North African countries with long stretch of coastal boundaries with Europe favoured countries of the region as sources of cheap labour for needy European companies. Consequently, North African countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia, were early beneficiaries considering their common coastal borders with Europe.[i] The migrants in that group were mainly unskilled and semi-skilled labour whose income from Europe was enough to sustain their families back home. The migration pattern was therefore further sustained through information shared by the early migrants, encouraging other family members to join and take advantage of existing job opportunities.

Furthermore, immigration regulation at the time was less restrictive and stringent. Consequently, some of the migrants made use of official routes, and were therefore properly documented at the various ports of entry. It was the common practice by many of the migrants to over stay their visas, especially if they have secured employment which they often do without much intervention from local authorities. It may be right to say that the scarcity of unskilled indigenous labour contributed to the liberal migration policy pursued at the time by most countries of Europe who depended much on migrant workers to substitute the growing shortage of unskilled manpower in many of their industries. The trend would later be extended to skilled labour following growing shortages of skilled labour, traced to aging workforce in Europe and the shortage of local manpower to meet the growing need of such manpower in European factories and companies.

But changing global dynamics which followed the advent of globalization, the sudden change in the world economic and socio-political, order,  the collapse of the Soviet Union, improvements in global communication  technology, including transportation systems, the  global financial crisis of the 80s and the economic discomforts it created globally, the creation and consolidation of the European Union part of which was  the establishment  of the Schengen Union, all contributed to the changing pattern  of global migration trend. Unfortunately, the response by the European Union on the new pace of migration, in particular, irregular migration was more restrictive compelling migrants in that category to develop various responses to the European restrictive action, some of which were life threatening. The European preference for regular migration was also not open as it was laced with very strident conditions.[ii]  

Although majority of the African migrants up to the late 70s were from the Maghreb region, events of the early eighties and further down, witnessed a major shift in the migration pattern. The aftermath of the global competition engendered by globalization caught many African countries unprepared. In addition, was the global financial crisis of the 80s, along with the collapse of the world commodity market within the period which negatively impacted many African economies in particular Sub-Saharan Africa. The impact was a shift in the migration flow, with many from Sub-Saharan Africa, heading to North Africa, seeking to migrate to Europe in search of better living. Unfortunately, most African economies, in particular sub-Saharan Africa are mono-economies, depending mainly on the export of primary agricultural products. The challenges of the time compelled many African governments to resort to external borrowing to balance their national budgets. The pressure of debt entanglement, the conditions prescribed by the global financial institutions in particular the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which encouraged economic deregulations, resulted in further shrinking of the market space for African countries, and additional pressure on the unemployment situation in many African countries. The migratory change was equally enhanced by developments in the information and communication technology (ICT), which increased the restiveness of many youths, who became aware of economic opportunities in different parts of the world and therefore the need to seek better employment opportunities elsewhere, preferably Europe, the United States and Canada, while others turned their gaze towards the emerging economies of Asia.

Another factor that influenced migration from Sub-Saharan Africa was the preponderance of inter ethnic conflicts that engulfed most of the countries of the sub-region. The situation was very precarious during the late 80s up to the 90s and beyond. There were conflicts everywhere, in Guinea, Liberia, Chad, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Eretria, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Central African Republic, Guinea Bissau, Cote d`Ivoire, South Sudan and Mali. Activities of various terrorist groups, such as, Al Qaida, in the Arab Maghreb, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in Nigeria, all resulted in the displacement of people and the eventual search for more peaceful abode abroad. Part of the major outcome was the large number of internally displaced persons as well as refugees, and the preponderance of illicit small arms and light weapons, in the hands of non-state actors. These weapons were deployed to sustain increased circle of violence, growing criminality, acts of insurgency, banditry with negative consequences on the economy and rise in youth’s restiveness and quest for better conditions abroad.[iii]


            The North African countries that were the major beneficiaries of early migration, because of their closeness to Europe, became the major staging points for many migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa. Countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya were the major transit points for many sub-Saharan Africans itching to migrate to Europe. Other staging posts include Mauritania and Niger. A good number of migrants used Morocco as their main staging point, especially to Spain. However, it didn`t take long before global attention was attracted to migration route from North Africa, following mounting deaths of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, in unseaworthy boats to Spain, Italy, Portugal and other European states contiguous to North Africa. Apart from the humanitarian consequences of the risky attempt to cross the Mediterranean, Europe equally became concerned on the rate of influx of migrants, and the need to take steps to address it. The European States under the European Union, both collectively and individually, embarked on measures to address the momentum, in collaboration with the transit states in North Africa.  Spain, for instance, working in concert with the Moroccan authorities took certain measures to checkmate the migration trend through Morocco to Spain. Part of the efforts included joint patrols, and the erection of high fences at the major crossing points. Although some of the migrants decided to settle in Morocco as their final country of destination, after fruitless attempts and waiting period, others decided to shift their base to other locations in other North African countries.[iv]  

It is important to note that while the waiting period in Morocco lasted, the migrants remained subjected to various indignities and exploitation, first by the various migration merchants, and criminal groups who subject the migrants to various forms of exploitation and abuses. Similar virulent abuses were also extended to the migrants by some security officials who joined in their exploitation. Unfortunately, some of the migration agents were former migrants themselves who after series of failed attempt, decided to settle in Morocco and turned themselves into gangs of migration facilitators. They act as agents, providing the migrants with accommodation, as well as serving as middlemen between the migrants and the web of traffickers and migrant smugglers, all of which take turn in exploiting the migrants. In fact, they have control of those migrants that are affiliated to their cells and who can only move or travel at their whims and caprices.  It is therefore no doubt that most of the migrants have to resort to various forms of indecent labour including prostitution, while some others had to reach out to their family members to send them funds to be able to settle the agents, including paying the fees for their eventual crossing escapade through the Mediterranean sea most often using unseaworthy vessels.     

            Apart from a few that remain in the capital, Rabat, many others converge around the staging points in Casablanca, the desert of Oucjda, Tangier, Tetuan and Nador. In Oucjda, the migrants converted the desert shrubs into their residential area using stones as demarcation, while nylon was spread on the ground to serve as mattress. At Nador, most of the migrants live in the forest of Nador. Unfortunately, they are often sacked by the security men who raid their hiding places and homes, subjecting them to various forms of abuses, without any deliberate effort to either send them back to their countries of origin or provide them with some measures of local integration.

Algeria has continued to serve as a country of destination for many migrant workers from Sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the migrants in that category have in the process of their sojourn in Algeria been granted resident permit, and therefore legitimate residents in that country. Unfortunately, the rising tide of irregular migration to Europe had resulted in increased number of migrants, of Sub-Saharan origin who converge in Algeria as a staging post for their search for greener pasture in Europe. In addition, the worsening migrants experience in Libya had compelled many to seek opportunities elsewhere and many therefore had turned to Algeria, as a good alternative. The main crossing point is Annaba to the Sardinia Beach in Italy. However, since 2018, Algeria had been criticized for its inhuman response to the increased number of migrants which had become a nightmare for many migrants who they simply rounded up and hounded into buses without effort to determine their status and deposited in the Sahara Desert. In the process many of them were brutalized and exposed to many indignities.  Many of them believed that their ordeal could be linked to their colour of being black, as there was no effort to determine their legal status. Consequently, many among them that are legal residents were not spared but equally deported to the desert and left to wonder in the desert and therefore subjected to the debilitating harsh weather condition in the desert; among them were women and children.

The Algerian action had been roundly condemned by many human rights groups who were of the opinion that the indiscriminate deportation violated existing human right law, since even those with legal status were not given the option of having access to their legitimate belongings before deportation.

In Tunisia, the main destination of migrants attempting to get to Europe is Italy through the island of Lampedusa. However, Tunisia could not be associated with the type of migrant tide experienced in other North African countries. Traditionally, Tunisia had been a destination country for many migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, who from the point of take off, in their countries of origin, were heading to Tunisia as the main destination country. A good number of them have obtained legal resident permit and engaged in different forms of domestic employment including working as labourers in some companies. Nevertheless, the increased collaboration between the European Union and some of the major transit countries has equally compelled an increase in the number of migrants seeking to use Tunisia, as a staging post. However, the Tunisian experience has not reached a crescendo as we have not witnessed the level of harsh response against the migrants, as has been attributed to the security agencies in Libya, Morocco and Algeria.

Mauritania equally became a major staging point. The shift to Mauritania was in keeping with the migrants’ response to the growing collaboration between the major frontline transit countries notably Libya, Morocco as well as Algeria. As more fortresses are being erected at the main crossing points in those countries, the migrants remained undeterred and rather seek other alternative locations  in Mauritania, in particular, the port city of Nouadhibou located some 800km south east of Spain`s Canary Island. Mauritania therefore served as a major migrant hub, harboring some traffickers some of whom were former migrants. Unfortunately, there have been fatalities in the high sea, as migrants embark on the journey using unseaworthy boats with several human casualties. In response Spain entered into collaboration with the Mauritanian government providing training and hardware for the Mauritanian security agencies, including joint patrol to curb the growing surge of migrants, and in particular the increasing number of human fatalities as the migrants attempt to cross to Spain through the Canary Island.

In response to the increased surveillance, the migrants moved further south to Niger Republic. The staging point for most migrants using Niger is Agadez. Here trafficking in irregular migrants remain a thriving business involving a plethora of players. They are smugglers, traffickers, the security agencies, transporters and other criminal groups. Thousands of migrants arrive Agadez every year from where they negotiate and engage in the gruesome journey across the Sahara Desert to Libya. The journey across the desert, had left on its trail, tells of woes as the migrants are often at the mercy of the various trafficking rings and middlemen who take turns in exploiting the migrants at the various stages on the journey across the  desert before the final destination in Libya. Unfortunately, the fact that majority of the migrants are privy of the dangers ahead, including the graphic pictures of migrants that drowned at the Mediterranean sea, or carcasses of many migrants that perished on the desert route to Libya,  the lure of the possibility for a good life in Europe and the search for better opportunities abroad have remained major  motivating factors that have continued to propel the migrants to continue in spite of the visible dangers and the likelihood of death.

            Libya has served the dual role of being both transit and destination country.  The period of the leadership of late President Mouamar Gaddafi witnessed steady influx of Sub-Saharan African migrants, and migrants from other countries and region into Libya as foreign workers. In pursuit of his dream of a more united Africa, with a common central African government, President Gaddafi created the enabling environment for many Africans to be employed in different sectors of the Libyan economy and administration including the security services. Furthermore, Libya had equally depended on migrant labour to take care of the shortfall in their labour force.  Consequently, foreign workers from such countries like Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Chad, Niger, Senegal as well as Nigeria found themselves making a living out of regular employment in Libya.

However, for the irregular migrants in Libya, the story has been that of woes and terror including forms of human rights violation by the Libyan security agencies. Libya, since the mid 20s, operated a number of detention centers for irregular migrants. Unfortunately, these centers had for long been notorious for various forms of abuses of the rights of migrants. The advent of the 2011 Arab Spring, the eventual demise of President Moammar Gaddafi and the   insurrection that ensued, left asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in a very precarious situation. While many migrants numbering their thousands had continued to scramble for opportunities to join the migrant boat to Europe, many more from among the regular migrants who had lost their jobs following the conflict, in Libya were compelled to join the fray. Most of these regular migrants became target of many average Libyans who were not happy finding them in their services and who saw many of them as agents of the former fallen leader Moammar Gaddafi. Furthermore, the state of lawlessness that followed the fall of Gaddafi, the collapse of a central administrative system and the factionalization of the country into domains of war lords, left the migrants at the mercy of different militia groups, some of whom took   over the running of the detention camps. The emergence of many more trafficking rings further subjected the migrants to further abuses by the various controlling rings.  Report by the Global Detention Project, indicated that the migrants in the camps are subjected to doses of human right abuses and violations, including extortions, and slave labour while some were auctioned out as merchandise to the highest bidder. Situations in some of the camps were considered very despicable, lacking in basic human needs including water and sanitation.




The destination countries of Europe decided on a reactive response to the scourge of irregular migration. The major first destination countries namely; Italy, Spain and Greece took specific individual and collective measures to engage the frontline, North African countries, in their effort to clamp down on the rate of migration through those channels. Unfortunately, the measures adopted which are mainly preventive, did not take into consideration the fate of refugees and other genuine asylum seekers among the migrants for which international protection is desirable. The measures included the building of fortified fences along the identified crossing points and joint patrol exercises by border security personnel of the effected countries. For instance, Italy provided border patrol boats along with other equipments and training for Libyan coast guards, for the prevention of migrant boats from reaching Italian shores. This also includes interception of boats in the Mediterranean Sea and bringing them back to Libya. Similar arrangements were pursued between Spain and Morocco as well as Spain and Mauritania.  For their collaboration, the European countries provided the North African transit countries with some form of development assistance. Unfortunately, these measures merely scratched the problem, as they failed to address the root causes fueling irregular migration.

Although there has been global outcry following the graphic reports and television imageries of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean with hundreds of migrants drowning, as well as several rescue missions by the European Union, the measures taken by the European Union in collaboration with the North African coastal states were mainly preventive measures without any effective attempt to proactively engage the countries of origin in a collective search for enduring solutions. Attempt to find an African wide solution led to the hosting of a number of consultative fora between the European Union and some of the African states. The first of the processes took place in Rabat Morocco in 2006 under the Europe-Africa Dialogue on Migration and Development. Known as the Rabat Process and limited only to Europe and North, West and Central African governments. Unfortunately, the process placed much focus on legal migration and mobility improving border management, countering irregular migration and strengthening synergies between migration and development. However, identifying and addressing the push factors was not part of the discussions. Following the outcome of the meeting, the European Union in engaging the respective African governments were more concerned with control measures which include capacity building on border patrol, and immigration document management.

Another engagement between the two parties was the Valetta Summit on Migration held in November 2017, in Valletta, Malta.  Like the previous consultations, The European Union came to the Summit with the same mind-set, especially coming after a major migration crisis of 2015, and the conflict of interests that threatened the existing EU Immigration policy.[v] The summit discussed the recent EU immigration crisis and how Africa could help reduce migration across the Mediterranean. The summit ended with an agreement to establish an Emergency Trust Fund to help development in African countries as well as encourage African countries to take back migrants who arrived Europe. Further discussions were held at the level of the African Union in Cote d`Ivoire later in 2017. Unfortunately, the EU approach instead of stemming the flow of migrants rather increased the desperation of many migrants who sort and established new migration routes. There is no doubt that managing migration along the line of the European mindset had become a huge business on both sides of the divide. For those involved in trafficking, it has become a huge business and had therefore adopt innovative techniques to recruit willing migrants and elicit the collusion of security agencies, who sometimes serve as facilitators. On the part of the European Union, some machinery has been established to drive the migrants return process including the policing of the Mediterranean Sea. Some human rights bodies’ have criticized the mechanism of return and accused the European Union of encouraging the violation of the rights of migrants. Furthermore, they accused the process of not distinguishing between refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants in the interception and return process which had further subjected the migrants to further humiliation, especially as most of those that passed through detention camps in Libya have only tales of woes and therefore bemoaned any action that would return them to humiliating and slavish treatment they received at the Libyan detention camps.



For the countries of origin, addressing the challenge of irregular migration remains a daunting task. For those countries, dealing with the root causes may not be cheap considering the intricate challenges before them. Many are facing serious and debilitating economies difficulties, along with other socio-political tendencies. With the single product economies in most of sub-Saharan Africa, in particular primary agricultural product, the recent global slump in commodity market has forced a reclusion in the economies of those countries. The same is the case of Nigeria that depends much on crude oil. The slump in the oil market has forced a drastic shrinkage in the economy of Nigeria, at a point, forcing it into recession. The rising insurgency in some of the countries of the Sahel as well as west and central Africa, the problem of terrorism and the mounting youth unemployment had left the youths with limited local choices and therefore the need to seek for alternative opportunities abroad. Unfortunately, consultations between senior officials of countries of origin and destination countries bordered more on implementing control measures aimed at preventing further migration to Europe. Much would have been achieved if the focus had been in providing focused economic assistance that could result in job creation and other palliatives that would have helped to provide the youths with some form of employment, locally. Unfortunately, most of the promises for economic assistance remained mere promises that were not translated into real concrete action that could provide jobs and whittle the urge to migrate. Furthermore, the ECOWAS protocol of free movement of persons goods and services, had equally assisted in facilitating mobility among member states, making it difficult to control the movement of persons as intending migrants could use any of the member states as the staging point. Unfortunately, the failed hope to find jobs at home has serious consequences for the economies of African states that continued to lose its active manpower through brain drain of the educated youths that would have been deployed for greater socio-economic development of the country, and left to wonder away after spending valuable years seeking for jobs that have become very elusive and difficult to come by. Therefore, the desperation for survival has forced the youths to risk the inclement weather conditions in the desert, and the shadow of death in the Mediterranean to brave the unknown in search of better living aboard.



Halting irregular migration in this period of globalization remains an uphill task for all the major stake holders. Unfortunately, much energy has been channeled towards the emplacement of control measures. The EU driven control therapies instead of resulting in effective solution to the migrant crisis had rather exacerbated the problem as desperate migrants explore more daring routes to migrate to Europe. The only enduring solution is that which will address the problem of unemployment along with the endemic economic situation currently bedeviling the countries. The situation remains parlous, coupled with the state of insecurity in some of the countries. While the economy is receding and unemployment exacerbating, the rising tide of insecurity, reflected in growing insurgency, conflicts, and banditry have added to the deplorable state of some of the countries in Africa. The activities of armed bandits in the Sahel, terrorist groups which include AQIM, in the Sahel region, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in Nigeria have continued to impact negatively in their region of operation, resulting in massive displacement of the local  population and the urge for the affected youthful population to seek for safety elsewhere. Some of the affected countries could be regarded as fragile states as the rate of instability continue to linger. Countries such as Somalia which had witnessed prolonged conflicts, now worsened by the activities of Al Shabaab, the situation in the Sudan, in particular the war in the Republic of South Sudan, the prolonged tension between Ethiopia and Eretria, though the two countries have now mended fences,   the persistent insecurity in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the fragile peace in Mali, Central African Republic, the activities of Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon Niger and Chad as well as the conflict in western Cameroon had led to the displacement of many, who have also decided to seek some safety abroad.

In the case of Nigeria, the challenge of Boko Haram terrorist group, the continued conflict between armed herdsmen and farmers, and growing banditry, some resulting in mass displacement of people, have aided the desire by many youths to seek for safe heaven aboard. For instance, data from the International Organization for Migration, showed that in 2012, only 602 Nigerian irregular migrants were recorded. In 2013, the number rose to 3,386, then in 2014, the figure moved to 8,715. However, in 2015, when the Nigerian economy started witnessing increased implosion, the figure rose to 23,605 and in 2016 it climbed to 37,531. The figures above represent similar tendencies for other countries of the region where the challenge of insecurity had resulted in large displacement of persons.[vi]

The European Union proposal to establish processing centers in some regions in Africa should not be encouraged and therefore should not be a buy-in by any African state. It cannot be considered as a solution. It will confer on the EU the privilege to transfer any African migrant to any centre for processing and could become a burden for recipient countries. It will only add to the burden of the hosting country. Such action amounts to a violation of provisions of international humanitarian law as well as other human rights covenants.  The question may equally be on whether the EU is selective on which migrants to be admitted into the European Union.[vii] There seems to be a preference for migrants from the Middle East and Asia. For instance in Germany, while Chancellor Angela Merkel was proud to display Germany`s record of humanitarian care when it admitted well over a million migrants, from the Middle East, she was at the same time busy, urging African governments to take back their irregular migrants, staying in Germany and who have continued to contribute positively towards the German economy.  There is no doubt that Europe is in dire need of some migrants to replenish its dwindling workforce. The size of the indigenous workforce in Europe had continue to dwindle, while Africa will continue to witness population explosion, presently put at over one billion people. As the economic situation in many African countries continue tp relapse, the tendency is that many will prefer to seek better opportunities abroad.

Economic migration had existed for centuries and had served as a major driver of economic development, the world over. The present challenge only requires better handling, and more commitment by the international community, in particular the United Nations in order to explore the positive potentials of migration and evolve ways of reducing the continued human suffering and humiliation migrants are compelled to endure. Hopefully the recent adoption of a Global Migration Compact,  under the auspices of the United Nations, in Marrakech, Morocco, could go some miles in fostering some measure of understanding among the global community on the need for a holistic understanding of international migration as a win - win for all stakeholders.





[i] de Haas, Hein (2008). “The Myth of Invasion The inconvenient realities of African migration to Europe.” Published in the Third World Quarterly 2008 29(7): 1305‐1322. Retrieved from:

[ii] Mutume, Gumisai (2006). “African Migration: From Tensions to Solutions.” AfricanRenewal. Retrieved from:

[iii] United Nations University (2017). “African Migration: Root Causes and Regulatory Dynamics (AMIREG)” Retrieved from:

[iv]  Katharina Senge (2018) “Co-responsibility between countries of origin, transit and destination: Lessons from Spain’s experience with migration.” SAGE Journals. Retrieved from:





[v] Hamilton, Kimberly A. (2010). “Europe, Africa, and international migration: An uncomfortable triangle of interests.” In Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Retrieved from:

[vi] Mathews, Jayden (2018). “Political Factors in Migration” Retrieved in:

[vii] Ben Hall (2000). “Immigration in the European Union: problem or solution?”

Prospect Magazine, June 2000 / OECD Observer No 221-222, Summer 2000. Retrieved from:




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