Saturday, March 12, 2011

On migration and the future of North Africa

The prominence of migrants in--not from, but in--North Africa brought up by Libya is something that's explored, in three related (and two somewhat surprising) contexts, in Julio Godoy's Inter Press Service article "For Migrants, Crisis Worsens Economic Situation At Home". Godoy began the article by making the point that the flight of millions of labour migrants from Libya to the countries where their remittances were supporting families will hurt things badly.

[International Labour Organization economist] Schmidt told IPS that these workers’ exodus from Libya is increasing the social and economic upheaval in their countries of origin.

"For Egypt and other countries, the return of the migrant workers from Libya is fatal," Schmidt explained. "On the one hand, the migrant workers come to increase the number of unemployed youth, already very high. On the other hand, the remittances they were sending back home, and which supported economically their families, are over now."

The ILO estimates that the total remittances from Libya to Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Bangladesh and other countries amounted to one billion U.S. dollars per year. About half of this money went to Egypt.

Globally, according to World Bank figures, Egyptian nationals working abroad sent 7.6 billion U.S. dollar to their families at home in 2010.

Schmidt warned that without foreign economic aid and an immediately successful national economic policy, Egypt and Tunisia won’t be able to cope with the return of the migrant workers.

"In Tunisia, unemployment jumped to 17 percent after the migrant workers returned home from Libya, up from 14 percent," Schmidt said. Without immediate economic perspectives, Maghreb youth would again leave the country, most likely to Europe, the ILO expert added.

Uncontroversial, the above. The below, now, is quite controversial.

The Maghreb countries cannot cope with the social and economic consequences of the mass exodus from Libya, warned Robert Holzmann, research director at the Labour Mobility Program of the Marseille Centre for Mediterranean Integration. "In the short term, there won’t be a mass exodus," Holzmann said. "But in the middle term, Europe must prepare for rising immigration from the Maghreb region."

Holzmann, an Austrian national, recalled that after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, workers migrated to Western Europe, regardless of the economic reforms carried out in their countries of origin.

"Something similar is going to happen in the Maghreb countries," Holzmann said. "Even the most auspicious reform policies won’t be good enough to create enough jobs to cope with mass youth unemployment. Therefore, the European Union should launch now a new immigration management policy," Holzmann said.

Europe should not be afraid of the new migration. "History shows that immigration can be a positive factor in the development of societies. Despite the bloody causes of mass exodus, migration can be a source of innovation," said Thomas Straubhaar, director of the Institute for International Economics in Hamburg.

Holzmann oversimplifies things substantially: Slovenia has been a net receiver of immigrants since the 1960s, for instance, while Romania has been consistently an exporter of migrants long predating the Communist era. The different post-Communist countries now in the European Union have followed different trajectories, from the former Hapsburg lands' emergence as net destinations for immigrants to the emergence of Lithuania and Latvia as net exporters of working-age migrants on alarming scales. Expecting there to be continued pressure for migration from the Maghreb to Europe for the next decades does seem plausible, mind, in light of the income and other welfare gaps between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, the intimate human and other links between the two shores, and the need for immigrants in some sectors of European economies. I'd suggest that it isn't so much the plausibility of the migration that Holzmann describes that's debatable so much as the reaction to it.

The final element of migration in the Maghreb that Godoy explores, raised by Holzmann, is perhaps the most unexpected: the emergence of the Maghreb as a destination for immigrants.

One of the many social and economic puzzles of the Maghreb region is that despite high national youth unemployment, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from sub-Saharan African and Asian countries could find jobs there, especially in the construction sector.

"For the local, relatively well-educated youth in Libya, Tunisia, and other countries in the region, jobs in the construction industry were not attractive," Schmidt explained. "For Sudanese or Bangladeshi immigrants, these jobs were the only alternative to feed themselves and their families at home."

Why not? Labour forces are never perfectly mobile within a country, and even within a country with very high unemployment there were be unpopular jobs. Hein de Haas noted in 2005 in his profile of Morocco at MIgration Information that not only were migrants in Morocco coming from outside Africa, but that many were staying. North Africa may be substantially less developed than Europe, but it's substantially more developed than West Africa.

Recently, even migrants from Asian countries, such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, have transited through Morocco via the Saharan route. They are mostly flown in from Asia to West-African capitals. From there, they follow the common Saharan trail via Niger and Algeria to Morocco.

Although most migrants consider Morocco a country of transit, an increasing number of migrants who fail to enter Europe prefer to settle in Morocco on a more long-term basis rather than return to their more unstable and substantially poorer home countries. Probably several tens of thousands have settled in cities like Tangiers, Casablanca, and Rabat on a semi-permanent basis, where they sometimes find jobs in the informal service sector, petty trade, and construction. Others try to pursue studies in Morocco.

Yet sub-Saharan migrants face substantial xenophobia and aggressive Moroccan and particularly Spanish border authorities. Since most of them have no legal status, they are vulnerable to social and economic marginalization.

In September 2005, a Moroccan newspaper compared sub-Saharan African migrants to "black locusts" invading northern Morocco. Frequent round-ups have occurred in immigrant neighborhoods and in improvised ad-hoc camps close to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla and larger cities, and unauthorized migrants are regularly deported to the Algerian border.

There is evidence that a substantial minority of immigrants to Morocco have migrated for reasons that fall under the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. However, the Moroccan government assumes that virtually all sub-Saharan immigrants in Morocco are "economic migrants" on their way to Europe.

This means asylum seekers are rejected at the border or deported as "illegal economic immigrants" even though Morocco is party to the 1951 Geneva Convention, has a formal system for adjudicating asylum applications, and has an Office of Refugees and Stateless Persons (Bureau des Réfugies et Apatrides - BRA) to assist and protect refugees.

The emergence of Maghreb as a destination for immigrants has been explored in the French-language press, for instance in the article "L'Algérie devient une terre d'immigration" ("Algeria becomes a land of immigration") or's "Le Maroc face au défi de l’immigration subsaharienne". Suffice it to say that if the rest of the Maghreb is following Morocco in hitting a demographic sweet spot with a peaking proportion of working-age adults, combining it with dynamic jobs-intensive economic growth, the attractiveness of the Maghreb for West Africans will only increase. Central Europe is transitioning from net emigration to net immigration; why not? In his later studies referenced here, de Haas suggested that immigrants are already quite numerous in Maghrebin border communities, for instance in the Algerian Saharan city of Tamanrasset with its links to the Tuareg straddling the North/West African frontier and on trade routes.

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