Emigration out of North Africa, primarily towards Europe, is an increasingly important topic as the revolutions in the region continue.  With the rise of emigration, it is imperative to understand the connection between the uprisings and international migration.  The unrest in North Africa is based in intense frustration among the youth and there is undoubtedly a thread linking the unrest to the emigration from the region.  However, it is a mistake to fear that the revolutions in North Africa may result in mass migration towards Europe[1].

Managing population growth has been a central problem for Arab countries for decades.  Until the 1980s countries struggled with rapid growth and high levels of fertility, except Tunisia.  The current generation, which was born in the 1980s, has now attained working age and has altered the population problem faced by Arab governments.  The increase in the number of young adults has outpaced the resources available to them, especially employment.  This is coupled with the lack of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including political participation.  The outpacing of resources is amplified by low birth rates because it is correlated with delayed marriage and the growing economic participation of women.  Thus, unemployment is common for Arab youth, particularly for those with medium- to high-level education.  Even when jobs are found, low wages and poor returns on education are common[2].

Because of the youth bulge and high levels of unemployment and low wages, emigration has been widespread across the Arab region for the second half of the 20th century, except Libya and oil-rich countries of the Gulf who remained major receivers of migrants.  Twenty million nationals from Arab states currently live abroad and 15% of young Egyptians and 25% of young Moroccans contemplate emigrating.  The number of Tunisians considering emigration increased from 22% in 1996 to 45% in 2000 and to 76% in 2005[3].  Thus, emigration from North Africa was an issue of concern before the revolutions and the revolutions have simply highlighted and increased this tendency.  For example, the revolution in Tunisia has led to increased emigration as men have been leaving Tunisian villages, primarily for Italy[4].  Emigration from Tunisia has increased so rapidly due to the power vacuum that has occurred after the ousting of Ben Ali as his forces are no longer there to actively patrol the coastline.  Thus, the young and underemployed have realized that there is no longer someone standing in their way if they seek to migrate to Italy[5].

Despite possibly being unwarranted, the increase in emigration from North Africa has Europe fearing a flood of migrants as the Arab protests continue because migrants are not discouraged by Europe’s high unemployment.  This is because migrating to Europe is still viewed as an opportunity for a better life[6].  Approximately 25,000 Tunisians and 8,000 Libyans are estimated to have tried to reach Europe since the ousting of former president Ben Ali of Tunisia on January 14th as of May 26th [7].  Thus, there is the potential that the Arab revolutions could threaten the current collaborations between Europe and North Africa on the issue of stemming illegal immigration[8].

The situation has only worsened with Libya as the country’s revolution has resulted not only in more North Africans seeking refuge in Europe, but also the mass number of sub-Saharan Africans and South Asians who had previously migrated to Libya.  Further, the crisis has put strain on both Tunisia and Egypt.  Thousands of Libyan refugees continue to flock into Tunisia and an estimated 70,000 refugees have found sanctuary in Tunisia since the beginning of the Libyan uprising in February[9].

However, in predominantly migrant-sending countries the revolutions may produce a variety of migratory outcomes depending on the political and socioeconomic outcomes.  If the revolts produce governments that are responsive to the people’s demands and instill trust, then there may be a movement of return migration from the diaspora.  On the other hand, where the revolutions stall and governments do not address concerns over economic security and freedom, the continuation and amplification of the emigration movement can be expected.  For predominantly migrant-receiving states what will determine the migration flow will be the reality of the protests and their repression by the governments[10].

Europe must not only address the problem of receiving unwanted immigrants, but it must also listen to what the young people repeatedly demand in protests throughout the region.  Therefore, it will not be enough for Europe to focus on migration alone.  Europe must address the political and economic roots of the migration, no longer support regimes in order to secure access to Arab oil and gas, and no longer ignore human rights violations[11].  This means that Europe risks going down the wrong path by focusing only on border control.

Jennifer Bubke

Summer and Spring 2011 Maghreb Center Intern

MA Candidate, International Politics

School of International Service

American University

[1] Fargues, Philippe. “Voice After Exit: Revolution and Migration in the Arab World”. December 18. May 13, 2011. http://www.december18.net/article/voice-after-exit-revolution-and-migration-arab-world.

[2] See Note 1

[3] See Note 1

[4] Fuller, Thomas. “Upheaval Opens the Exits in Tunisia”. New York Times. Feb. 14, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/world/africa/15tunisia.html?ref=africa.

[5] See Note 4

[6] Cendrowicz, Leo. “Europe Hails the Arab Protests, but Fears a Flood of Migrants”. Time Magazine. Feb. 23, 2011. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2053365,00.html.

[8] See note 6

[10] See Note 1

[11] See Note 1

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