Academic Yves Charbit explains that control of migration flows by a purely numbers-based approach–a practice preferred by developed countries–is not only ineffective, but also counter-productive for Europe. The second episode in our series: “Tomorrow, 9 billion people”.

Refugees from Kara Tepe camp board a ferry in the port of Mytilene, at the island of Lesbos on Septembre 2020. (Photo by /MANOLIS LAGOUTARIS / AFP)
Refugees from Kara Tepe camp board a ferry in the port of Mytilene, at the island of Lesbos on Septembre 2020. (Photo by /MANOLIS LAGOUTARIS / AFP)

Human migration has been a major anthropological reality since the beginnings of humanity. Yet recent demographic developments and major world events (wars, colonization and decolonization, ecological crisis) have created a complex demographic landscape that should prompt political decision-makers to turn away from a deceptive numbers-based and largely instrumentalized approach. There is a need to agree collectively on fair and humane solutions based on an objective analysis of migratory phenomena.


Africa, the continent that migrates the least

Between 1990 and 2019, the number of international migrants rose from 153 million to 271.6 million, accounting for 3 to 4% of the world population. According to the World Bank (2016), the global volume of South-South migration accounts for nearly 40% of all migrants (97 million), which is greater than the volume of South-North migration (89 million). Only Latin America bucked the trend, with more migration to the North than within the continent.

It is worth noting that Africa, with a volume of less than 10% (26 million), is the continent that migrates the least. In addition, 70% of international migration in sub-Saharan Africa remains within sub-Saharan Africa. Outside the continent, some 6 million migrants from sub-Saharan Africa live in Europe (64%), with the rest being distributed between North America (2.7 million, or 29%) and Australia (650,000, or (7%).

In all these contexts, it is important to note that gender remains the blind spot when it comes to migration, despite half of migrants being women (47.9% worldwide). The characteristics of women’s migratory paths are different from those of men. In fact, the pressure to migrate, chosen destinations, prospects for employment and better resources, integration into community networks in the host countries, and whether or not there is a perspective of returning to the country of origin vary greatly according to gender.



In 2050, sub-Saharan migrants to Europe will remain a very small minority

Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to represent 22% of the world population around 2050, as opposed to the current 14%. Migration from this region will automatically increase in volume, but only slightly in proportion, with approximately 15% migrating to Europe. According to a recent study, sub-Saharan Africans will represent a maximum of 3 to 4 percent of the European population in 2050, due to the combined effect of demographic growth in Africa and decline in Europe.

These findings put into perspective largely such ideological theories as the “great replacement” or the irrepressible submersion of the European continent, fueled by images of boats of migrants, both men and women, in distress at sea, and by the words of a growing number of public and political figures.


In Europe, public debate focused on 10% of migration

Over 90% of the 2 million migrants who come to Europe do so legally–for professional reasons, education, family, tourism–with a Schengen visa. Although public debate focuses on the remaining 10%, increasingly dissuasive measures are being used in an attempt to restrict migration by legal means–especially for education or family motives. By hiding the complexity of the geopolitical, legal and social issues involved in migration, it is the concept of Fortress Europe that is being highlighted, ruling out any possibility of integration in favor of a security-driven response.

Debate on closing borders and reducing migration has therefore become a political issue in most European countries, overshadowing the importance of implementing fair public policies that promote equality, non-discrimination, reception, inclusion and equity in the sectors of education, housing, employment, health and culture. Yet these policies have the potential to curb phenomena of radicalization within European societies.

The majority of European migration programs are much more focused on controlling external borders than on ensuring physical and legal protection for migrants. Even as the European Union (EU) and its Member States invest €6 billion in connection with the agreement with Turkey (2015) to keep refugees from Syria on its soil, a permanent corps of 10,000 operational officers has been created for the Frontex agency, and an additional sum of €21 billion has been earmarked for strengthening the EU’s external borders by 2027.


A reductive view of security screening

Yet this comes at a high price in terms of human rights and geopolitical dependency: the EU-Turkey deal not only leaves the EU subject to constant political and financial blackmail, but it can also be seen as “Europe’s shame” (Amnesty International), due to the establishment of “open-air prisons” and the way is outsources asylum.

Migration is by nature a complex and cross-cutting issue that must be seen from a broader perspective than that of the borders of countries and the Schengen area. Due to the causes and conditions involved, migration is a phenomenon that develops in geographical areas located far from these borders. At the same time, many European policies affect the situations of developing countries in ways that influence the root causes of migration (trade and agricultural policies, for example).

Therefore, a control-based approach cannot address the development issues in the migrant’s countries of origin.


Migrant rights ignored by Europe

In 2019, 79.5 million people–including 30 to 34 million children–fled war, persecution, conflict and climate disasters. Over half of these migrants remained in their own countries (internally displaced persons). Among the remaining migrants–those seeking refuge in a third country–85% live in poor or developing countries where they are exposed to high risks of physical and psychological insecurity, which are compounded by the current health crisis.

Migrants endure untold suffering throughout their journey: extortion, multiple acts of violence, exploitation, slavery, and human trafficking. The specific conditions for women, girls, and children are even more tragic. A total of 20,000 deaths were recorded between 2014 and 2019 in the Mediterranean alone.

In the face of this tragic reality, EU Member States have proposed the creation of migrant and refugee camps. These included the Moria camp in Greece, for which the reception capacity was regularly increased. Its capacity to register and control migrants also expanded, eventually becoming a retention center managed by the police and army. After news media were barred from the camp and NGOs, such as Médecins sans Frontières withdrew their services, the camp accommodating 12,000 people was gutted by fire in September 2020.


Thinking about migration in terms of human rights

Borders will never be the determinants of international migration flows. They will always be crossed, regardless of the cost for migrants. These border crossing conditions and the strengthening and increase of legal channels for migration must be the focus of discussions.

Given their migration policies, are the EU and the majority of its Member States still credible when it comes to protecting and promoting human rights and the most fundamental rights of migrants (life, security, health, education, protection from arbitrary detention and ill-treatment, in particular for girls and women)?

Furthermore, bold programs must be promoted to support the protection of human rights in the countries of origin, transit and destination. When will we hear a new narrative about migration in Europe that is consistent with the sustainable development goals and respect for human rights?


Thinking about migration in terms of Europe’s best interests

A recent study by UNDP (the largest to be conducted among irregular migrants in Europe) questions some false assumptions regarding irregular migration from Africa to Europe. It reveals that the existing legislative framework and migration policies and agendas are not beneficial either for development in Africa or socio-political contexts in Europe. The study challenges the idea that is possible to reduce migration through programs and policies designed to prevent it (conditionality of aid, forced returns, externalization of asylum) and questions the basis for the European management of migration for development.

Not only is a control-based approach ineffective in addressing the development issues in the migrants’ countries of departure, it is also ineffective and even counter-productive for Europe. Is the EU’s response–and that of its State Members–equal to the challenges it is facing: decreasing fertility rates, a lack of generation renewal, an ageing population in almost all Member States?

Given the risks of bankrupt pension plans, acute labor shortages in certain sectors, and especially growing needs in the care economy, migration, although often depicted as a threat, is in fact a tremendous opportunity. This is a fact that has been well understood in countries where settlement immigration has been crucial and remains strategic, such as in Australia and Canada, and closer to home, in Germany with Angela Merkel in 2015, in opposition to public opinion.



Our series “Tomorrow, 9 billion people”

Episode 1: Worldwide demographic change: new horizons for development

Episode 2: Migration viewed from the North: navigating among reality, ideology, and political choices

Episode 3: Environmental sustainability: the “demographic bomb” myth

Episode 4: Comparative views on population growth and urbanization in the South

Episode 5: The need for a new global sustainable development pact adjusted to planetary demographic dynamics


The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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