North African Migration & Europe’s Response to the Arab Spring

The “migration dimension” of the Arab Spring should evoke not only the potential short- and longer term movement of North Africans to Europe, but equally how Europe’s fear of migration dampened the broader political and public response to the historic revolutions in the Southern Mediterranean.

Europe and international agencies were effective in addressing the related humanitarian crises. EU bureaucracies also responded with relative speed to the dangers and opportunities generated by events. But a vacuum of political will meant that the response was fragmented, lacking conviction and vision.

The EU can still conceive and implement an ambitious plan to create a Mediterranean labour market uniting the region. Among its many advantages: endowing workers with skills EU companies need (they could be employed in their home countries or, if feasible, eventually as migrants in the EU), and helping to create a solid middle class of consumers for European goods.

The Arab Spring also revealed a series of governance gaps related to migration, mobility, and asylum that should be addressed by Europe and the international community.

In sum, there is an argument not for more migration, but better migration. In the age of globalisation, the EU could show the way in overcoming one aspect utterly underdeveloped: the orderly movement of people.

I. Introduction

The Arab Spring, in the context of migration, in particular, should surely be a catalyst for European governments to rethink their relationship with North Africa (and Africa as a whole). Doing so will require the development of a unifying vision for how to transform the trans-Mediterranean relationship.

The paranoia about migrant hordes and exaggerated fears of a tidal wave of immigrants fleeing to European shores can be explained by the profound fear of migration in Europe — a fear complicated by, and confused with, the effects of the economic and financial crises, chronic unemployment. The rise of anti-immigrant populism in many EU countries has inhibited some moderate politicians hoping to advance a more progressive vision for migration. Budget constraints, meanwhile, limit investments in immigrant integration, thus heightening divisions within Europe’s increasingly diverse communities. But severely restricting mobility in the Mediterranean is neither a pertinent nor an effective response to the economic crisis and social anomy that is roiling European politics.

This note focuses on mid- and long-term recommendations regarding mobility and migration between Europe and North Africa. It also offers a brief synopsis of how Europe responded to the immediate short-term humanitarian crisis triggered by the Mediterranean revolutions, as well as an assessment of the migration governance gaps that the crisis illuminated.

II. The Outflows from North Africa

To start and as a reminder, the world stock of migrants is small and the same as in 1965 i.e. “manageable”.

The immediate humanitarian response in North Africa, while revealing numerous gaps in how such crises are managed, was sufficient in general terms. The UNHCR, IOM, and other agencies and NGOs worked together effectively—improvising when needed—to provide emergency relief to over 667,000 refugees fleeing the conflicts and to repatriate 159,000 third-country nationals.

Nonetheless, since last winter, more than 1,500 people have lost their lives attempting to reach Italy’s shores, often because of unseaworthy vessels and an absence of qualified skippers on-board.

As of late August, according to the UNHCR, some 52,000 people had arrived in Italy as part of the North Africa outflow, with 27,000 having departed from Libya and the rest from Tunisia. Some of the European media and politicians portrayed these safety seekers and migrants as a serious threat to Europe. By way of contrast, during the breakup of Yugoslavia, over 2.7 million people were displaced, of whom 700,000 sought asylum in the EU. Similarly, the movement of workers from Europe’s east dwarfs the numbers from the southern Mediterranean: Spain alone has received over 800,000 workers from Romania, for example, while an estimated 700,000 Poles migrated to the United Kingdom after 2004.

Other significant facts:

Approximately 667,000 people—about half of them third-country nationals from poorer Asian, African, and other Middle Eastern countries—fled to Libya’s borders with Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, and Algeria.

IOM, UNHCR, and others have repatriated 159,000 third-country nationals using over 1,500 charter flights; over 120,00 more returned home over land (mainly to Chad and Niger).

Of these, 73,000 migrants returned to West Africa, 33,000 to Asia (mostly Bangladesh), and the rest elsewhere in the region and the world.

As of 23 September 2011, IOM notes a total of 696,079 migrants have crossed Libya’s borders.* This figure includes 309,874 third-country nationals (TCNs), which represent 45% of total crossings. Movements still continue, with another 10,073 migrants (1,386 TCNs) crossing the borders to Tunisia, Egypt, Chad and Niger between 14 and 22 September. IOM and its partners have assisted 209,210 migrants via a combination of charter flights, in-kind air assets, commercial flights, and land and sea vessels. The total caseload in need of evacuation at the Libyan borders is still estimated at 2,353 migrants. (*Cross-border movement statistics only refer to migrants leaving Libya.)

IOM Cross Border Movements as of 23 September 2011

III. The European Response to Date

It quickly became clear that there was no real desire to reframe the relationship between the two shores of the Mediterranean, let alone a 21st century Marshall Plan.

This is pitiful as the basis is there for such a project with the EU working in tandem with the US, Arab Gulf States, China and Japan. The mechanics of the Marshall Plan could be applied if the Arab countries – notably Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan – accept to join the initiative on their own free will.

The all-consuming sovereign debt crisis and the continent’s weak governments contributed largely to the absence of a real response.

Surely, the timing is difficult but as noted by Uri Dadush and Michele Dunne on American and European Responses to the Arab Spring: What’s the Big Idea? in the current issue of The Washington Quarterly (CSIS, Fall 2011):

“… How can Europe and the US support democratic transitions in a way that is acceptable to the Arab countries…at a time when both continents are confronting fiscal crises? The best instruments available are enhanced trade agreements that not only promote market access, but even more importantly maximize competitiveness-enhancing and job-promoting reforms in the Arab countries….The new trade agreements should be far deeper and more comprehensive than those currently in force and contain many of the elements included in Eastern European countries’ accession agreements, including a bold multi-year trade assistance initiative designed to bolster competitiveness and the role of the private sector in the Arab countries”.

The Marshall Plan, in its time, was understood as being of benefit to both the United States and to Europe. But it had time to germinate and was supported by historic relationships and partnerships in the World Wars. Even in the early euphoria of the Arab Spring, by contrast, there was only a fleeting sense that a stable, democratic North Africa could emerge as a serious partner to Europe. This asymmetry, coupled with concerns over uncontrolled migration, dampened enthusiasm for an ambitious response, as did the focus on the financial crisis.

The European reaction can be identified in four main themes:

An effective, timely humanitarian response: The European Commission and individual Member States responded quickly and well to the floods of refugees across the conflict borders, sending sufficient funds to IOM, UNHCR, and other relief agencies to provide food, shelter, and repatriation. Border agency Frontex, within its limited abilities, also mobilized quickly to help patrol the Mediterranean.

A vacillating, underwhelming political response: Despite scattered calls for a new Marshall Plan, the European political response to the Arab Spring (as opposed to the military response in Libya) was largely lacking leadership and conviction. An inherent scepticism about whether the revolutions would spawn democracies (rather than Islamic strongholds) fuelled calls for substantial aid to be conditional on democratic progress; conditionality also applied to proposals for any migration openings (in exchange for strong border controls and potent re-admission agreements). In sum, what is proposed is “conditionality” instead of “incentives”, hardly a saleable political product to Arab countries wary of the West!

A predictably energetic bureaucratic response, lacking focus and political will: In March and May, the European Commission produced a pair of communications on the Southern Mediterranean, with a significant emphasis on migration-related issues; the relevant Commissioners also visited Egypt and Tunisia in the late spring. In practical terms, this activity has led to the creation of a new platform—the so-called “dialogues for migration, mobility, and security”—that aims at preparing the conditions for the establishment of Mobility Partnerships between the EU and Southern Mediterranean countries. In addition, Frontex increased its assets in the South Mediterranean. All this, however, failed to signal to Europe’s partners in North Africa that a new framework of cooperation on migration and mobility was being conceived.

What is lacking is a holistic policy system with regards to migration. This was due to the simple fact that North Africa governments are primarily interested in creating greater opportunities for legal migration to the EU, and in expanding trade—neither of which have figured persuasively in EU plans.

In sum, the time has come to seriously advance the idea of a Single EuroMed Market and to start work on a Customs Union with Egypt and Tunisia (refer to the success of the CU with Turkey) adopting the common external tariff. The volume of trade between the EU and MENA could be 3.5 to four times larger if both regions were to reach the EU’s level of integration! (See TWQ article)

Political tension over the suspension of Schengen rules by France and Denmark: Italy’s decision to issue temporary residence permits to North African migrants prompted France to suspend Schengen regulations and impose inspections on the border with Italy; Denmark then followed suit. This triggered intense political debate and an eventual proposal from the Commission on the conditions under which Member States could suspend Schengen. It has not yet led to any significant momentum toward a unified European Border Guard initiative—perhaps building on Frontex—which would be a reasonable response to the challenges Europe now faces.

IV. Recommendations for the EU on Migration in the Southern Mediterranean

The window has not closed for Europe to regroup and propose a robust vision on migration and mobility to the emerging governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya (and eventually beyond). Engagement on this front is a long-term game.

In moving forward, Europe could adapt the kind of “mini-lateralist” approach that eased the way for military action in Libya. Migration is too controversial an issue to generate EU-wide consensus. So “coalitions of the willing” will have to be at the vanguard, devising novel migration policies that could lead to a race to the top. The Lisbon Treaty allows for these “enhanced cooperation” (a procedure whereby a minimum of nine EU member states are allowed to establish advanced integration or cooperation in an area within EU structures but without the other members being involved). This could be done in the context of the Mobility Partnerships organized by the European Commission, the essentially defunct Union for the Mediterranean (replacing the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership), the recently announced “Dialogues for Migration, Mobility, and Security,” or in other formats. For instance: Willing groups of countries that want to tap North Africa’s labour supply could offer work visas to migrants from the region, working in collaboration with local educational institutions and European companies to train them. If they do so successfully, other countries might well be willing to follow.

The sense of purpose in all of the EU’s platforms and processes is often lost under the weight of bureaucratic tedium. By contrast, Europe’s approach to Mediterranean mobility could be animated by a vision of constructive engagement.

The essential aspects of this approach would include:

Developing partnerships between European and North African educational institutions, opportunities for vocational skills development, and workforce preparation programs. An intensive focus on developing North Africa’s human potential by investing to make workers useful for their own countries (first and foremost) as well as the EU is critical.

Significant job creation will require internal labour market reforms in the Southern Mediterranean in order to make it safe, predictable, and profitable for European companies to open up/expand operations in the region.

Establishing capacity to more accurately forecast the needs of Europe’s labour markets in the short-, mid-, and long-terms; using these forecasts to guide investments in education and workforce training, both in Europe and North Africa (and to Europe’s East), thus matching up African demographic, skill, and educational forecasts with European labour market needs. The demographic issue is broadly that within ten years, 80 people will join the workforce for 100 people who will leave it in Europe, and in the developing countries 342 people will join the workforce for every 100 who leave it! In France, for example, in order to maintain the same ratio in 2050, it would need 1.7 million immigrants to enter each year!

Sharp improvement in the means by which skills recognition, both formal and informal, takes place in Europe.

Providing substantial support to design, build, train, and staff migration and regional protection systems in the emerging democracies of North Africa. Also includes assistance in drafting constitutions and relevant legislation, building border management systems, and establishing institutions to manage migration, regional protection, and diasporas.

A vital role given to the private sector: “co-development” cannot be simply decreed by the top – the true actors on the ground are those companies which invest (FDI) and produce growth in the area.

In the medium-term, once transitional arrangements have been completed, the EU could consider citizens of North African partner countries as a new tier in the preferential treatment of mobile workers, particularly with respect to seasonal and less skilled work.

Establishing legal channels for expanded mobility. In the short term, promoting mechanisms for greater inter-regional exchanges, including new avenues for students and entrepreneurs; facilitating mobility, including avenues for temporary and full-time workers.

Intra-regional Arab countries exchanges need to boosted and nurtured as an essential part of the strategy.

Entering into a dialogue with actors beyond state governments in both sending and receiving countries—such as regional and local governments, as well as civil society groups—will be essential, especially in a world where migrants increasingly consider their movements to be city-to-city, rather than country-to-country. Understanding the different pressures faced by municipal authorities in sending countries will help the EU ensure that their partnership addresses the realities of emigration, not just the policy approaches.

The EU should mainstream these efforts across Directorate Generals, since implementing these strategies requires coordination across a number of different portfolios. Currently, the cluster of small-scale responses from various Commissioners, and the failure to inspire strong Member State support, has given partner governments a confusing set of mixed messages, and potentially sets the Commission up to promise something it cannot deliver. As a reminder, Egypt and Tunisia have Association Agreements with the EU!

Finally, in envisioning a new era of greater opportunity and mobility in the southern Mediterranean, the EU must fully consider its approach to the entire African continent—both for reasons of equity and also to anticipate the knock-on effects of migration and labour openings in North Africa.

V. Governance Gaps Revealed by the North Africa Crisis

The Arab Spring catalysed a series of crises—related to humanitarian relief, migration, and public opinion—that have tested the limits of international cooperation on migration and exposed major holes in existing systems to manage human mobility, especially in a crisis.

At the May 2011 G8 Deauville Summit, $ 20 billion in assistance was pledged to Egypt and then to Tunisia from multilateral development banks in addition to bilateral help but “is both the wrong sort of help – stressing aid, not trade –and of entirely wrong scale (see TWQ article). The EBRD too has declared its “intention” to invest $3.5 billion annually in the region “when and if” opportunities arise.

Among the governance gaps are the following:

The management of migration flows

Refugee flows: Although the refugee regime is the only area of migration with formal multilateral governance, the crisis exposed huge gaps in existing mechanisms to grant temporary protection and asylum to persons in genuine need of protection. The current regime is designed for individuals fleeing persecution from their own governments, and does not have the tools to manage migrants “trapped” in a third country (as happened in Libya). There is little clarity as to the roles of national governments and international organizations in this situation. How should the burden be shared? How and where should asylum camps be established?

Labour migration flows: The migration crisis exposed by “boat migrants” (mostly from Tunisia, but also from sub-Saharan Africa transiting through Libya) striving to reach European shores exposes the lack of legitimate legal avenues for economic migrants fleeing instability and unemployment in the region.

Mixed flows: Faced with both kinds of movement described above, governing bodies need to improve their ability to differentiate between genuine refugees and economic migrants, who are often travelling together. While the distinction is clear in international humanitarian law, this is rendered meaningless if the distinction cannot be made on the ground.

Protecting vulnerable migrants

Trapped migrants: In the absence of a global migration organization, there is no governing entity with a mandate to ensure that migrant workers are treated humanely and fairly in the country of destination, especially when their country of origin is unwilling or unable to help (for example, Bangladeshi workers trapped in Libya whose government did not have the funds to repatriate them, thus forcing them to rely on the goodwill of organizations like UNHCR and IOM). The Filipino government faced the converse challenge of having the resources to retrieve its nationals, but most of them being unwilling to return home. These people, similarly, are left in a governance gap.

The events in Libya also placed a spotlight on actions by states that contravene international law and norms: For example, the Gaddafi regime used migration, and the threat of “demographic bombs” (unleashing waves of irregular migrants onto European shores) for political leverage and was shown to be complicit in human smuggling to southern Europe. This has grave implications for rights as well as international mobility. However, should be recalled the unworthy relationship between Libya and a few EU Member States where agreements were set up with the Libyan government to forestall further emigration (notably from sub-Sahara) to European shores!

Technology has helped smugglers to be more efficient in their work, and smuggling fees have been increasing; yet international regimes have not enjoyed a similar entrepreneurial ability to harness technology in their efforts to prevent organized crime.

The examples above point to a dire need for coordination among disparate actors on shared challenges. While in some cases this may mean actual collaboration (for example the joint UNHCR/IOM Humanitarian Evacuation Cell established in Geneva on 1 March 2011 to respond to flows out of Libya), that kind of collective action may not be feasible (or appropriate) in every situation. However, it is critical to designate specific roles for each lead actor, and in this way coordinate (if not cooperate).

The following forms of cooperation could be considered:

Cooperation among international agencies (UNHCR, IOM, ILO, etc.). Formal collaboration may not always be feasible; each organization has such a specific mandate that codifying this kind of cooperation (which would look like they were broadening their mission) might be rejected by their funders and stakeholders. An informal, network-based cooperation, based on trust and shared objectives that unfolds in practical terms on the ground may be more effective than any formal arrangement.

Cooperation among receiving states: As the problem of irregular migration is spread unevenly across regions (some states are the primary “first stop” for irregular migrants based on their geography, and some are the primary “end goal” for where migrants want to end up) the issue of how to “fairly” share responsibilities and burdens is the main barrier to cooperation. Médecins sans Frontières recently criticized the EU for shirking its “responsibility” to allow victims of war into Europe. An effort needs to be made to define who is in charge of setting the norms—let alone principles of engagement—for burden-sharing among states.

VI. Conclusion

With or without the revolutions in North Africa, migration from and through the region into Europe would have grown gradually greater over the coming decades.

This is because the MENA region, with its legions of young workers, is an ideal demographic match for Europe, with its shortage of the youthful labour it needs to remain competitive. MENA is the source of 20 million first-generation migrants, half of them now living in another MENA country and most of the rest in Europe.

The size of MENA’s working-age population will continue to rise sharply in the next two decades: a “youth bulge” of 96 million people between 20-29 in 2010 will reach 104 million in 2030. Europe will be subject to the opposite trend, as its total working-age population began shrinking in 2010 and the number of new entrants into the labour market will steadily decline over the next 20 years. The tables that follow tell the tale well.

The Working-Age Population in the MENA* Region and the EU-27

2000 to 2030

*MENA (currently) predominantly sending countries: all MENA countries except Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Libya.

Source: United Nations Population Division (UNPD), “World Population Prospects: the 2006 Revision Population Database” (online database, September 2007),

Yet the Arab Spring offers an unexpected and precious opportunity to Europe: it provides a catalyst to fundamentally reshape its relationship with the region, focusing on creating a functioning even if imperfect labour market, deep security cooperation, and fostering enduring development opportunities—and doing so in tandem and as equals with the region’s emerging democracies.

Identifying key immigration partner countries for the future—whether due to political ties, demographic growth, democratic change, economic dynamism, or skill base—and forging stronger partnerships based on genuinely collaborative goals will be the key to ensuring that innovation remains central to the external relations of EU migration. Beyond mobility partnerships, these strategic engagements should bring together trade, development and political objectives, and design the right “blend” of policies to ensure the most beneficial cooperation.

The first step on both sides is thus bolstering internal cooperation. In the European Union, there is a mismatch between the rhetoric of “solidarity and partnership” and the reality of Europe’s efforts to manage the crisis in its Southern neighbourhood. There is a need for much greater internal coherence, as thus far there have been stark discrepancies among Member States’ approaches. Europeans need to define a clear, common, coherent policy to send clear messages to North African partners. In the words of one European official, “we can’t have individual responses in a common space.” And this need extends to the African side as well; the lack of cooperation among North African countries incurs a high cost to their own populations.



The Demographic Dynamics of MENA and EU Labor Markets

2005 to 2030





Change (t,t+5)


Change (t,t+5)

Total working-age population (ages 15 to 64) in thousands



+ 35,587


+ 2,227



+ 32,029


– 3,934



+ 30,196


– 5,598



+ 30,048


– 7,032



+ 28,458


– 9,329




Total 2005 to 2030

+ 156,318

– 23,666

Annual numbers of new entrants (age 25) in thousands



+ 818


– 185



+ 293


-3 26



– 85


– 417





– 216



+ 530


– 25




Average 2005 to 2030


+ 321


– 234

Source: UNPD, “World Population Prospects.”