Irregular Migration In The Face Of Persistent Inequality

By an ECON+ Member

For the past few months, a colossal amount of immigrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, have tried to break through the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, located in the Northern part of Morocco in a desperate bid to reach Europe and build a new life. In 2013, a total of 4,235 clandestine immigrants were able to get into Ceuta and Melilla – a 48.5 percent increase compared with previous year.[1] Currently, Morocco is playing host to some 30,000 to 40,000 potential migrants to Europe[2]. Behind these figures, various individual events and episodes of migrants trying to make it to the other side of the border have put this issue at the front of the political and international agenda.

Tragic attempts to reach Europe

At the end of March, for example, two groups of around 800 immigrants attempted to cross into Spain from Morocco, before being intercepted by border police from both countries. Such attempts can sometimes end in tragedy, as was the case when 250 individuals tried to reach the border beach of Tarajal where the Spanish Guardia Civil pushed them away with rubber bullets, resulting in 15 deaths. Nevertheless, some border crossing attempts do succeed. More than 530 illegal immigrants entered into Spanish territory through Melilla between January and February. This number already represents half of the total figure for 2013, which sits at 1074 migrants.[3]

As the numbers keep increasing, so too do the stories of immigrants suffering physical abuse on Moroccan territory,[4] direct and arbitrary expulsions from the Spanish territory, and terrible living conditions in over-crowded shelter facilities in the Spanish enclaves. Increasingly, the tragic reality behind migration figures has captured media and civil society attention, as well as rising to the top of Europe’s social and foreign policy agenda.

National and international efforts to address the challenge

Since the beginning of the year, concerned governments have been actively trying to tackle this particular challenge, focusing especially on increased border controls.

For instance, Spain is currently trying to modify its immigration law, Ley de Extranjería, in order to allow for immediate expulsions. The current law foresee a series of administrative procedures to be conducted as soon as an illegal immigrant steps the Spanish soil,[5] whereas the new regulation would reject the migrants at the border. Spain is also cooperating with Morocco to better seal the border, reflected in the establishment of bi-national patrols, the creation of two political co-operation centres in Morocco and in Spain, and increased dialogue between the police and national security agencies.

On the other side of the border, as a response to the various cases of abuses and violence towards sub-Saharan immigrants that ratcheted up political pressure to act, Morocco has since January 2014 implemented an unprecedented and vast regularisation process of undocumented immigrants.[6] Rather than contributing to the sealing of the border, this solution may provide numerous immigrants with a viable alternative to illegal immigration to Spain as they would find in Morocco a place where they could legally stay with better opportunities and life conditions, provided – of course – that they are treated equally vis-à-vis the Moroccan population and that all type of discrimination is avoided. Moreover, the country has reinforced human resources to shore up the border but reportedly remains aware that this is not a viable solution. In the past few months, Rabat has been asking for more global concerted efforts, including from countries such as its neighbouring Algeria[7] and Mauritania, thought which many illegal immigrants transit, as well as by EU member states.

The issue has also transitioned into the international policy arena. During the latest Africa-European Union summit held 2-3 April, an action plan on migration and mobility for 2014-2017 was adopted. This plan, involving 80 countries, mainly advocates for strengthening cooperation between the origin and destination countries to fight against illegal migration and human trafficking networks, better manage the borders, to fully enforce the international legal instruments on international protection, to promote the regular cooperation in the field of migration and to “address the root causes of irregular immigration between Africa and Europe.”[8] Many of these measures can be considered as reactive, and border controls is a priority fostered by policy and decision makers. But applied alone, this will not be enough and will not provide a comprehensive solution to this issue which needs to be addressed comprehensively. The last objective of the Africa-European Union action plan stresses the need to address root causes of migration and thus offers an important alternative approach and an opportunity to galvanise policy action around one of the key drivers of irregular migration; economic inequalities in Africa.[9]

Tackle inequality

It is important to understand the various objectives and the logic behind the migrants’ desire to move to Europe at all costs, including at the expenses of their own life. Most aim at fleeing critical economic, political and/or social conditions in their country of origin. Reaching a wealthier region – Europe – to them means they could gain access to better economic opportunities, improve their standards of living, and ensure a brighter future. This vision has also been reinforced in the past years by the “virtual” reduction of the distance in the world thanks to the progress of technology, which has resulted in faster and more consistent distribution of information.  For many Africans, global connectivity serves to highlight the gap between their country and Europe.

These perceptions, and the desires that come with it, are further fuelled by persistent poverty and inequalities, at both the local and national levels. Although Africa has experienced an important 4.9 percent growth in 2013,[10] a closer look at the distribution of wealth across societies in the continent, demonstrates that income inequality remains high. In Africa, the richest keep capturing the highest shares of wealth and income. In this context, the growth impact on poverty is decidedly put into question. According to the African Development Bank, the poor live on less than US$2 a day, equal 60.8 percent of the continent’s population, but hold 36.5 percent of total income. The rich, on the other hand, live on more than US$20 a day, account for 4.8 percent of the population, and capture18.8 percent of total income.[11]

Growth alone in Africa is not enough. It does not provide a clear path out of widespread poverty. Many of the continent’s poor continue to face a significant lack of economic opportunities in their country of origin and seem to have no other choice than migrating to other regions where they believe they could have better at decent livelihoods. This rationale is reinforced by global inequalities and income gaps between rich and poor countries.

To sustainably fight and reduce illegal migration in Europe, the challenge needs to be tackled at its source. Sealing the borders through enhanced cooperation between the concerned countries such as Spain, Morocco, and Algeria, among others, may have a visible impact in the short to medium term, perhaps to the approval of electorates in host countries, where this issue have contributed to the rise of tensions and hostility towards illegal immigrants. In the long-term however, this is not a viable way to reduce this illegal migration on the long term. Hope is at the centre of migrants’ strategies; significant efforts should be concentrated on shifting this hope towards local objectives and opportunities. This could consist for instance in promoting a fair and more equitable growth across the Africa, including more and decent employment opportunities, in particular for youth. In terms of policy actions for youth employment, integrated and multidimensional policies should be implemented at the regional and national levels. These could consist of macroeconomic measures focusing – among others – on job creation, the promotion of better linkages between the educative system and the labour market. It could also consist of direct investments and efforts targeting youth, increasing their skills and employability through enhanced access to education (both secondary and higher), the setting-up of education and curricula that are adequate to the demands of the labour market (i.e. include entrepreneurship and professional training) and the fostering of professional training for uneducated youth to promote a second chance education.

Failure to address the root cause of migration, the current situation may very well remain the same or worsen, will result in a steady increase in illegal migration and the tragedies that accompany these desperate journeys. An alternative hope must be fostered.


[1] Courrier International, 27 March to 2 April 2014, p.12 (paper version)

[2] Le Monde, 22 February 2014: Le Maroc met en œuvre une nouvelle politique d’accueil des subsahariens ( Accessed: 14 April 2014

[3]El País, 18 March 2014: Los subsaharianos que saltaron a Melilla este año son el triple que en 2013

( Accessed: 14 April 2014

[4] Human Rights Watch (2014), Abused and Expelled Ill-Treatment of Sub-Saharan African Migrants in Morocco, HRW report (

[5] El País, 19 February 2014: Interior cambiará la ley para facilitar la devolución en caliente de inmigrantes ( Accessed: 14 April 2014

[6] The requirements to be considered for the regularization process are the following: having lived in Morocco for 5 years, persons married to a Moroccan citizen for the past two years, their children, foreigners married to resident foreigners who have been living together for 4 years and humanitarian cases.

[7] This topic is a source for tension between both countries, as many of the immigrants come through Algeria.

[8] EU-Africa declaration on migration and mobility, Fourth EU-Africa Summit, 2-3 April 2014, Brussels (

[9]Of course inequalities are not the sole root cause of this illegal migration, but this article is focusing on this aspect while various other dimensions – all intertwined with inequalities – could be taken into account: war and asylums, government failures, poverty and over population in the country of origin, to quote just a few examples.

[10] World Bank Press release, 7 October 2013: Africa Continues to Grow Strongly but Poverty and Inequality Remain Persistently High ( Accessed: 14 April 2014

[11] African Development Bank Group (2012), Briefing Notes for AfDB’s Long-Term Strategy, Briefing Note 5: Income Inequality In Africa (


Image: Flickr


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