Despite risking death, enslavement, and crushing debt, 93% of surveyed African migrants who traveled to Europe via irregular means in recent years would undergo the treacherous journey again, according to a new report by the United Nations Development Programme.
The migrants surveyed in the report on average have higher levels of education and are better paid in their home countries than peers in the same age groups. They come primarily from cities, have families that are twice the size of the continental average, and are deeply disillusioned by governmental institutions in their home countries.
Only 9% of migrants surveyed said they had faith in their origin country’s government; 16% had faith in the police; and 25% in community leaders.
The UN interviewed 1,970 migrants from 39 African countries who now live in 13 European nations. Around 77% of migrants surveyed were men, and 23% were women, reflecting the gender disparity in the journey from Africa to Europe.
Aziz Abdoul is originally from Senegal and currently lives in Grenoble, France. He is an artist and works in community in Ville Nouve, a neighborhood in Grenoble.
Irregular migration refers to migration that falls outside of the normal bureaucratic channels of visas and flights, interviews and approvals. It often involves extreme risk.
The people who hire smugglers to guide them across deserts, who crowd onto inflatable dinghies to cross the Mediterranean Sea, who pass months in detention facilities — these are irregular migrants.
Over the past decade, millions of irregular migrants have arrived in Europe by sea, primarily between 2014 and 2017, with a huge spike occurring in 2016. This influx has sparked a political backlash throughout Europe. Governments have tightened their borders, expelled migrants, and brokered controversial deals with countries like Libya to prevent migration in the first place.
The migrants who do make it to Europe begin a new chapter of opportunities and challenges.
The majority of respondents reported being financially better off, more safe, and positive about their future in their destination country. At the same time, loneliness, social exclusion, and poverty frequently accompany migration.
“I have been in the Netherlands without documents for 12 years now,” Eric, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, told the UN. “I don’t have the right to work or study, or to proper housing. When I first arrived, I was aspiring to become a footballer or a teacher. But I’ve given up. It’s like I don’t even exist. Everything is impossible if you don’t have papers. You’re just trapped in limbo.”
Some mainstream narratives around migrants often depict them as a horde of unemployed or unqualified foreigners seeking to undermine the way of life in European countries. On the contrary, people who are migrants are generally highly motivated and resourceful, committed to improving their lives, and supporting their families back home, according to the report.
In general, people aren’t migrating because of a lack of jobs in their home countries, the report notes. They’re leaving because of corrupt governments that have failed to maintain basic services like water systems and schools, and widespread institutional dysfunction that makes everyday life unsafe. They see no other way out of the poverty that surrounds them.
Vivian Ntih, 43, is photographed with her daughters Mari Mensah Damson, 15, and Elizabeth, 9, at the beach in Valencia. Vivian left Nigeria in 2000 and acme to Spain, where she now lives.
“If you have a family, you have to ensure they have food, shelter, medicine, and education,” a man named Yerima who has migrated to Europe told the UN. “I have a young daughter. People may ask what kind of father I am, to leave behind my wife and infant daughter. But what kind of a father would I be, if I stayed and couldn’t provide them a decent life?”
The report aims to clarify the root causes of irregular migration, give voice to the migrant experience, and offer solutions to the problem.
Since migration primarily stems from government corruption and development failures, it can only be addressed with deep societal interventions. European countries that want to stave off migration should be funding development projects that improve quality of life in countries currently hemorrhaging youth. For example, investments in vocational education, electricity access, and road quality can spur broad economic gains that allow people to find worthwhile jobs at home.
African countries also have a huge incentive to find solutions to systemic problems in their countries.
“Through outward migration, Africa is losing substantial numbers among its most aspirational,” the UN’s report reads. “Collectively, and paradoxically, those leaving represent the positive story of development gains on the continent.”