As Tunisians headed to the polls on 13 October to elect their new president, 110 men and women quietly boarded a fishing boat near the southern city of Sfax and set off north towards Italy. Some of the irregular migrants were Tunisian, others hailed from West African states.
The group was ultimately caught by Tunisian authorities, a fate shared by nearly 4 000 others intercepted while leaving the country in 2019. Thousands more were caught by Italy – or successfully disembarked in Europe in hope of a better life. They are part of a wave of Maghrebis – Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and Libyans – who continue to risk their lives in irregular migration attempts across the Mediterranean Sea.
The Institute for Security Studies has tracked the evolution of Maghrebi irregular migration since 2016, detailing its history, the sharp rise in numbers in 2017 and 2018, and the factors driving the situation. What has changed in 2019?
The main shift is in irregular migrant numbers. Over the past 10 months, irregular migration by Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and Libyans has declined sharply compared to the year before. Slightly more than 20 000 Maghrebi irregular migrants were intercepted this year by the authorities in Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia and Algeria, compared to around 40 000 in 2018.
The decline is seen both in the central Mediterranean, where Tunisians and Algerians leave from their home countries towards Italy, and in the western Mediterranean, which sees mostly Moroccan and Algerian migration towards Spain. Spanish and Italian apprehensions of Maghrebi on both routes are roughly 50% lower than 2018. North African states are also catching fewer irregular migrants than in 2018.
However the decline is far more limited than that seen in European arrest levels. To date, 2 862 arrests of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean were reported by Algeria, roughly a quarter lower than in 2018. Tunisia’s interceptions, at 3 786 are only a sliver less than 2018 overall. However, in sharp contrast to 2018, when few non-Tunisian migrants transited the country, this year roughly a quarter of those arrested are foreigners – mainly from West Africa.
The pattern of arrests on both sides of the Mediterranean suggests two things. First, for reasons that are not clear, fewer Maghrebi attempted to migrate irregularly this year. Second, Algeria and Tunisia, and probably Morocco, have become more focused and successful in halting embarkations from their shores, resulting in the countries accounting for a higher percentage of arrests than in previous years.
However, even with the drop in migration from the Maghreb, the absolute number of Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and Libyans being apprehended is far above what was seen between 2012 and 2016.
Some things, however, have not changed. The main route for Maghrebi irregular migration to Europe is (still) in the western Mediterranean. Spain has intercepted slightly more than 10 000 Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians this year. The other main route is in the central Mediterranean, where Italian authorities have caught roughly 3 700 Tunisians and Algerians. Most Maghrebi depart directly from their home countries for Europe.
Hundreds of Tunisians have been arrested by Spain while trying to cross from Morocco into the enclave of Melilla. Small numbers of Algerians and Moroccans have begun to fly to South America before journeying north towards the United States.
Smugglers continue to play a role in helping Maghrebi reach Europe. But self-smuggling – when migrants source boats and motors themselves and head north unaided – continues to grow, especially in Morocco and Algeria.
A vibrant social media ecosystem abounds with details on how to undertake the process of migration. Videos shot by migrants while in transit on boats or trains or walking across land borders demystify the process for youth watching what is, for many, far more gripping entertainment than what’s available on state TV.
There are also no significant changes in any of the factors that drive young people to leave North Africa. Economic options are still limited for large parts of the region’s population, especially the youth, those from rural and remote areas, and those bereft of the family connections vital to surmounting structural inequality. Many are further squeezed by rising costs and depreciating currencies. There is little optimism that the region’s economies will improve in the coming year.
Seismic political events have occurred in the Maghreb in 2019, including the revolution that forced Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power in April, and Tunisia’s presidential and legislative elections. But it remains to be seen whether this will address persistent frustration among the youth that their governments are only minimally responsive to their needs.
In Algeria, a momentary halt in migration after the resignation of Bouteflika gave way to rising interceptions in the late summer and autumn. While it is normal for migration to increase in the latter part of the year, it also underscores that the hope that the revolution would lead to improved economic and social situations may be dissipating. Without sustained and broad-based change, irregular migration to Europe will probably continue at relatively high levels.
Doubling down on efforts to halt migration from the Maghreb via security aid or the deployment of security forces offers only limited, expensive and fleeting success. Instead, the European Union and member states should help in the difficult process of transformation that needs to happen in the Maghreb.
An equitable approach grounded in both European and Maghrebi needs is required. It should germinate from honest dialogue between governmental and non-governmental actors on both sides of the Mediterranean. This is the only way to achieve effective change for young migrants and would-be migrants dreaming of a better future.
Dr Matthew Herbert, Senior Research Consultant, ISS
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