Social media bridges North Africa’s divides to facilitate migration

Governments in the region must also collaborate to ensure a ‘better life’ for youth in the Maghreb.

More Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and Libyans are undertaking irregular migration than at any point since 2011. Officials on both sides of the Mediterranean normally analyse the phenomenon by looking at national factors that drive migration decisions or enable departures. This approach misses a key element: irregular migration by Maghrebis is increasingly a shared, region-wide phenomenon. It is propelled by a social media ecosystem that drives dreams of migration and offers detailed instruction on how to realise them.

With most content produced in North African dialects of Arabic, the ubiquity and importance of online information is largely missed by outside observers. Understanding it is essential – it shows the degree to which the region’s youth are increasingly networking through a shared interest in leaving.

The rising connectivity between youth in different Maghrebi countries is intimately linked to internet access. Sixty-three percent of Moroccans and Tunisians, and 53% of Algerians are online, with many using inexpensive smart phones to connect.

North Africa’s youth are increasingly networking on social media through a shared interest in leaving

New media and social networks have supplanted traditional media as the primary information source for many in the region, particularly the youth. An average Moroccan spends nearly three hours on the internet daily, 83% of which is on social media sites like YouTube or Facebook. The largely mutually intelligible Arabic dialects of the Maghreb, along with the use of French, means content generated in one country can have regional reach.  

It is within this large, regionally accessible media ecosystem that content specific to irregular migration has arisen. Primarily involving videos on YouTube or live-streamed on platforms such as WhatsApp, FaceTime, Instagram Live and Facebook, this content both drives migration and enables it.

Through daily or weekly video blogs and other social media posts, Maghrebi emigrés in Europe offer a mostly romanticised representation of the continent. Europe is portrayed as clean, safe and filled with economic and social opportunities. Engagements with government officials are flagged as fair and functional. These videos essentially build a vision of Europe that is the antithesis of the daily reality for many in the Maghreb.

In decades past, emigrés returning for vacation conveyed similar information. But through social media this message reaches a bigger pool of youth, including those with little first-hand exposure to the European diaspora.

Social media networks also offer prospective Maghrebi migrants practical advice on how to get to Europe. This includes migration routes, crossing points to avoid, the prices for different forms of crossing, useful cover stories, and information on the degree and form of counter-migration enforcement used by security forces in both the Maghreb and Europe.

Social media content on migration is likely to grow rapidly as more Maghrebi youth migrate to Europe

Posts also cover strategies on how to regularise one’s legal status – or, at the very least, avoid deportation – once in Europe. ‘Claim to be underage, claim to be Libyan, claim to be looking for your father,’ recommended one Moroccan video.

In the videos’ comments sections, the information becomes more specific: phone numbers of smugglers and the specific dates, times and locations of groups planning to cross. This information is generally unfiltered and uncensored, and is continuously updated and corrected.

The content is intended initially for specific national audiences, with titles referencing the nationality of the creator. But the conversation in the comments section underscores that viewers of popular videos and channels come from across the Maghreb.

Maghrebi governments have some degree of awareness of the rising importance of social media for migration. Earlier this year, Algeria’s interior minister Noureddine Bedoui opened a national conference on irregular migration by asserting that in Algeria, social networks have emerged as the preferred way for smugglers to advertise services and attract young migrants.

Growing government awareness matches the increase in attention paid by officials to the national security implications of social media use, especially the potential for radicalisation and recruitment into terrorism. However, unlike extremism, the security threat posed by migration is seen as minimal or non-existent. This limits the analysis and understanding of social media relating to irregular migration.

North African governments must engage openly and bi-laterally on regional responses to migration

Maghrebi governments haven’t yet shut down or censored social media conversations on migration. This is good, as blunt approaches will probably fail. Social media users are adaptable, and will probably change their behaviour or move to new platforms if governments attempt to block them. More broadly, the region-wide nature of content creation and consumption makes unilateral national responses effectively toothless.

Rather than seeking to stymie social media discussions on migration, governments should see this as a valuable opportunity to understand the factors and frustrations that drive their citizens to depart for Europe.

This could prompt regional discussions on how best to confront common factors driving irregular migration. Unless the region’s governments begin to engage more openly and bi-laterally on regional responses to migration, it is unlikely that they’ll be able to adequately address the issue.

Social media content on migration is likely to continue to grow rapidly, as the number of Maghrebi youth migrating to Europe continues to increase. This will create an expanded group of networked influencers ready to share their stories and offer advice.

These online discussions will transcend the political boundaries and rivalries that divide the region. Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian and Libyan youth are increasingly connecting and bonding over the longing for a ‘better life’. The region’s governments need to catch up – working together to ensure that the dream of a better life can be met in the Maghreb.

Matt Herbert, Senior Research Consultant, ISS and Partner at Maharbal and Amine Ghoulidi, Partner at Dispatch Diligence and geopolitics researcher, London

In South Africa, Daily Maverick has exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles. For media based outside South Africa and queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

Related content