African Migration to Europe

African Migration to Europe

Without a common policy on migration, Europe is struggling to accommodate rising levels of immigrants from Africa.

July 9, 2007 10:20 am (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

This publication is now archived.


European Union (EU) states are under increasing pressure to reform and align their immigration and asylum practices. The issue has taken on economic as well as humanitarian urgency. Experts say the aging EU states, many with low birth rates, face a labor shortage in the near future. At the same time, thousands of Africans continue to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in search of work and a better life. The problem has become particularly acute in southern European countries along the Mediterranean Basin. In a widely publicized May 2007 incident, twenty-seven African immigrants were left clinging to a Maltese tuna pen (IHT) off the Libyan coast because Malta did not want to take responsibility over taking in the immgirants. Disagreement among member states has prevented progress toward a more standardized EU immigration policy.

Which EU member states are most affected by immigration?

With over one million migrants a year and 299,000 asylum applications in 2006 alone, Europe is the primary destination for migrants worldwide. Countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea such as Spain, Italy, and Malta are most affected. Under the 2003 Dublin II Regulation, the first country in which an asylum seeker lands is solely responsible for examining that person’s asylum application. Predictably, this has placed greater strains on countries closest to Africa, the source of the vast majority of immigrants. In 2006, Spain received at least 636,000 migrants, representing almost half of the EU’s total and 122,500 more than the number of migrants arriving in Germany, France, Italy, and Britain combined. Authorities on Spain’s Canary Islands alone caught almost thirty thousand Africans trying to enter in 2006. Malta, located only two hundred miles from Libya’s coastline, has seen up to two hundred immigrants a week, and the Italian island of Lampedusa has also been affected. Non-European countries along the migration route such as Morocco have been strained by mass migration to Europe.

What have individual states done to cope with the influx of immigrants?

In the absence of a common European policy, states have taken individual steps to address immigration. Spain and Malta, struggling to accommodate immigration from Africa, have called on the European Union to shoulder some of the responsibility. Malta’s foreign minister announced that “Malta cannot become a holding area for all of Europe,” (IHT) while Spain’s justice minister has called for an increase in EU funds to secure his country’s borders.

More From Our Experts

Spain’s immigration policy is one of the EU’s most liberal. It long has granted special treatment to residents of former Spanish colonies, particularly in Latin America. More recently, recognizing the economic value of immigrants, Spain has started to recruit legal workers (FT) from countries such as Senegal, all while encouraging the adoption of a common EU immigration policy. At the same time, however, it has also attempted to forge broad bilateral accords with African countries that would exchange repatriation for funding to help the returned migrants. These repatriation methods have faced complications and criticism in countries such as Senegal (afrol News) and Gambia (afrol News). Spain has also said that it would expel all illegal immigrants, even going so far as to call the human trafficking groups “mafias” (BBC).

More on:

Immigration and Migration

Sub-Saharan Africa


France has taken a stricter approach. In May 2007, new Immigration Minister Brice Hortefeux announced a plan to offer monetary incentives for legal immigrants to go to back to Africa, and President Nicolas Sarkozy established the controversial Ministry of Immigration (ABC), Integration, National Identity and Co-development. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, an estimated 5 million, many from northern Africa, and national identity was one of Sarkozy’s campaign themes in the spring of 2007.

Like Spain, France has announced that it will not legalize illegal immigrants within its borders, and it recently set higher goals for the expulsion (Reuters) of illegal immigrants. Due to France’s harsher policies, writes the Weekly Standard, even French-speaking African immigrants are increasingly choosing Spain over France.

What are the economic implications of the flow of immigrants to Europe?

Europe wants to reject illegal immigration, but it also faces an imminent labor shortage. According to the European Commission, 5.5 million jobs will be created between 2007 and 2008, and Europe’s aging population will leave a dearth of both skilled and unskilled labor. CFR Senior Fellow Charles A. Kupchan argues that despite tendencies against integration, “Europe will have to turn to immigration for its economic survival.” Indeed, German vacancies for engineers rose nearly 30 percent to about twenty-three thousand between 2006 and 2007; the cost of such a shortage is exacerbated by Germany’s restrictions on free movement of workers.

While the crackdown on illegal immigration has led to increased penalties on illegal employment—EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini estimates the shadow economy is worth 7 percent to 16 percent of EU gross domestic product—the European Union is simultaneously exploring the establishment of legal job centers across Africa. Portugal, which currently holds the EU presidency, has declared the need for a “realistic” immigration policy that will take into account the need for economic migration. Europe might do well to accept immigration—as BusinessWeek points out, Spain, with its absorption of millions of immigrants, has become Europe’s best-performing major country. The Spanish government attributes over half of this economic performance to its immigration.

What are the EU’s current policies on asylum and immigration?

The EU’s policies on asylum are more uniform than those on immigration. Under a 2004 policy, people can receive refugee status if there is a “well-founded fear” that they could be persecuted for race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion in their home countries. The European Union has agreed on minimum standards for housing, education, and health of asylum seekers, as well as on a set of criteria for determining refugee status. Furthermore, the Asylum Procedures Directive has established that states provide asylum seekers with a minimum level of access to legal aid. In practice, however, these measures have not protected asylum seekers from inadequate legal representation, “inhuman and degrading” treatment (PDF) at government immigration centers, and “unlawful expulsions.” (PDF) Moreover, these standards still leave room for differing interpretation by states, and obligatory burden sharing of refugees among member states has yet to reach consensus.

More From Our Experts

These inconsistencies pale next to those issues afflicting EU immigration policy, however. As William Somerville, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, says: “On legal migration there is very little European level regulation. It’s almost entirely a question of national sovereign power over entry and exit.” Ostensibly the European Union has an external policy on migration called the Global Approach to Migration (PDF), adopted in 2005, but it encourages—not requires—cooperation between member states. The European Union has issued laws that affect immigration for students, researchers, and family reunification, but member-state disagreement continues to overcome calls for concrete establishment of a unified migration policy. Britain, Denmark, and Ireland still maintain the right to decide participation in a common immigration policy on a case-by-case basis. As an EU official admits, “EU migration policy is only harmonized so far to a limited degree…admission to a member states’ national territory goes to the heart of national sovereignty, so it is an area that member states are hanging on to dearly.”

Why is the EU facing criticism over its stance on immigration?

The European Union faces criticism from human rights watchdog groups for heavy-handedness and inconsistency. Organizations such as Amnesty International and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) have claimed that EU refugee policy is so strict as to create a “fortress Europe” that barricades itself against people in need. People with refugee status do not have equivalent rights to other non-EU nationals, and they live under the constant threat of expulsion (AP) and restrictions to free movement. Differing policies among member states have led to “asylum shopping,” a process in which asylum seekers apply to multiple countries in the hopes that the one with lowest standards will accept them.

There are internal disagreements in the European Union as well. In June 2007 Spain lodged a formal EU complaint (Malta Independent) against Malta for not giving assistance to a Spanish boat that rescued migrants in the ocean south of Malta. At the same time, Justice Commissioner Frattini and members of the European Parliament have criticized EU member states for not giving help to countries such as Spain and Malta and for the lack of cohesion that has led to immigrants’ deaths in the Mediterranean.

Is the EU likely to adopt a common immigration and asylum policy?

The EU is beginning to take some steps in response to increased calls for the adoption of a common asylum policy. Frattini has asked for standard procedures and standards of protection for refugees as part of the overall goal of standardization by 2010 (Deutsche Welle). The European Commission also issued a Green Paper calling for greater discussion of how to establish a uniform asylum policy by the anticipated 2010 deadline. These steps, while signaling that pushes for standardization do exist, still must overcome differing stances toward asylum.

More on:

Immigration and Migration

Sub-Saharan Africa


In contrast to these advances in asylum policy, there are substantial roadblocks on agreement for standardized immigration policy. While some countries are staggering under the weight of immigration due to their proximity to Africa, others, such as Estonia and Latvia, have limited complications and have little incentive to standardize policy. Indeed, Finland has already come out in opposition of the commission’s immigration proposals. As Jo Shaw of the University of Edinburgh School of Law explains, “Common action on strengthening the borders completely breaks down as soon as it becomes as a question of what to do with people once they have reached the territories or territorial waters of the member states, and whether there should be burden sharing.” If immigration policy changes do arise, they might come in the form of either mobility partnerships, in which the European Union increases legal mobility from an outside country in exchange for that country’s promise to fight illegal immigration, or through circular migration, which encourages temporary labor migration. The European Council has only just begun discussions on how to implement these proposals.


Top Stories on CFR


Israel has made eliminating the threat from the Gaza-based militant group a central war aim, but it’s not entirely clear at what point that condition will be met.  


Outright seizure of the Russian Central Bank’s hundreds of billions in frozen assets is currently off the table, but it is still possible to obtain large sums for Ukraine from the interest income on these assets.