The Real Reasons Why Migrants Risk Everything for a New Life Elsewhere

How do we stop this from happening again?
QUESTIONS. How do we stop this from happening again? Why are these people taking such risks? Why has illegal-boat migration to Europe peaked during certain years? Why are the migrants tended to be not very poor? (The Eritrean migrant shown in the above iconic rescue picture, for instance, paid $10,000 in order to reach to the shores of Greece.)

By Doug Saunders,

I MET Marlon, a Sudanese man who had walked across great expanses of desert to Libya, on the edge of Tripoli as he prepared to visit a remote beach at midnight and pay a hard-saved $2,000 to get onto an overcrowded, unseaworthy boat headed to Italy. He knew that the risk of death was high, so was trying to choose his boat carefully, to avoid the sort of fate that has made headlines around the world. He knew the risk too well: “My good friend paid the man and then disappeared, and then I learned that he had drowned when his ship sank,” he told me. “I want to get out of here, but not that badly.” 

I met Jacques Kamra, a 27-year-old Liberian, in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, a few weeks after he got off a similar boat. Like Marlon, he was well educated and articulate, and had made a tough gamble, and a big investment, in his family’s future to get there. “When I arrived here alive,” he told me, “I started praying every day that Spain will win the World Cup, to bring them a miracle like the one that has brought me here.” He knew he would eventually be deported, but, he believed, the earnings would be enough to transform the fate of his family.

And I met Jouhar in an eastern Tunisian beach town shortly after he had been returned by Italian authorities. His packed boat had broken in half at sea, killing his best friend and dozens of others, many of them university graduates with connections in Europe, in the process wasting the almost $1,500 Jouhar had saved to pay the smuggler.

People like these three – and dozens of others I have met in Tunis, Alexandria, Marseilles, Paris, Munich and London – have now become Europe’s biggest concern.

The Mediterranean boat people have been coming for more than a decade, paying small fortunes to enter the continent aboard disturbingly overpacked vessels. They began arriving after Europe’s legal migration routes shut down in the 1990s, but never have their numbers been so large – or the death toll so high. When an estimated 850 people died in a single capsizing incident last weekend, driving this year’s toll to over 1,600 – 30 times higher than the toll for the same period last year – their fate became a continent-wide crisis, provoking an emergency European Union meeting on Thursday and an outraged response from across the political spectrum.

But “How do we stop this from happening?” is not such a simple question. To answer it, you first need to answer another question: “Why are these people taking such risks?” And it’s worth asking a third, often ignored question, as well: Why has illegal-boat migration to Europe peaked during certain years, then virtually vanished for long periods, only to reappear again? What has made it stop before, and what will make it stop again?

We know what doesn’t work. Efforts to end the nautical tragedy by force – by banning migration, or by cracking down on people-smuggling, or, as European governments did last year, by refusing to rescue drowning migrants – have all resulted in driving migration further underground, raising both the cost and demand for passage on illegal boats, and increasing net numbers of undocumented migrants, as well as the danger they face.

The problem of migration deaths has been created entirely by policy attempts to outlaw migration,” said Hein de Haas, the Dutch scholar who runs Oxford University’s International Migration Institute, in an interview this week. He and his colleagues recently assembled a large-scale database, Determinants of International Migration, which looks at the motivations for migration for tens of thousands of people. What it, and a growing body of other research, shows is that we have framed the European migration problem wrong.

An unstoppable flood of desperate poor people fleeing Africa to a new life in Europe – that is the phrase uttered, in one form or another, by headline writers and politicians to summarize the crisis.

Yet, every word of that sentence is wrong. And much of the current catastrophe, most of the drowning horrors, have been caused by the failure of policy-makers to understand how wrong those words are. It’s worth looking at them one by one.


To understand why the crisis has become so acute in 2014 and 2015, it helps to understand why it was bad once before, a decade ago; and why it suddenly stopped, almost completely, for several years, then erupted again in 2011, virtually stopped again, then came back in its most dramatic form. It obviously isn’t unstoppable: It has stopped, several times.

I spoke to Marlon, the Sudanese man in Libya who opened this article, in 2004. That was a full year before the boats first erupted into front-page headlines, but after the first really tragic sinking, earlier in 2004, in which a boat headed for Italy had capsized and 64 people drowned. That led to an Italian clampdown, which provoked a huge burst of illegal crossings until 2008.

Most of the boat tragedies a decade ago were in what the EU border service Frontex calls the West African Route, which passes from West Africa into Spanish territory in the Canary Islands; and the Western Mediterranean Route, which crosses the narrow strait between Morocco and Spain. More than 30,000 people a year were crossing each of these routes in 2005, and the tragedies were mounting. I spoke to Jacques in Madrid in 2006, when the smugglers had become more desperate, expensive and dangerous.

Then, Spain took action. Madrid negotiated deals with Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and West African countries that included not only agreements to take returnees back to their home countries (in exchange for aid money) and to police their borders, but also to open legal migration channels, and pathways to Spanish citizenship. Those changes drew criticism from Spain’s tougher-minded neighbours, but they effectively ended illegal migration in that part of the Mediterranean for many years.

The Central Mediterranean Route, as the pathway of this year’s crisis is known, goes from Tunisia, Libya and Egypt across to Italy, Malta and the region’s islands. It became crisis-prone in the mid-2000s, and then, in 2009 and 2010, its traffic virtually halted. There were two reasons: First, Italy struck deals with the Arab dictators of Tunisia and Libya, paying them generously to police their beaches. Second, the post-2008 economic crisis reduced demand sharply: Migrants don’t come when there are no jobs. (In fact, there was a net outflow of migrants from Europe back to Africa at the peak of the crisis.)

There was a burst of activity on this route in 2011, when the dictators were overthrown and Arabs (often middle-class and educated) left for Europe. That was when I spoke to Jouhar in eastern Tunisia. And then it fell again to negligible levels in 2012, until the huge spike of 2014 and 2015. This was hardly a constant increase in people: It has stopped and started many times.


Even in its worst years, the Mediterranean boat-people flow is only a small part of the migration picture: tens of thousands of entrants in a continent of half a billion people that receives three million immigrants a year. Most Africans living in Europe are fully legal, visa-carrying immigrants who arrive at airports. Even the majority of illegal African immigrants in Europe aren’t boat people: They’re legal visitors who’ve overstayed their visas.

What has compounded the matter during the past 24 months has been the conflict in Syria. While only a fraction of people fleeing that country have attempted to go to Europe – the vast majority are encamped in Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon – that fraction has multiplied the numbers of boat people dramatically in 2014 and 2015. It now accounts for perhaps half of Mediterranean boat migrants (though the boat that was the subject of last weekend’s tragedy carried passengers almost entirely from sub-Saharan Africa).

Refugees tend to be temporary (the much larger exodus of asylum seekers that confronted Western Europe during the Balkan wars of the 1990s – a population shift that seemed even more intractable – mostly returned to their countries after the conflicts ended), and are dealt with through different policies than are migrants. In Europe, those policies are deeply dysfunctional, with little agreement among the 28 EU countries about how to handle refugee claimants or how to deport illegitimate ones – which has contributed to the death toll.

“There should be no reason for Syrian refugees to be getting on these boats, except that there has been no proper pathway for safe refugee acceptance opened up,” Dr. de Haas says. If Western countries would take their United Nations refugee responsibilities more seriously, Syrians wouldn’t be dying at sea.

Desperate poor people

The most insidious notion is the one that holds that the Africans on the boats are starving villagers escaping famine and death. In fact, every boat person I’ve met has been ambitious, urban, educated, and, if not middle-class (though a surprising number are, as are an even larger number of Syrian refugees), then far from subsistence peasantry. They are very poor by European standards, but often comfortable by African and Middle Eastern ones. And no wonder: The boats cost upward of $2,000 to board (and you need more money to make a start in Europe). That’s a year’s income in many African countries.

Why would somebody risk their life, and their comfort, for a journey that at best would promise a marginal life in the underground economies of Europe?

Linguère Mously Mbaye, a scholar at the Bonn-based Institute for the Study of Labour, conducted a study of hundreds of people in Dakar, Senegal, who were planning to make the crossing to Europe.

The migrants tended not to be very poor. And they tended to be well-connected in Europe: They knew large numbers of people from their home country already living in Europe and working in similar occupations. In other words, they were tied into “migration networks” that communicated information about employment, small-business, housing and migration opportunities. Migrants tend to choose their European destinations not according to culture, language or history, but according to the number of people from their network who are living there – and also according to the economic success of their destination country.

The Syrian refugees are less tactical – and not as well linked into existing economies – than the Africans, but they, too, tend to come because they have connections to people or organizations in Europe. Concludes Dr. Mbaye, “Illegal migration starts first in thoughts, based upon the belief that success is only possible abroad.”


Both major studies found that the Africans who get onto the boats are not running from something awful, but running toward a specific, chosen opportunity, in employment or small business.

That’s a big reason that the boat-people flows have gone up and down so dramatically: Dr. de Haas’s studies found that the main driver of cross-Mediterranean migration is not any economic or political factor in Africa but “sustained demand [in Europe] for cheap labour in agriculture, services, and other informal sectors.” Even those who are fleeing – the Syrians, some Eritreans – are choosing where they flee based on a sense of opportunity.

A new life

“You saw a lot more people coming into Europe from Africa in the 1960s and 1970s than you do now,” Dr. de Haas notes. But they didn’t make headlines – or die at sea – because they weren’t illegal. The big labour shortages that required migrants (mainly seasonal) were filled because most countries allowed Africans to come and go.

And, in the main, they weren’t out to start a new life in Europe. Only a small fraction of Africans who went to Europe for work before the 1990s settled there: Most used their earnings to support families back home, and eventually returned, knowing they could do another stint in Europe in the future.

By cracking down on these informal and seasonal movements – something that began in the early 1990s with the formation of the EU – Europe turned migration into an all-or-nothing proposition: Once you were in Europe, legally or otherwise, you stayed, because you might not get in again. As a result, Africans now come in, do some agricultural or service work, and then knock around the continent, without opportunities, once they’re done.

That’s the paradox of Europe’s response to the migrant crisis: By making entry tougher, it makes illegal entry more commonplace. “Stricter immigration policies,” Dr. Mbaye says, “might not be effective, because they deter potential legal migrants more than potential illegal migrants.”

And a slow-paced and disunited asylum policy, combined with the lack of legal pathways, means that large numbers of refugee claimants, legitimate and otherwise, spend years moving around Europe, neither deported nor accepted, and afraid to leave. In the process, they are tarnishing the image of immigrants and creating an unnecessary social problem.

“It is the border controls that have forced migrants to take more dangerous routes, and that have made them more and more dependent on smugglers to cross borders,” Hein de Haas notes. “Smuggling is a reaction to border controls rather than a cause of migration in itself. Ironically, further toughening of border controls will therefore force migrants and refugees to take more risks and only increase their reliance on smugglers.”

And rigidly closed borders will also make the Syrian refugee problem worse than it needs to be: By turning migration into an all-or-nothing proposition, there’s a risk that a temporary refuge will become a permanent settlement.

The flow of people back and forth between Africa and Europe has been a part of both continents’ economies for decades. Europe’s economies need their African workers, more than ever: Germany alone expects to lose seven million working-age people to demographic change, in a fast-growing economy with virtually no unemployment, in the next 10 years.

By stopping that flow through ham-fisted measures, Europe’s governments have turned the legal into the illegal, the temporary into the permanent, the routine into the desperate, and a life-improving act into a death-delivering risk. A set of decisions that were bad for both continents’ economies has left thousands of bodies floating in the sea.

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Doug Saunders is The Globe and Mail’s international-affairs columnist, and was European bureau chief from 2003 to 2012.