This week, the 5th African Union-EU summit will take place in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, bringing together head of states from Europe and Africa. Given recent events on both continents and the international spotlight on the issue, migration will be a major agenda item. Here, we look at why migration is at a crossroads now and propose channels for legal, managed, mutually beneficial migration in the years to come.

Libya: Europe’s dubious gatekeeper

Since the EU-Turkey deal in early 2016 put a halt to migration flows, the numbers of migrants in Europe arriving via the Balkans route has slowed. Given that there are hardly any legal options to migrate to Europe, migrants have increasingly chosen the dangerous route of crossing the Mediterranean from Libya—a country recovering from civil war and whose UN-backed government is not in control of significant parts of the country.

In an effort to fight illegal migration and human traffickers, the EU has provided financial support and training to the Libyan coast guard. Consequently, the numbers of arrivals at European shores have declined in 2017. However, the number of reports of catastrophic human rights abuses in detention centers in Libya are on an upward trend. Migrants held in Libyan detention centers lack the most basic facilities. They are also left without possibilities to legally challenge their detention and are exposed to torture. This has led the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to repatriate more than 10,000 migrants to their country of origin.The voluntary return of thousands of migrants who had left their countries in search of a better life seems proof enough of the situation in Libya.

Earlier in November, ministers from African and European countries and representatives from international organizations expressed concern at the human rights violations of migrants in Libya. While their Declaration of Intent acknowledges the need for establishing safe and regular migration routes for refugees, it focuses mainly on calling for better human rights protection and the need to address root causes of migration by “creating opportunities in the migrants’ countries of origin as an alternative to irregular migration and migrant smuggling.” Strikingly, only the last bullet point in a series of objectives mentions the intention to establish pilot projects for legal migration between the two continents—pointing to the fact that currently legal migration to Europe is almost impossible.

Demographics can’t be ignored

Be it at high-level meetings or in European media, the current discourse on migration has one thing in common: There seems to be a complete lack of acknowledging both the historic and current reality that people migrate to seek opportunities for a better life or to escape violence—irrespective an enabling legal system. This is even more problematic given the fact that the population in sub-Saharan Africa is expected to grow massively in the next decades. This will undoubtedly lead to migration flows within and outside the African continent, while Europe’s population will decline and age in the same time period (the UN medium-variant projection estimates a population growth of 1.3 billion people in Africa by 2050, whereas population growth in Europe is expected to decrease).

Obviously, demographic protections can never be 100 percent accurate by their nature as changes in population result from various factors. However, climate change, armed conflicts, and large income differences between the two continents will undoubtedly add to future migration flows. Therefore, massive population growth in many African countries can be expected, with projections of an estimated 800 million new labor force participants in sub-Saharan Africa only in the next decades and an increased dependency ratio in Europe straining public services due to a lack of people in working age. Both continents can gain from a controlled, legal migration. Despite widespread negative perceptions of migration in Europe, the demographic shift presents a major opportunity for both continents to shape their future. While the risk of not taking appropriate action to deal with future migration flows is real, here we also look at what kind of policies European policymakers should avoid and what they could seek to do.

What not to do: asylum centres

While discussing challenges and opportunities emerging from migration flows, European leaders should refrain from further pursuing recent approaches to establish asylum centres in various African countries, an idea driven by French President Emmanuel Macron and supported by the leaders of the three largest countries in the EU (not counting the UK). Although vaguely named in the final declaration, Emmanuel Macron first mentioned this idea in July while talking about setting up asylum “hotspots” in Africa, where effectively the decision would be taken on which asylum applications were considered eligible for Europe. This might seem like a promising idea on paper—processing asylum requests in African countries of origin or transit (the original proposal named Chad and Niger) to protect migrants from falling in the hands of human traffickers and taking on the illegal and highly dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean. While this proposal would certainly effectively challenge the business model of human traffickers operating at North African shores, these pre-asylum centres pose other problems, mainly regarding human rights and rule of law. Current events in the Manus Island, where Australia keeps some of its asylum seekers, illustrate the range of possible human rights violations and the lack of oversight that can affect offshore asylum centres. These have been criticised by advocacy groups for years and have prompted the Australian parliament to open an enquiry.

These offshore centres and the problems associated with them underscore a common feature of the migration discourse in many developed countries: there are not enough appropriate policy tools to deal with both refugees—people escaping persecution and oppression, and with migrants—people willing to migrate in search for better opportunities and a better life. How could Europe deal with the latter?

Making legal migration work

Legal migration has been named by the EU as one pillars of a successful European migration policy which in itself has been named as a priority for the four-year period 2015-2019 by the European Commission. However, recent events demonstrate that the EU’s work has mainly been driven by reactive measures of strengthening common borders and limiting migration as a consequence of migration flows in 2015 and 2016.

Still, as legal migration has been named by the EU as one pillars of a successful European migration policy, the EU-Africa summit serves as an opportunity to start designing policies serving the long term goal of enabling legal migration. Firstly, a public acknowledgment of future demographic trends is needed, which then can be used as a starting point for smart policy design. The Mediterranean has already been called the “new rio grande”—highlighting historical similarities to the US and Mexican experience with population growth and demographic transition: the absence of legal mechanisms allowing migration combined with demographic shocks on both sides of the border (large population growth in Mexico vs. a large decrease of young people entering the labour market in the US) led to unprecedented levels of illegal migration, among other factors. This example underscores that the absence of regulating mechanism can push illegal migration and should encourage European and African leaders to take the unique opportunity to design policies that make the coming decades a period of success for both continents.

In the coming months, we seek to make an important contribution in providing policymakers with the tools necessary to design smart policies by forecasting migration movements from Africa to the EU—considering the fundamental push-pull migration factors such as differences in birth rates and economic prospects, as well as past historical and political ties.

For now, we think following up on the intention of the ministerial-level Contact Group Central Mediterranean earlier this month to start pilot projects to establish legal migration paths and a Global Skill Partnership (GSP)— a model of skills transfer between the two continents—could be the right start. As Michael Clemens has demonstrated, a GSP can benefit both sides by making use of the demographic imbalance which we will see in Europe and Africa. The model would enable countries entering into bilateral agreements to share costs and responsibilities of a migrating skilled labour force while simultaneously ensuring shared benefits between developed and developing country. Our research could be a small, but critical first step in establishing what works for future legal migration policies between the two continents and could help raise awareness about the unique opportunity emerging from future population growth in Africa.