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Trans-Saharan Migration to North Africa and the EU: Historical Roots and Current Trends

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Trans-Saharan Migration to North Africa and the EU: Historical Roots and Current Trends

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Southern Europe is all-too familiar with irregular migration from North African countries such as Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Since the early 1990s, thousands of North Africans have attempted to cross the Mediterranean to reach Spain and Italy.

But, as the migration crises in Morocco's Spanish enclaves in 2005 and Spain's Canary Islands in 2006 made clear, sub-Saharan Africans are increasingly migrating to North African countries, with some using the region as a point of transit to Europe and some remaining in North Africa.

These migrants come from an increasingly diverse array of countries and regions, such as Senegal, the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Sudan, the Horn of Africa, and even Asia.

According to different estimates, between 65,000 and 120,000 sub-Saharan Africans enter the Maghreb (Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya) yearly, of which 70 to 80 percent are believed to migrate through Libya and 20 to 30 percent through Algeria and Morocco. Several tens of thousands (not hundreds of thousands, as media coverage might suggest) of sub-Saharan Africans try to cross the Mediterranean each year.

Although commonly portrayed as "destitute" or "desperate," migrants are often relatively well educated and from moderate socio-economic backgrounds. They move because of a general lack of opportunities, fear of persecution and violence, or a combination of both.

Although the media focus on "boat migrants," many employ other methods — using tourist visas and false documents, hiding in vehicles on ferries, and scaling or swimming around the fences surrounding the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco.

Those considering North Africa as their primary destination or those who fail to enter Europe join growing immigrant communities. According to various estimates, at least 100,000 sub-Saharan migrants now live in both Mauritania and Algeria, 1 to 1.5 million in Libya, and anywhere between 2.2 and 4 million mainly Sudanese in Egypt. Tunisia and Morocco house smaller but growing sub-Saharan immigrant communities of several tens of thousands.

While having deeper historical roots, this trans-Saharan migration substantially increased in the 1990s in reaction to the "pan-African" immigration policies pursued by Libya combined with several civil wars and associated economic decline in West Africa, the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea), and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

After 2000, an immigrant backlash in Libya incited increasing numbers of sub-Saharan migrants to move to other Maghreb countries or to Europe. Sub-Saharan Africans have now overtaken North Africans as the largest category of irregular migrants intercepted by European border guards.

Although not "massive" by any standards, this migration trend has strained migration policies in North African countries, which refuse to see themselves as destinations, and those of the European Union (EU), whose collaboration with North African countries was based on the assumption that Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria were the main sending countries.

Increasing levels of sub-Saharan immigration have hugely expanded the number of countries involved, complicated expulsions, and increased tensions in the EU on regularization and humanitarian issues.

Historical Roots of Trans-Saharan Mobility

Throughout known history, there has been intensive population mobility between both sides of the Sahara through the trans-Saharan (caravan) trade, conquest, pilgrimage, and religious education. The Sahara itself is a huge transition zone, and the diverse ethnic composition of oases testifies to this long history of population mobility.

It was only with the advent of colonialism, which drew borders where there had been none and created modern states, that trans-Saharan mobility and trade collapsed. However, soon after independence, the foundations were laid for the contemporary trans-Saharan migration system.

In the 1970s and 1980s, forced and voluntary settlement of nomads, wars in the Sahel, and droughts provoked two types of mobility. First, impoverished (former) nomads and traders, such as the Tuareg, started migrating to work at construction sites and the oil fields of southern Algeria and Libya. Second, with recurrent warfare in the entire Sahel zone, thousands of refugees settled in towns and cities in Libya, Algeria, Mauritania, and Egypt.

Such immigration was often tacitly welcomed. In Algeria and Mauritania, for instance, sub-Saharan migrants filled local labor shortages and fitted into policies to revitalize underpopulated parts of the country.

After the 1973 oil crisis, Libya and, to a limited extent, Algeria, witnessed increasing immigration of laborers from their southern neighbors to their sweltering Saharan hinterlands, where oil wells are located but where nationals often refuse to work. Libya rapidly developed into North Africa's major migration pole. Although most immigrants were Egyptians, large numbers of Sudanese were also allowed to enter.

This earlier migration and settlement of (semi-) nomads in Libya and Algeria also set the stage for more large-scale, trans-Saharan migration after 1990, because numerous ex-nomads found new livelihoods in smuggling goods and people across the Sahara.

Libya's Pan-African Policies

The air and arms embargo imposed on Libya by the UN Security Council between 1992 and 2000 played an unintended but decisive role in an unprecedented increase in trans-Saharan migration and the consolidation of migration routes and networks. Disappointed by the perceived lack of support from fellow Arab countries during the embargo, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qadhafi embarked upon a radical reorientation of Libyan foreign policy, in which he positioned himself as an African leader.

As part of his new pan-African policy, al-Qadhafi started to welcome sub-Saharan Africans to work in Libya in the spirit of pan-African solidarity. Traditionally a destination for migrants from "Arab" North African countries, Libya became a major destination for migrants from a wide array of countries in West Africa and the Horn of Africa.

Mounting sub-Saharan immigration was also part of a more general trend of restructuring and increasing segmentation of the Libyan labor market. Since the early 1980s, the economic downturn caused by low oil prices and the embargo have led to calls to "indigenize" the Libyan workforce. But Libyans were not willing to take up unattractive jobs.

While the Gulf states have increasingly relied on Asian migrants for unskilled labor, Libya has depended on sub-Saharan migrants for heavy work in sectors such as construction and agriculture.

Wars and Economic Decline in sub-Saharan Africa

In addition to Libya's pan-African immigration policies, the country's growing instability, (civil) wars, and economic decline in several parts of West and Central Africa also contributed to increasing trans-Saharan migration from the mid-1990s onward.

Refugee migration to Morocco gained momentum after the fall of president Mobutu in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997 and the subsequent war in the Great Lakes District. This was supplemented by migration from civil war-torn Sierra Leone (1991-2001) and Liberia (1989–1996 and 1999–2003), and violence-ridden Nigeria. Recurrent warfare in Sudan and the Horn of Africa have fueled migration to Egypt and Libya.

Also, the outbreak of civil war in 1999 and associated economic decline in Côte d'Ivoire (until then West Africa's major destination for labor migrants), combined with the lack of alternative migration destinations, prompted increasing numbers of West Africans to migrate to North Africa.

Backlash in Libya

Initially, most labor migrants went to Libya in search of work. However, the country experienced a major anti-immigrant backlash after clashes between Libyans and African workers in 2000 led to the deaths of dozens of sub-Saharan migrants.

Consequently, Libyan authorities, in an attempt to respond to strong popular resentment against immigrants, have instituted a number of repressive measures. These include more restrictive immigration regulation, lengthy and arbitrary detention of immigrants in poor conditions in prisons and camps, physical abuse, and the forced repatriation of tens of thousands of immigrants. From 2003 to 2005, the Libyan government deported approximately 145,000 irregular migrants, mostly to sub-Saharan countries.

Besides an increase in irregular migration into Libya, this backlash resulted in a partial westward shift of trans-Saharan migration routes towards Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. From there, increasing numbers have joined Maghrebis in their attempts to cross the Mediterranean. In addition, sub-Saharan migrants in Libya have increasingly tried to cross to Europe from the Libyan coast.

Migration Routes and Migration Methods

The trans-Saharan journey is generally made in several stages, and might take anywhere between one month and several years. On their way, migrants often settle temporarily in towns located on migration hubs to work and save enough money for their onward journeys, usually in large trucks or pick-ups.

Migrants use numerous land and sea routes to reach their desired destinations. Click here for larger version of map.

The minority who travel by air aside, the majority of migrants enter the Maghreb overland from Agadez in Niger despite the existence of multiple, alternative routes (see map for details). Agadez is located on a historical crossroads of trade routes that now extend deep into West and Central Africa. From Agadez, migration routes bifurcate to the Sebha oasis in Libya and to Tamanrasset in southern Algeria.

From southern Libya, migrants move to Tripoli and other coastal cities or to Tunisia; from the coast, migrants travel by boat to either Malta or the Italian islands of Lampedusa, Pantalleria, and Sicily. From Tamanrasset in Algeria, migrants move to the northern cities or enter Morocco via the border near Oujda. In reaction to intensified border patrolling in the Strait of Gibraltar, migrants in Morocco have increasingly moved southward to the Western Sahara in order to get to the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory in the Atlantic Ocean.

Libya's pan-African policies have also played a key role in linking East African migration systems with the Euro-Mediterranean migration system. Besides the growing number of Egyptians crossing the Mediterranean to Italy via Libya, migrant workers and refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia — who often used to settle in Cairo — now also migrate to Libya through Sudan, Chad, or Egypt.

Even migrants from China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have recently migrated through Morocco via Saharan routes. They usually fly to West African capitals such as Accra or Bamako, sometimes via the Gulf states, and from there they follow the common Saharan trails via Niger and Algeria to Morocco and Europe.

On the western edge of the continent, an increasing number of West African migrants circumvent the central Saharan migration routes by sailing from the Mauritanian, Cape Verdean, Senegalese, and other West African coasts to the Canary Islands; they also travel over land from Mauritania to Morocco via the Western Sahara.

Although the national and international media and politicians commonly depict these migrants as victims of "unscrupulous traffickers" and "merciless" criminal-run smuggling networks, the vast majority migrate on their own initiative. Migrants typically pay for one difficult leg of the journey, usually involving a border crossing, at a time.

Oftentimes, smugglers are not part of international organized crime but tend to be former nomads and immigrants who operate relatively small networks. These smugglers generally cooperate with local corrupt police, border officials, and intermediaries who connect them to employers in Europe.

In the process of crossing the Sahara to North Africa, migrants spend hundreds of dollars on bribes, smugglers, transportation, and daily necessities. In 2003, the Moroccan researcher Mehdi Lahlou estimated that a boat crossing from Morocco to Spain cost from $200 for minors to $500 to $800 for Moroccans, and up to $800 to $1,200 for Francophone and Anglophone sub-Saharan Africans, respectively. Prices for the Libya-Italy crossing seem to be roughly similar.

Transit or Settlement?

Once in Europe, many irregular migrants manage to stay and settle. Only a minority of those apprehended by Spanish, Italian, and Maltese border guards are sent back. Sub-Saharan African countries are often reluctant to collaborate with the forced readmission of large numbers of irregular migrants. Many migrants destroy their papers to avoid expulsion, while asylum seekers, minors, and pregnant women often have the right to (at least temporary) residence on humanitarian grounds.

As a result, many apprehended migrants are eventually released after the maximum detention period with a formal expulsion order. This order is generally ignored, after which they either move to other EU countries or go underground in Spain and Italy, where they can find jobs in the informal agricultural, construction, and service sectors. A substantial number have obtained residency papers through marriage or regularization campaigns in Italy and Spain.

However, the commonly used term "transit migrant" is often misleading, not only because many migrants and refugees consider North Africa (particularly Libya) as their primary destination, but also because a considerable proportion of migrants failing or not venturing to enter Europe prefer to stay in North Africa as a second-best option. Few would rather return to their more unstable, unsafe, and substantially poorer home countries.

Most major North African cities, such as Nouakchott, Rabat, Oran, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Benghazi, and Cairo, now harbor sizeable communities of sub-Saharan migrants. Although they lack legal status and are vulnerable to exploitation, sub-Saharans, including those living outside Libya, find jobs in specific niches of the informal service sector (such as cleaning and domestic work), petty trade, construction, agriculture, and fishery. Others try to pursue studies, sometimes also as a means to gain residency status.

Some migrants end up staying in migration hubs along the way. In fact, trans-Saharan migration has caused trade to flourish and has helped revitalize ancient trans-Saharan (caravan) trade routes and desert (oasis) towns in Mali (Gao), Niger (Agadez), Chad (Abéché), Libya (Sebha and Kufra), Algeria (Tamanrasset), and Mauritania (Nouadhibou).

Policy Responses

Southern European states have mainly responded to persistent irregular immigration by intensifying border controls. Over the past decade, Spain has attempted to seal off its borders. Besides erecting fences at Ceuta and Melilla, the government installed an early-warning radar system (SIVE or Integrated System of External Vigilance) at the Strait of Gibraltar, a system that has recently been extended to the Canary Islands.

Several EU countries have reacted to increasing sub-Saharan immigration by attempting to "externalize" border controls. They usually do so by pressuring North African countries to clamp down on irregular migration and to sign readmission agreements in exchange for development aid, financial support for border controls, military equipment, and limited numbers of temporary work permits for immigrants. Facing the recent changes in migration patterns, in particular Italy and Spain have recently concluded similar agreements with sub-Saharan countries.

Since 2003, Spain and Morocco, as well as Italy and Libya, have started to collaborate in border patrolling. In 2006, Spain received limited support from Frontex, the new EU external border control agency, to patrol the routes between Senegal, Mauritania, Cape Verde, and the Canary Islands by airplane, helicopter, and patrol boat. Frontex also intends to coordinate patrols involving Italy, Greece, and Malta to monitor the area between Malta, the Italian island of Lampedusa, and the Tunisian and Libyan coast.

In 2003-2004, Morocco and Tunisia passed new immigration laws that institute severe punishments for irregular immigration and human smuggling. According to critics, these new laws show that Morocco and Tunisia are bowing to pressure from the EU to play the role of Europe's "policemen." Although the new laws make reference to relevant international conventions, migrants' and refugees' rights are often ignored in practice.

As part of its efforts to improve the country's standing in the international community, Libya's Al-Qaddafi has collaborated more closely with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and EU than any other North African country in terms of border controls and the establishment of detention camps for irregular migrants. These moves are also a response to anti-immigrant sentiment within Libya.

In 2004, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and al-Qadhafi made a pact to stop illegal migration to Italy, with Libya allegedly agreeing to deport unauthorized sub-Saharan migrants over Libyan territory to their origin countries and to seal off its southern frontiers.

Two months after the Libyan-Italian agreement, the EU agreed to lift its 18-year arms embargo because Libya abandoned its weapons of mass destruction program. Italy had lobbied hard to lift the ban so that Libya could import equipment to better control its borders.

Between August 2003 and December 2004 alone, the Italian government financially contributed to 50 charter flights from Libya that returned 5,688 people to their alleged origin countries, including Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, and Syria.

Human Rights Issues

Pressure by the EU and mounting domestic xenophobia have led North African state authorities to reinforce internal policing. Consequently, immigrants, including asylum applicants, who often risk being arbitrarily arrested, detained, and deported or stripped of their assets, have had their rights violated. Immigrants are regularly deported to land borders, after which they often tend to cross borders again.

Because they lack legal status, sub-Saharan migrants in North Africa are vulnerable to severe exploitation. Most work and live in highly degrading circumstances in overcrowded houses or, sometimes, in improvised camps. They are generally denied access to legal assistance and schooling. Those working in the informal economies of Spain and Italy are also subject to severe exploitation and abuse by their employers.

In Libya in particular, xenophobia is expressed in blanket accusations of criminality, verbal and physical attacks, harassment, extortion, arbitrary detention, and possibly torture.

When hundreds of Africans attempted to enter Ceuta and Melilla in October 2005, at least 13 sub-Saharan Africans died, some of them allegedly killed by border guards. After these events, the Moroccan authorities turned to nationwide raids and arrests of immigrants in cities and makeshift camps in the forests around Ceuta and Melilla. A group of an estimated 1,500 migrants were deported and subsequently abandoned in the Moroccan desert.

In Egypt in 2005, about 20 migrants were reportedly killed when police forces attacked Sudanese refugees and migrants demonstrating in a makeshift camp in Cairo.

By commonly labeling refugees "economic migrants," EU and North African states frequently ignore that a substantial proportion of sub-Saharan migrants have escaped persecution or life-threatening circumstances. The distinction between "refugees" and "economic migrants" is often blurred. Moreover, some migrants who set out with primarily economic motivations may become forced migrants along the way due to police maltreatment and arbitrary imprisonment.

Until recently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) kept a low profile in the Maghreb states and protection was not thought to be available. UNHCR has recently expanded its operations in the Maghreb, but state authorities often do not cooperate, continue to deport asylum seekers, and generally refuse to grant residency rights to refugees recognized by UNHCR.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among other organizations, have argued that Spain and Italy risk seriously compromising the principle of non-refoulement by swiftly deporting African migrants and asylum seekers to Morocco and Libya where their protection is not guaranteed. In particular, Italy has deported migrants without properly investigating their rights to asylum, medical care, or other forms of assistance and protection.

The Libyan government, which has not signed the 1951 Geneva Convention but is party to the African Refugee Convention, has randomly deported migrants expelled from Italy to their alleged origin countries, which include Sudan and Eritrea, regardless of whether they fear torture or persecution.

Effects of Policies on Migration Patterns

Rather than curbing immigration, increasing surveillance in the Strait of Gibraltar and elsewhere has led to a general diversification in attempted crossing points since 1999.

Migrants now increasingly make the journey by sea from more eastern places on the Moroccan coast to mainland Spain; from the Tunisian coast to the Italian islands; from Libya to Italy and Malta; from the Western Sahara to the Canary Islands; from Algeria to Spain; and most recently from Mauritania, Senegal, and other West African countries to the Canary Islands.

Also, there has been a remarkable increase in attempted crossings in 2006. Between January and September 2006, some 24,000 migrants arrived on the Canary Islands, compared with 4,772 in 2005 and 9,900 in 2002. During the first seven months of 2006, 10,400 migrants were apprehended on the Italian island of Lampedusa south of Sicily, compared with 6,900 over the same period in 2005.

Nevertheless, these sea crossings represent only a fraction of total immigration to the EU — a total of about 2.6 million people in 2004 among the EU-15 (except Greece), according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The majority of irregular migrants in Europe migrated legally and subsequently overstayed their visas.

Policies to stop migrants from coming have also had a series of unintended, counterproductive effects. First, increasing repression in North Africa has led several migrants who intended to stay there to reconsider their plans and to move to Europe.

Second, the use of more diverse and longer sea routes has vastly increased the area that EU countries feel they must monitor to "combat" irregular migration. Third, smuggling methods have become more professional, with smugglers using larger and faster custom-made boats and zodiacs instead of vulnerable fishing boats.

Yet the capacity to control migrants traveling over the Mediterranean and the Atlantic is also limited. Boats cannot be stopped in international waters, and coast guards have the duty to save migrants from drowning. Some analysts believe that increasing sea patrolling has actually increased the chance of surviving the trip and might therefore even encourage migrants, especially those sub-Saharans who know it will be difficult to expel them.

Although EU countries have now signed readmission agreements with a growing number of African countries, forced expulsions are difficult to enforce in practice. Also, they are expensive and have a limited deterrent effect because expelled migrants tend to attempt to migrate again.

Each year, significant numbers die or get seriously injured while trying to enter the EU. APDHA, an Andalusian human rights organization, claims that at least 368 people died while crossing to Spain in 2005, although the actual number might be two or three times higher because many bodies are never found.

In defiance of popular belief, a recent analysis by Norwegian researcher Jørgen Carling suggested that the actual risk of dying while crossing the sea to Spain has remained constant at around one percent or has even slightly fallen over the past years. Therefore, it seems that increases in the death toll should be mainly attributed to an increase in the number of people trying to cross, rather than to increased border surveillance.

The risks of crossing the Sahara are believed to be higher than crossing the Mediterranean or the Atlantic. In response to increased restrictions in North Africa, border and police officials tend to charge higher bribes, and migrants increasingly use secondary, often more dangerous routes through the desert.

Double Agendas and Conflicting Interests

Increasing immigration from sub-Saharan Africa has created considerable tension between EU, North African, and sub-Saharan African states. Although North African states have partly conceded to European pressure, EU externalization policies seem to have reached their limits.

The eagerness with which North African states adopted dominant EU discourses on "combating illegal immigration" is also a symbolic response to mounting internal xenophobia and a stubborn reluctance by North African states to accept the idea of being destination countries. Thus far, EU states have generally failed to understand that North African states are opposed to several elements of externalization policies because they believe such policies reinforce their new position as destinations.

With the exception of Libya, North African states have been reluctant to readmit large numbers of irregular migrants from third (sub-Saharan) countries on a regular basis. Proposals by some EU Member States to establish processing centers for immigrants and asylum claimants in North Africa, or to send naval ships to patrol African coasts, are also often opposed because they threaten national sovereignty. North African states also fear that such measures would encourage more immigration and settlement on their territory.

African states comply with the EU's "fight against illegal immigration" to varying degrees primarily as a bargaining chip in negotiating development aid and other forms of support or, in the case of Libya, international reputation rehabilitation. Serious doubts remain about the credibility and effectiveness of these efforts to curb illegal immigration.

With the exception of Libya, there remains a certain reluctance to play the role of Europe's policeman and massively deport sub-Saharan immigrants. Recent raids and collective expulsions have caused major international embarrassment for Morocco. These events, which are at odds with Morocco's attempts to improve its own human rights record, also face increasingly vocal protests from Moroccan civil society groups.

Furthermore, EU countries fail to understand the strategic geopolitical and economic interests competing North African states have in maintaining good relations with sub-Saharan states. Such relations are likely to be harmed by mass expulsions, the maltreatment of immigrants, or the EU-pressured introduction of visa requirements for sub-Saharan Africans.

Equally, recent EU pressure on West African countries like Senegal, the Gambia, and Guinea-Conakry to crack down on irregular migration are somehow at odds with the freedom of movement enshrined in the 1971 protocol of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on the Free Movement of Persons, the Right of Residence and Establishment. Citizens of ECOWAS states (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo) at least nominally have the right to settle, work, and do business in other ECOWAS states.

North and sub-Saharan African governments argue that the EU approaches migration one-sidedly as a security problem and that it is impossible to stop migration as long as its economic and political root causes persist. Meanwhile, African states see the aid provided in exchange for migration controls as too limited to have a meaningful impact, while they see the EU's protectionist economic policies as harming Africa's development.

What remains largely unspoken is that North African and sub-Saharan African countries have little genuine interest in curbing emigration. Continuing emigration serves vital political and economic interests in relieving pressure on internal labor markets and generating substantial remittances.

Considering the practical inability to stop migrants from crossing vast land and maritime borders and the difficulty of reconciling conflicting interests, there is a clear sense of deadlock around the issue.

Recent African-European "migration summits," such as the Rabat summit of July 2006, have not resulted in any imaginative ideas beyond the usual agreements of increasing African cooperation in migration control in exchange for more aid.

Countries commonly blame other countries for tolerating irregular immigration to their territories. For example, Morocco officially blames Algeria for tacitly allowing sub-Saharans to migrate over its territory; Algeria tellingly refused to attend the Rabat summit.

The migration issue is also causing considerable tensions within the EU. Several EU countries have rejected other states' proposals, which would withdraw aid from countries that do not cooperate in stopping irregular migration.

Spain, Italy, and Malta have complained about the limited support for border patrolling from less directly concerned northern countries. But some northern European countries have responded by blaming Spain for regularizing about 600,000 migrants in 2005, which they believe attracts more irregular migrants. Spain has called this response "demagogic," pointing out that, in the past, most EU Member States felt compelled to revert to similar regularizations of their de facto settled undocumented migrant labor force.

This back-and-forth makes clear the discrepancy between the EU's official aim to combat irregular immigration clashes and the sustained demand for skilled and unskilled migrant labor. In particular, southern European governments are under pressure from employers to allow more legal immigration.

Future Perspectives

Several structural factors explain why it is likely that sub-Saharan migration to the EU will continue and why North African countries may further evolve into destination countries.

First, there are substantial differentials in economic development and political stability between North African and most sub-Saharan countries. Therefore, migrants failing and unwilling to enter Europe often prefer to settle than to return to their politically more unstable, unsafer, and poorer origin countries.

Second, trans-Saharan migration is less unwanted than it seems. The demand for cheap (unauthorized) immigrant labor in Europe, Libya, and other North African countries is likely to persist or even increase, and a new generation of educated and ambitious sub-Saharan Africans is likely to respond. Additionally, the migration-related trade and business activities of smugglers, other entrepreneurs, and state officials have been beneficial for local economies.

Segmentation of North African labor markets may further increase the future scope for immigration. Even in poorer Maghreb countries, a growing number of unemployed highly educated shun unskilled or semi-skilled jobs and instead prefer to migrate themselves. This can explain the simultaneous occurrence of sustained out-migration from North African countries that are destinations for sub-Saharan migrants.

Third, these labor-market trends might be reinforced by demographic transitions. In most North African countries, dramatic reductions in fertility since the 1970s will reduce the number of people attaining working age in the coming decades. Assuming future political stability and moderate economic growth, this decreasing demographic burden might eventually lead to declining emigration and increasing immigration.

Fourth, the firm establishment of trans-Saharan migration routes and migrant networks, as well as improvements in communication and trans-Saharan transportation infrastructure, will continue to facilitate onward migration.

For all these reasons, it is unlikely that trans-Saharan migration can be significantly curbed. An emphasis on restriction has rather led to the swift diversion of migration routes and an increase in the risks, costs, and suffering of the migrants involved.

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