Africa and Europe must work together to reduce immigrant flows

“Here is too difficult. In Europe, perhaps I will get chance,” one of my most skilled masons told me one morning just before we started work on a construction site in Accra. He had earlier asked if I could help him get to Europe. When I explained to him that there wasn’t much I could do, and that his best bet was to apply for a visa to travel, he shook his head. He had tried a couple of times to get to the EU, the last time via the perilous trans-Saharan, Mediterranean route favored by human traffickers. So appealing was the prospect of life in Europe, he didn’t even want to continue considering Ghana’s booming real estate sector, or the existential threat he faced if he chanced another encounter with the people smugglers.

Today, there are an estimated three to seven million illegal Africans in the EU, in addition to five million legal African migrants. The numbers of African migrants seeking better socio-economic conditions and willing to risk their lives to get to the EU are at an all-time high. According to published reports, through May 2015, it is estimated that 60,000 illegal migrants, consisting primarily of Africans (mainly Eritreans and various West Africans) and Syrians have crossed the Mediterranean into the EU – and another 3,500 are dead or missing. These figures represent a 20 fold growth over the same period in 2014, and an exponential growth over the past decade.

Last month, the European Commission proposed the European Migration Agenda to spread the burden of the Mediterranean migration crises across all 28 EU member states. It calls for each EU country to accept a refugee quota relative to each member state’s economic condition and population size. The European Commission’s proposed refugee quotas are an excellent first step towards addressing the immediate migration surge. The metrics and methodology developed for these programs can also be adapted and used as the building blocks for a sustainable EU – Africa Union Guest Worker Program to substantially decrease future illegal African migration to the EU.

Many illegal African migrants to the EU flee from economic hardship or war. Like my mason, these migrants are not necessarily the most economically depressed individuals, and some may even have access to employment in their home countries. But with an overall bleak economic picture for the foreseeable future, and knowledge of the quality and prospects of life in the EU, and other developed parts of the world – many seek better futures elsewhere. The root causes of migration is the growing inequality between developed economies and the persisting economic challenges prevalent in the lower and lower-middle economies across Africa. Over the long-term, the volatility in macro-economic factors (such as commodity price fluctuations), combined with Africa’s inability to implement necessary structural reforms and create regulatory environments optimized for industrialization, fosters the conditions for economic shocks that lead to the migration waves we are witnessing today.

The EU already employs thousands of Africans on its farms and in its factories – valuable talent from a continent that badly needs technology transfer and best practice managerial, operational, and governance skills. Additionally, who knows how many great minds with a real potential to transform Africa have perished on the high seas. A guest worker program could help to reverse this brain drain by ensuring the safety, livelihoods, and net positive returns of migrant workers to both Africa and the EU. Any such exchange program should have at least a 25 year life to allow for multi-generational impact. The numbers of guest workers from each of the 54 AU countries could be determined by a basket of metrics that include economic condition, and population size with an overall cap on the aggregate number of guest workers. For each guest worker, a 5 year non-renewable term, would provide sufficient time for long-term benefits to accrue to all stakeholders.

In 1961, to meet a growing demand for labor during Germany’s post war economic boom, Germany and Turkey signed a guest worker treaty which mandated the screening, pre-selection of Turkish guest workers for specific industry demand in Germany. The benefits to Germany were clear, but there is plenty of evidence showing the positive impact of the Germany–Turkey guest worker scheme on the Turkish economy in the form of improved living standards, and an increase Turkey’s economic competitiveness. Any similar program between the EU and African states should emphasize aligned economic interests while focusing primarily on the manufacturing and agricultural sectors. A well-structured guest worker program could replicate these results, with a significantly larger impact due to the continent-wide footprint of the African Union.

If workers are allowed into Europe for 5-year, non-renewable term, there will be sufficient time for participating firms and institutions in the EU to recoup their investment in training and deploying labor. African guest workers could also use this time to gain the necessary skills and capital to make significant contributions to their home country’s development, both during their program years (in the form of remittances) and when they return to their respective countries with the increased skills and work experience necessary to build local industries.

The potential benefits to the EU are a modernized and pragmatic immigration policy that targets certain economic sectors, countries, or regions. The EU would also benefit from increased taxes on legal migrants. African countries could use the knowledge and industrial skills transfer generated by the program to improve macro-economic stability thus leading to a reduction in the underlying conditions that encourage the dangerous migration patterns of the present day. Finally, in light of the ongoing and growing terrorist threat, any guest worker program could potentially provide improved tracking and monitoring of each economic migrant that enters or exits the EU.

This kind of long-term partnership between the EU and the African Union can materially address the fundamental problem behind increased illegal migration – inequality driven primarily by Africa’s susceptibility to macro-economic volatility. The positive socio-economic impact of a formalized guest worker exchange, in addition to numerous saved lives, will generate a positive impact for all parties. Most importantly, it would give people like my mason the safe chance towards an improved economic future both at home and in the EU.

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