Global Watch

Migration changing the face of Europe

Refugees at sea

The rescue of thousands of migrants at sea, on their way to Europe, over Easter again highlighted one of the biggest human tragedies of our time and changing the Europe.

 Some two years ago, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing across the Mediterranean to Europe dominated news headlines, just to fade to the background, as predicted a the time.

In a nutshell, if these people survived the sea crossing the next almost insurmountable challenge was to find a livelihood in Europe – an environment that was increasingly becoming hostile, the locals finding the influx a threat to their comfortable, secure and privileged way of life.   

On the back of reports of the Easter Mediterranean rescue of nearly 9 000 migrants, mainly Africans from Nigeria and Senegal, from the unseaworthy boats of smugglers heading for Italy, the migrant problem is back in news headlines.  

With spring weather approaching, Europe authorities are bracing themselves for the regular seasonal spike in migrant flows.

This year’s count of 900 migrants dying or going missing while attempting the sea crossing, is sure to rise steeply as organised crime takes charge of the business that is on offer.   

The more than 150 000 migrants that annually successfully made the crossing from Libya to Italy over the past three years, provided crime bosses with lucrative incomes.

Big business          

The number of rescued migrants this year have increased to 36 000 from 24 000 over the same period last year. With substantial amounts of money payed by each migrant, people smuggling it has become big business.   .

The estimated 2015-profits from migrant smuggling was somewhere between 5-6 billion Euros – making it one of the most profitable activities for organized criminals in Europe.

On the Libyan end, a European Union (EU) military task force reported that Libyan coastal communities earned around 270-325 million Euros annually from smuggling operations.

Modern day slavery          

A by-product of the crisis is the creation of a modern-day slave market – many falling victim to unscrupulous smugglers and/or corrupt officials working at “detention centres,” mainly in Libya.

Stranded migrants are assembled at these “detention centres” often under perilous circumstances after being rounded up by the authorities.

Slave traders operate openly and brazenly, often in cahoots with officials, from the “detention centres” – trading hapless migrants as slaves or forced labours for as little as US$200.

Some of the lucky ones that succeeded in escaping or paying ransom money are telling horrifying stories of malnutrition, rape, sexual exploitation, forced prostitution, torture, and murder. One of them told a journalist, “It’s better to die in the sea than to stay in Libya.”

The situation is set to get worse against the backdrop of an expected massive migrant crisis looming in Nigeria.

In Africa’s most populous country, five million people are at risk of starvation amid a years-long Islamist insurgency carried out by Boko Haran.

Lack of sufficient funding means that emergency food aid may be cut, just as the lean season approaches, forcing millions to seek deliverance elsewhere outside their immediate surroundings.

Europe remains the most popular destination by the proverbial mile. According to Nigeria’s chief humanitarian coordinator, “The world could see a mass exodus from a country of 180 million people if support is not given, and fast.”

Facing a conundrum

Africa is set to become, some would argue it already has, the main source for migrants destined to get to Europe. 

Already, six out of ten of Africa’s people are under 25. Between 2015 and 2050, Africa’s youth population will almost double, growing from almost 230-million to 452-million.

For a combination of reasons, including a lack of economic opportunity and political disenfranchisement, research has shown that Africans, particularly the youth, is rapidly losing faith in their political leadership and democracy.

Devoid of economic prospects and lacking any say over the direction of their countries and futures, Africa’s young are increasingly attracted to other alternatives.

The dramatic increase in terror attacks in Africa over the past decade and rising numbers those willing to attempt the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean, show where frustration, anger and despair is taking them.

Against this background, Europe is facing a conundrum.

It cannot close the door in the face of thousands of desperate and destitute people, nor can they afford to leave the door open.

An open-door policy is unsustainable and anti-migration sentiments have steadily gained ground in Europe.

Right leaning political parties have gained momentum in almost all European countries – borne out, for example by Marie le Pen’s popularity in France, her anti-migrant policy the main reason for her being a serious contender to become the next French president.

In the historically tolerant and liberal Sweden the prime minister has, not unexpectedly, stunned the world by announcing that Sweden will “never go back” to the days of mass immigration after a failed asylum seeker recently launched a suicide truck attack in the capital, Stockholm, killing four people.

Other side of the coin

On the flipside, the population of Europe is aging, struggling to keep economic growth going.

Despite a recent influx of 1.2 million refugees, Germany faces a near-irreversible population decline. It has already for decades relied on migrants in some labour categories. But, now even the EU countries from the former Eastern Europe that used to supply labour, are ageing too.  

Many parts of especially rural Europe, struggle with similar problems, wondering when to turn schools into old care homes.


Against this background, which in some respects could describe as the forces of supply and demand at work, it is inevitable that not only the composition of Europe’s population, but also its way of life, is set to dramatically change over decades to come.

Europe’s biggest challenge is how to manage this unavoidable process of socio-economic change.

by Garth Cilliers

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