Maghreb migration: Policies lacking a compass

Prof. Mehdi Lahlou, University Mohammed V, Morocco

March 5, 2023 (published on May 8, 2023)

The week of February 21, 2023,[i]

Starting from the beginning of the year, what has been happening in Tunisia with regard to the migration issue is staggering brutality and irrationality on the part of officials – in fact, the Tunisian President – of a country known and recognized until recently, and so rightly, by its wisdom, its humanity and the measure of its leaders.

Attacking migrants, especially those from the African continent, by inviting some extreme right concepts such as invasion, population replacement, and conspiracy is marked by stigmatization and ostracization. In addition, it is totally unfounded and also counterproductive. This is particularly likely to turn against Tunisian migrants and other North Africans around the world—in Europe, among others.

An impulsive approach, weighted with a triple error:

First, regarding statistical data, the number of sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia is neither millions nor hundreds of thousands. According to the most reliable estimates, it would be between 25,000 and 40,000 people in 2023. Or, at best – if it is allowed to write – less than 0.3% of the total Tunisian population. A rate not very far from what is observed in Algeria as in Morocco.

Then, in terms of objectives, the primary desire of almost all sub-Saharan migrants present in Tunisia, as in Morocco or Algeria, is to find their way to Europe. To the extent that no migrant is attracted by an economic situation that offers neither employment nor a decent income to live on. As all field surveys prove, the Maghreb is the final destination of only a very small proportion of migrants. And, in terms of migration policy, a State governed by the rule of law, or, at the very least, somewhat reasonable, does not combat migration, however irregular it may be, by inspiring in its population feelings of hatred and rejection of foreigners that they would ultimately be unable to curb.  

In reality, the response to the official message on migration conveyed since the end of February 2023 was given by Tunisian civil society – e.g., women, young human rights activists, academics, and other trade unionists, etc. – which, while expressing its solidarity with migrants, has enlightened the subject of more rational interpretations and analyses related to the real drivers of migration, particularly in Africa.

And, in fact, if a few tens of thousands of citizens of sub-Saharan African countries seek annually to leave their native soil for Europe or elsewhere, now transiting mainly through the Maghreb, including Tunisia, it is because Africa continues to be this open-pit mine where former European settlers such as Russians, Chinese Americans, and many others, come to use – whatever the discourse used to cover it – by leaving some dust, literally and figuratively, to Africans. The example of Niger, a country of both uranium and poverty, is one of the perfect illustrations. Moreover, such extractive work is not limited only to the subsoil, but extends to the forest, fisheries resources, and increasingly to human skills. Thus, depriving Africa as a whole is one of the main drivers of its future development.

In addition to political factors known to all, which contribute to the widespread work of predation, there are some of the reasons why in 2022, Africa, which represents 18% of the world's population, contributes only less than 3% of the world's gross product. And this is where the real scandal of poverty and migration lies, not elsewhere or so little. This is where the real conspiracy is exercised: transforming Tunisia into an "African country", when it already is by the laws of nature, is not a conspiracy; but removing Africans’ economic values while claiming to protect, respect, or sometimes love them is. Possibly, to attract the most competent – as the strongest were selected before – to cover here and there the job needs of certain economic sectors now called "under stress", especially in a position of a sharp decline in birth rates in most developed countries, both European and Asian.

To put it differently, such a reality demonstrates the essence of what fuels African migration – not considering the effects of global warming or the violence that consumes entire regions of the Sahel and beyond. Thus, any objective analyst is today obliged to note that, from the French ecologist René Dumont and his "Black Africa is off to a bad start" (1962), to the Swiss Jean Ziegler, and his "Low Hand on Africa" (1978), Africa, in its large dimensions, has not changed economically since the independence of the 1950s/1960s. It has only become more numerous and more abrasive... Torn between Bolloré-style tycoons (see the script at the end) and mercenaries’ new trend, like the Wagner group, a modernized Russian-style copy of the groups commanded until 1995 by the Frenchman Robert Denard[ii]. Fragmented, as it remains,  between Royal Deutch Shell and Total Energies, a group whose 20.8 billion euros in profits made in 2022 exceed the annual budget of several countries from which it extracts "its" oil. Oil is often transshipped fraudulently, to the high seas, beyond the control of the States concerned. In pure trickery, it is as if one leaves a restaurant without paying for his meal, and not just once.

The awareness of these truths, intangible today, requires reversing the reasoning to reverse, as the jurists would say, the burden of proof. In other words, it is a question for the political powers in Africa, including the Maghreb, as in Europe, to ask themselves the real questions to one day provide the right answers. So, who is responsible for what, and what phenomenon is at the origin of what other phenomenon? Clearly, here, with regard to the migration issue, why are these young Africans leaving, and more and more numerous, despite the reinforcements of all borders? And since they are deprived of jobs and reasonable chances of living decently at home, why will we continue discussing economic migration? In this sense, wouldn't so-called economic migrants also be refugees in search of a right? The essential right to live, the right to life.

Of course, such a right is neither easy to support nor easy to achieve. But many means, other than security or border armor, exist for this. Such means can only be found, when it comes to migration across the Maghreb, at the diplomatic, political, and, ultimately, economic levels, at three levels:  

First of all, the means available to the Maghreb countries, from Mauritania to Libya:

As everyone knows, while Morocco was one of the first promoters and signatories (in 2018) of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, Tunisia endorsed it timidly when Algeria – like Matteo Salvini's Italy or Trump's United States of America or the Austrian far-right government, to name but a few – refused to endorse it. This is because it would limit its sovereignty in terms of managing migration flows at its borders and on its territory. At the same time, starting in 2019, it would be the initiator of what has been happening in recent weeks in Tunisia. In some cases, bad practices seem easier to duplicate than good ones. And not only in terms of migration, in this particular case.

However, building and conducting a common Maghreb migration policy based on reliable and verifiable data is unavoidable. And this is what a group of academics and Maghreb associative and administrative leaders have tackled as part of a research network called NAMAN[iii], founded, precisely in Tunis, in July 2019. This network - totally autonomous both in its approach and its reflection, at least as far as its Moroccan and Tunisian components are concerned - always claimed to maintain that:

  • Knowledge of the figures on the ground and the real reasons for migration (economic, social, security, environmental, etc.) is an absolute prerequisite for any policy aimed at managing/administering them in one direction or another.
  • Significant and politically sustainable and, above all, enforceable to all the partners concerned, in the rest of Africa as well as in the countries of the European Union, cannot be carried out in the field of migration (as in many other economic, social and security areas) in the countries of North Africa without a Maghreb approach. An approach that considers all the parameters involved, all their implications, and all their repercussions, on each of the Maghreb countries, but also their Sahelian neighborhood more or more distant.
  • It remains necessary to build the Maghreb strengthened by its economic integration and truly democratic institutions. This is needed to improve the standard of living and the living environment of its populations, whose propensity to emigrate irregularly will diminish. This will then serve as a relay of development for the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, from which it will be able to receive and provide a dignified living for a large number of migrants rather than erecting North Africa, from the Mauritano-Senegalese border to the Egyptian-Libyan border, as a rampart or wall of advanced protection of the European space from its external southern border. This goes against the words of thanks to Brussels or Strasbourg.


The means available to Africa as a whole:

Outside its walls in Addis Ababa and outside the statutory meetings of its bodies, the African Union seems to be involved neither in the continent's economic, social, and scientific development nor in the migration problem that deprives its various countries of their vital forces.

However, just as the European Union is gradually being built to protect its economic interests, its productive sectors, its production tools, and its space against "uncontrolled migration", the African Union must be able to draw up rules limiting the unbridled exploitation of the continent's resources, protecting its forests, its coasts, and its soils, its waters; guaranteeing a fair balance between what is taken by foreign companies and what is left to nationals and the budget of local states, between what goes to capital and what goes to work. It must also be able to propose a continental migration policy that better protects the lives and dignity of African migrants – whatever their mode of migration – and that makes it possible to negotiate with Europe different parts of its policy in this area, particularly with regard to so-called chosen migration by putting on the table the principle of compensation, both financially and in the form of technology transfer, covering part of the costs of training African skills incurred by all European economic and social sectors, from health to catering.

The relations between Africa and Europe, between the African and European Unions

The current management of migration flows from Africa–with the thousands of tragedies, it induces in the Mediterranean–would have little to no significant effect on the ground if it did not take into account the drivers of the two fundamental parameters of population growth and poverty on the continent.[iv]  This is what largely determines the propensity of young people to leave their continent. And if the policy does not consider that the control of the demographic variable depends on the reduction of poverty, determined by the adoption of other economic and social policies and new Euro-African relations, the result will not be different from those over the last 50/60 years.

In the context of such a reorientation of development policies in Africa and in view of the new relations to be established between the countries of the European Union and those of the African Union, the global changes in behavior and mentality must be based on the need to:

  • To admit that the widening of economic, trade, social, educational, and scientific imbalances between the North and the global South is one of the most important sources of crisis in the African countries with which Europe is in contact or with which (as is the case with some Maghreb countries) it is today linked by various trade agreements or free trade areas.
  • To realize that the future of Africa is now a matter of great concern, and not only because of the irregular migration flows it causes. Consequently, the parties must initiate an international plan or program of "Rescue" in favor of the "black continent", like what was for Europe, the American Marshall Plan, at the end of the 2nd World War, which had destroyed it as much as impoverished. Europe is, so to speak, at the gates of Africa and it would be inconceivable for it to consider itself out of reach of the tragedies this continent suffers a little more each year. Africa will remain a matter of great concern if nothing significant is done to help it find solutions to face its multiple crises and if, in the first place, the actors do not cease the different forms of exploitation to which Africa’s multiple resources are subjected.
  • To consider that it is better to find the means, within a Euro-African partnership framework, to redirect military and security spending in Africa towards agricultural, educational, scientific development projects, etc., rather than continuing to imply that the security and/or military have solved the problem of terrorism and irregular migration. The availability of financial resources for armies and armaments proves that the question of economic and social development in Africa is essentially a political one.  

From all this, it follows that no one is plotting against Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco to transform them into what they already are. Namely, African, Arab and Muslim countries by geography and history. As it is clearly established that the only real conspiracy to which all three of them are subjected, at various levels, is that of their underdevelopment as well as that of the multiple crises – including poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy – that most of the African continent lives with and in parallel with them. Forced migration is only a sub-phenomenon attached to all this. However, no problem is solved if its main variables are not validly and accurately listed, and exposed beforehand.


Vincent Bolloré, a French multibillionaire and now a committed man of the extreme right, took advantage of the wave of privatizations imposed in Africa by the structural adjustment programs of the World Bank and the IMF in the 1990s to win the bet and gradually built his fortune.The group he chairs, Bolloré Africa Logistics which has enjoyed the support of French presidents of both the right and the left – is important in West Africa in particular. Present in 42 ports, it manages container terminals, from Douala (Cameroon) to Pointe-Noire (DRC), Cotonou (Benin), Tema (Ghana) and Abidjan (Côte d'Ivoire). It also operates in 16 container terminals on the continent, through PPPs (public-private partnerships). At the same time, it has a network of 85 maritime agencies: including 74 African agencies, spread over 32 countries. The Bolloré Group is also the main shareholder of Socfin – a holding company registered in Luxembourg – which owns industrial oil palm and rubber plantations in Cameroon, Liberia, Cambodia, and Côte d'Ivoire. Since 2008, the planted areas of Socfin's African companies have increased from 87,000 to more than 108,000 ha between 2011 and 2014. An increase of 24% is at the expense of the local communities’ lands, thus multiplying tensions, according to the NGO ReAct.However, if V. Bolloré withdraws from what is called "hard power" with the activities mentioned above, it remains extremely present on the continent, through the Vivendi group and its subsidiaries, Canal+ and Havas. The latter still allows the businessman to deploy his network, especially via telecommunications and the Internet.


[i] Date of the Tunisian president's statement qualifying migration of African origin of conspiracy against his country.  Newspapers.

[ii] Robert Denard (7 April 1929 – 13 October 2007) was a French mercenary. He was involved in many coups d'Etat in Africa from the period of independence around 1960 until 1995.

[iii] NAMAN, initials for Network Academics and Researchers on Migration in North Africa. Network, supported by ICMPD (International Centre for Migration Policy Development), and declined in National Committees in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.

[iv] According to the International Migration Organization, 29,000 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean between 2014 and the end of December 2022. That's an average of nearly 2,400 deaths per year.


Published: May 8, 2023, 2:02 p.m.
Edited: May 8, 2023, 2:47 p.m.