Online Commentary

Jul 02, 2021

Global Migration in 2030: Time To Take Africa Seriously

Chapter from Building European Resilience & Capacity to Act: Lessons for 2030
DGAP Report 2021-13-EN Illustration Chapter 4

As part of our research project to assess whether the EU is on the right course for 2030, this chapter looks at global migration. By envisioning three scenarios for 2030 – a status quo, worst-case, and best-case scenario – we aim to ensure the EU is properly aware of the implications of continuing its current trajectory, is prepared for the worst, and understands how to achieve the best. 


You can download the updated German version of the complete report here.




#Status Quo Scenario: The EU TRIES TO OUTCOMPETE China and Disaster Follows

#Worst Case Scenario: Migration and the Clash of Civilizations

#Best-Case Scenario: Multipolar Development Breaks the Migration Deadlock

The EU has come to believe that it is boxed in. Although its set goal is to attract desirable forms of labor to Europe, its efforts to open itself up in order to compete for global migration appear to create pull factors for nearby irregular migrants. Due to its proximity to Africa, the EU seems unable to make itself more attractive to outsiders without attracting a disproportionate wave of unskilled migration and refugees from its southern neighbors. Our three scenarios for 2030 test that proposition by offering different combinations of two variables: EU policies to compete with the world’s other regional labor markets and levels of irregular migration to Europe across the Mediterranean. One of these scenarios suggests that the EU can attract the people it wants without attracting unwanted migration from the South. But this requires the EU to remedy a blind spot – its failure to recognize Africa as an attractive regional labor market in its own right. Rectifying this, our exercise suggests, would help the EU strike the right balance of international competition and cooperation in its migration policies.

The first variable we explore is the EU’s policies to compete with other regional labor markets. In the status quo scenario, the EU finds itself competing against China through its use of transactional migration partnerships while Beijing leverages elite access to Chinese universities and its labor market to gain favorable trading conditions and access to resources in Africa. In the worst-case scenario, regional labor markets become infused with geopolitical and ideological rivalry, and the EU competes by turning its free movement area into a kind of European civilizational zone – defined by a sharp dividing line with Africa. In the best-case scenario, developing economies cooperate with neighbors to retain local labor and stave off attempts by outside powers to play divide and rule. The growth of attractive regional labor markets in Africa does not come at the cost of the EU’s access to labor. The EU now feels confident to pursue global skills partnerships and circular migration deals, reassured that this will not lead to mass migration from across the Mediterranean.

Our second variable is levels of migration. In the status quo scenario, there is a surge in refugee flows. As the EU and China compete with one another to offer bilateral partnerships to African states based on elite visa opportunities, governance problems there sharpen. The EU becomes populist and unattractive to global labor. The worst-case scenario sees a huge surge in irregular migration from Africa. North African elites have turned away from the EU as it hardens its southern border, but they open their countries up to immigrants from the south, seeing this as a way to build relations with regional blocs in West and East Africa. These African governments, in turn, simply use Morocco as a bridge to push their workers toward Europe, and Morocco does little to hold them back. In the best-case scenario, there is a dip in disorderly migration as the EU stops using its visas, trade, aid, and diplomatic and crisis-management tools in pursuit of transactional migrant deals in North Africa. Instead, it deploys them for their proper purpose – addressing conflicts in Syria, Libya, and the Sahel.

What to Watch Out For – Takeaways for Policymaking Today

What costs should the EU be aware of if it sticks to the trajectory mapped out in the status quo scenario? This first scenario projects an EU whose prime aim is to reduce irregular migration, yet it fails to wean itself off its reliance on an annual influx of informal labor. While this EU of 2030 is undergoing major transformations – economic, geopolitical, climate-related, digital, and demographic – politicians fail to adopt an overarching strategy in which migration plays a role. Consequently, clamping down on migration becomes an end in itself. The EU fails to build up reliable skills partnerships around major issues such as technology and climate; as irregular migration flows become even more unpredictable, it struggles to harness the usual pool of irregular labor for its low-wage sectors, namely healthcare and agriculture. All Europeans suffer from the abdication of political responsibility for migration – both those EU citizens trapped in disadvantaged situations and those ambitious young Europeans seeking opportunities in other parts of the world.

Is the EU properly braced for the worst-case scenario? In many ways, this is the wrong question: The EU’s threat perception is already so heightened that its fears could become self-fulfilling. In this scenario, the EU takes a defensive Eurocentric approach to migration, hemming itself in with deals with authoritarian governments. As a result, the EU misses opportunities. As its neighbors work to keep regional labor flowing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU is slow to see the growth of attractive regional labor markets. It is also slow to note how the gap is closing between the Global South and Global North when it comes to migration priorities, meaning that all states have some interest in regulating emigration, entry, and returns. Moreover, the EU is slow to acknowledge how migration has become overlaid with ideological overtones, making it a key component in the reshuffling of strategic alliances to counterbalance China.

How might the EU work toward the best-case scenario? Here, the European Union is able to escape from the vicious cycle in which only defensive border security and transactional deals are options – the toxic side effects of which for good governance, regional cooperation, and, ultimately, migration control lead the EU to seek more of the same. Instead, the EU is finally able to opt for reform both at home, with efforts to deepen the European labor market, and abroad, with a shift in the nature of its border conditionality and the launch of skills and talent partnerships that promote inter-regional mobility. This is possible due to a combination of two factors: first, confidence gained in competing against China for migration and, second, the emergence of vibrant regional labor hubs in the South and in West and East Africa. These developments turn a vicious cycle into a virtuous one. No longer fearing instability beyond – and pressures on – its borders, the EU stops using its various tools as leverage in migration deals with the effect that it actually ends up reducing migration.



Status Quo Scenario: The EU TRIES TO OUTCOMPETE China and Disaster Follows

China’s comprehensive “Silk Road Migration Plan” offers elites in Africa access to its universities and labor market, as well as lucrative infrastructure projects, in return for strategic resources. The EU thus finds itself competing with a more impressive power both globally and in its near abroad. Its past refusal to advance multilateral cooperation forces it to stick to deal-making with strongmen in Africa, only creating more instability around itself. Disappointed with the buffering deals the EU brings to the table, potential partners are no longer interested when the EU finally proposes more equitable partnerships. The EU finds itself economically weak, divided, and facing a surge in migration.

China Uses Migration Deals in Africa to Gain Standing and Resources

Following a decade of US sanctions, China identifies serious deficits in its capacity for innovation and access to strategic resources. Therefore, it rolls out a set of transactional deals in developing countries designed to plug these gaps. China’s deal-making focuses on elites in Latin America, Africa, and Central Asia where it offers government officials and their families access to Chinese universities and businesses – a system dubbed “diplomatic visa liberalization.” China’s goal is to weaken the ability of regional bodies like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to shape policies that retain skilled workers and bargain collectively over resources. It focuses on transnational resources such as fish, water, and hydroelectric power. If a particular government resists its bid for its national resources, China simply waits until these have crossed the border into the territory of a neighbor. Its tactic in each world region is divide and rule – even in its connectivity efforts.

China’s talent acquisition programs may use the familiar US-style language of “competing for the brightest and best minds,” but they reflect a much deeper geostrategic sensibility. The EU sets itself on a similar path. While it also talks of attracting the brightest and best through its revamped Blue Card program, the EU actually focuses on the mechanisms of multinational corporations (MNCs) and intra-corporate transfers. It makes use of Mode 4 trade rules to allow certain highly-skilled self-employed individuals to establish their businesses in Europe; it gives individual EU regions and cities access to its infrastructure spending; and it encourages these to make mobility agreements with nearby regions – especially those of a similar language group. Its Jean Monnet and Marie Curie Talent Programs cultivate educational links abroad, particularly in fields in which it is struggling to access materials like semiconductors and in countries rich in minerals and raw resources. The EU is going head-to-head with China, using the offer of elite gain and access to Europe not only to boost its own innovation profile but also to navigate a world in which access to resources and markets has become trickier.

No Leverage, No Interest: Neighbors Increasingly Ignore the EU

If African elites readily engage with China, it is because they are already accustomed to its style of transactional bidding for their human and natural resources. Although the EU has talked up its support for African “collective action” for years, it makes bilateral deals around migration and resources. Political and business elites in East and West Africa welcome the competition provided by China and start a kind of international bidding war for their allegiance. Alongside access for themselves to European or Chinese markets, they demand infrastructure investment from Brussels and Beijing with no political conditions attached. When European governments suggest they lack the financial firepower to keep up, local governments suggest “sanctions forgiveness” – pressing the EU to “cash in” by lifting the targeted personal sanctions it has imposed over the previous decade. The result is a fragmented and top-heavy order in Africa in which governments sell regional public goods – fisheries, water, transport networks, and political ownership of regional bodies and migrants – for individual gain.

Too late, the EU notes that the situation across Africa is deteriorating sharply. Elites across the Sahel, worried about large numbers of disgruntled, underemployed young men, take advantage of their control of transport infrastructure and regional free movement regimes to nudge them abroad. In response, the EU makes a series of buffering deals with local governors in African states that cut deep into the continent’s overlapping free movement zones. While Italy makes buffering deals with militias and criminal gangs with the tacit approval of the Netherlands and Germany, Brussels puts a range of sanctioning regimes in place to punish leaders who do not play ball and take back their nationals and those of neighboring states. The trouble is that these leaders lack legitimacy at home and would further strain relations to their neighbors if they took back foreign nationals. In this context, China positions itself as a benevolent power, voicing calls for debt relief from European governments and delivering avian flu vaccines and other healthcare products to stricken regions. The EU, by contrast, is associated with a rapacious form of neo-colonialism.

The EU Strives for Autonomy

In the early 2020s – after a decade of crisis, from the eurozone to the coronavirus – the EU deepens its industrial policy, fiscal stimulus programs, and harmonization of national labor market institutions. This creates the basis for a truly European labor market policy with a proper assessment of Europe’s skill needs. The resulting assessment leads it to a two-pronged approach. First, it ramps up the automation of low-skilled jobs in sectors such as agriculture and healthcare, which it began during the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, it competes globally for the brightest and best in fields like technology. But automation is expensive, the advanced technologies are unevenly distributed across the EU, and some of the new systems rely on technologies and materials that are difficult to get. The EU’s northern member states and large cities press ahead with this two-pronged approach, rolling out smart city models. But member states in the EU’s south – in particular, poor rural regions – struggle as they have no means to sustain their agricultural or tourist sectors.

Smuggling networks come to straddle Europe’s external border and the buffers the EU has created across North Africa, feeding the labor needs of Europe’s southern members. The Italian government treats these organized crime groups in much the same way as Germany and the Netherlands treat MNCs – as businesses that control the transfer of migrants into the EU and then out again. Scared of losing access to remittances and being stuck with large numbers of unemployed young men, African elites push their nationals northward. These young people cannot avail themselves of their right to work in regional free movement zones like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) because of the vicious traffickers and people smugglers who spirit them across the Mediterranean. As the EU defends its borders, it becomes less attractive for global migration. China fully capitalizes on Europe’s reputational failure and takes an even more excessive approach to African elites.

Stocktaking: Lessons Learned from 2030

In this scenario for 2030, the EU had the potential to create a much more integrated European labor market than it has today. This is significant because many of the migration problems that the EU currently faces – related to both attracting global labor and absorbing irregular migration flows – arise from its lack of one. The EU is highly unusual in that it has a border-free travel area, the Schengen Area, at the heart of its migration, visa, and border policy. The continued absence of a truly European labor market meant it could attract migrants neither on the basis of an assessment of its combined needs, nor by offering prospective high-skilled migrants access to a cohesive market of 214 million workers. This absence also meant that its member states were affected by migration shocks in highly asymmetric ways as irregular migrants used the EU’s border-free travel area to pick and choose between 27 different national labor markets. But in this scenario, despite the changed circumstances, the EU maintained its Schengen-style siege mentality rather than capitalizing on a more integrated labor market.

Then as now, the EU pictured itself at the center of a vast regional (labor) market that stretches into the Caucasus, Levant, Horn of Africa, and Gulf of Guinea. But it developed no means of absorbing these migrants. In this scenario, the EU retained the same approach to migrants – one that is not based on their long-term integration into the European labor force but rather on the short-term mobility made possible by the Schengen Area. (In the words of one of the experts at our scenario workshop, the message to migrants is: “Give us your labor then kindly leave again.”) As this approach failed and migrants stayed on, the EU resorted to the same pattern of defensive buffering arrangements as under the current Schengen Area: it made deals with elites, simultaneously reducing their legitimacy and its ability to drive cooperation. Whether through a buffering deal on the territory of Niger or support to Nigeria to strengthen its borders, the EU undermined the efforts by ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) to create integrated free movement zones that might train and retain African labor. Its fears became self-fulfilling as migrants fled oppressive regimes and had nowhere to go but Europe.

Worst Case Scenario: Migration and the Clash of Civilizations

The EU finds itself as just one of a number of regional migration zones with countries in Southeast Asia clubbing together in order to retain labor. This takes on geopolitical and ideological tones as migration becomes a geo-economic tool in the competition among these blocs. The EU struggles to find its place in this new global order and misses the opportunity to reach out to migration regimes in Africa to create multilateral rules. It ends up positioning the European free movement zone as a kind of civilizational space, leading to a hard border to its south – and a surge of irregular immigration.

The EU Concentrates on Competition from the Indo-Pacific

A new regional labor zone forms in the Indo-Pacific that is initially spurred by China. After the COVID-19 pandemic, China reshores production, stockpiles strategic supplies of raw materials, and massively invests in domestic education, but – due to its historical one-child policy – it lacks the population to fill its domestic production jobs. Consequently, it is soaking up migrants from neighboring countries, whom it houses in poor conditions in large suburban migrant centers. In response, a core of five ASEAN members begins cooperating more deeply on intra-regional migration in a bid to retain local labor. Led by Vietnam, whose own youth bulge has been curtailed by large-scale emigration to China, this grouping also consists of Cambodia and Laos, two further states with historically high youth unemployment, as well as Singapore and Thailand, two with an ageing population. In this context, migration soon becomes an ideological tool for these Asian governments – part of the regional effort to counterbalance China and build a shared political affinity. Vietnam rebrands the initiative as a “people’s front” against Chinese assertiveness, a framing that attracts the United States. Migration and free movement have become tools in a new Cold War.

The EU Misses an Opportunity for Multilateral Cooperation

Fearing a bipolar global migration system as Chinese and American-led blocs view the ability to attract and retain migration as a matter of geo-economic necessity and prestige, the International Labour Organization (ILO) begins work to link up regional labor markets and border regimes, including ECOWAS and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Africa. Four lead states are named – Morocco, Indonesia, Mexico, and Turkey – which form a belt around the world and sit at the crossroads between regions. At talks in Cancun, the four express the hope that this inter-regional cooperation will be the basis for a binding multilateral migration order. But the EU is nervous of being tied to migration rules, fearing that AU negotiators will oblige it to take in migrants. It also views efforts by the AU and ECOWAS to create African “free movement zones” as being more about lifting borders to allow migrants to move northward to Europe rather than creating well-regulated labor markets. In a world in which migration has become a vector of grand ideologies, the EU views itself increasingly as a “civilizational area.” It pursues bilateral buffering deals with Turkey and Morocco to cut off the flow of migrants from the south.

Southern Migration Spikes

Despite its role as a lead state in the multilateral talks, Morocco is primarily interested in currying favor in West Africa. It clearly sees the ideological and geopolitical uses of migration and gleefully capitalizes on the way the EU has rebuffed the ILO’s efforts. The Moroccan regime in Rabat turns away from the EU and applies to join the AU’s policy to create an African passport area. This, plus its effort to accede to the ECOWAS free movement area, effectively pushes the continent’s outer border to within a few kilometers of Spain. Morocco’s king is playing geopolitics and liberalizes the country’s treatment of migrants, in particular those with an affinity to France, in a bid to literally play kingmaker between West Africa’s Francophone and Anglophone states. But he has overreached. Regional powers like Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire now compete to assert their own pet regional blocs, and they start using their diasporas as geopolitical tools. Social discontent inside Morocco at the favorable treatment of immigrants has already led to violent confrontations; in turn, their countries of origin take offence and stir up discontent with the king. As Morocco crumbles, disorderly migration in the Mediterranean begins to spike.

Stocktaking: Lessons Learned from 2030

This worst-case scenario underlined the fact that there is no inherent link between the EU’s policies to compete for global migration and the spike in migration across the Mediterranean. Competition with other regional labor markets played out in this scenario not in the battle to attract migrant labor, but rather to retain local labor and build up regional labor mobility. That meant that the EU did not need to open itself up to global migration to remain competitive – global competition was motivated by ideological and geopolitical, rather than economic, reasons. Indeed, the EU used the competition as grounds to close itself off from migrant labor. That indicated that the EU does not always need to open up to labor to remain competitive. But it also showed that, under entirely different conditions than in the status quo scenario, the EU somehow triggered the same outcome – large-scale migration from Africa. This strongly suggested that there is no given link between the need to compete against other labor markets and the risk of attracting large-scale migration from Africa – rather, large-scale irregular migration resulted from poorly-conceived EU policies.

In terms of opportunities, this scenario serves as a reminder that regional labor markets form in order to retain local labor as much as to attract labor from outside. While this was as true of regional groupings in Africa as it was of the European Union, the EU did not take this eventuality seriously and support the emergence of integrated African labor regimes. Europe’s skepticism about Africa’s capacity to retain labor was not only expressed in the buffering policies it put in place toward African regions that were based on the assumption that their free-movement regimes exist more de facto than de jure; but it was also expressed in well-meaning policies to reduce the cost of remitting money from the EU to Africa, which incentivized African states to push their nationals toward the EU. It is also a reminder that grand geopolitical and ideological imperatives affect how regions deal with migration. This was the case during the Cold War and in the market ideology of the past two decades. The EU cannot build regional migration regimes in West Africa if it does not understand regional issues, for example, those of prestige between Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire.

Best-Case Scenario: Multipolar Development Breaks the Migration Deadlock

In this scenario, the EU successfully boosts its attractiveness as a labor destination, yet it loses its relative attractiveness in its near abroad. On a global level, China has gone into demographic decline and is struggling to attract skilled labor. This leaves the EU well placed to compete. But in other world regions, developing economies have become better at cooperating to retain labor. The EU is slow to realize that it is not the natural destination for Africans, but when it does, irregular migration across the Mediterranean dips.

Competition from China Fizzles Out

China is ageing fast and reverses its policy of sending its nationals abroad as security and infrastructure advisors. Signs of instability at home, where young unmarried men are agitated about “growing old before they grow rich,” mean Beijing is focused on domestic affairs. In Africa, the Chinese presence remains little more than an outpost in Djibouti, where Chinese “peacekeepers” are a focal point for locals who, fueled by the tacit support of the Turkish secret services and Qatari moneymen, express their anger at the treatment of Uyghurs. As China withdraws, it triggers upheaval between the Horn’s regional rivals. Displacement grows, exacerbated by climate-induced crop failure. The EU, now easily outcompeting “Fortress China” for the attractiveness of its labor market, frets about a wave of irregular migration from the region. It offers a mix of development, humanitarian, diplomatic, and trade initiatives – online learning in refugee camps, a resettlement scheme for refugees that takes their academic qualifications and professional aptitude into account, and a set of “mobility partnerships” for Ethiopians to work in Europe, all of which are tied to obligations on the government to hold back the flow of people.

A New Khartoum Process

Ethiopia insists on taking the issue to IGAD, the eight-country East African trade bloc. There, the Sudanese warn the EU that its new attractiveness will draw people northward, putting a burden on Sudan and threatening to tip the delicate balance of relations with other countries on the route to Europe. They call for a reinvigoration of the “Khartoum Process,” the old EU-brokered dialogue between a string of countries on the migration trail to the Mediterranean that accepted money and limited access to European visas in return for acting as buffers. But Ethiopian diplomats push back at this scaremongering: The EU is not, in fact, an attractive market for local workers, so why change that? That string of countries down to Tunisia – Anglophone and Francophone, majority Christian and Muslim – can instead be useful with expertise to overcome the Horn’s border tensions and build up the regional labor market regime; and the EU can be helpful in lending IGAD diplomatic weight so that locals gain access to and humanitarian support from the genuinely attractive regional labor markets of ECOWAS and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Europeans Begin Working Toward a More Multipolar Global Migration Regime

For European negotiators accustomed to thinking of the EU as one of – if not the – major global destination for all kinds of migrants, such straight talk from the Ethiopians is a wake-up call. Addis Ababa warns that if the EU returns to its familiar mix of African migration policies – the limited offer of access to the EU labor market coupled with buffering deals – it will create the same old toxic effect, namely new migration dependencies between Africa and the EU as well as the smuggling networks to service them. The message comes just in time: the EU had been preparing to pull development support from southern Africa and plow it back into buffering arrangements in Niger; it had been about to start using its crisis-management missions to post European border experts at the Libyan border; and it was working out how to leverage a new round of regional trade talks for migration conditionality. That is not to say that the EU ceases migration conditionality but, rather than creating buffering deals, it uses its trade and aid to cajole the members of IGAD to cooperate in good faith on regional migration opportunities.

Stocktaking: Lessons Learned from 2030

The key breakthrough in this scenario was the realization that regional labor markets, even in Africa, were capable of cohering and retaining labor. On a global level, the old distinction between countries of origin and countries of destination – between the Global South and Global North – were shrinking. In the wake of the global financial crisis, wealth and influence had seeped away from the United States and EU, and these wealthy labor markets lost their absolute attractiveness. Almost all states became countries of immigration, emigration, and transit. Thus, they found more on which to cooperate – rapprochement that played out most intensely at the regional level. In this scenario, the EU was able to help African states to cooperate on border control and immigration as soon as it stopped behaving as if they were all solely countries of emigration. These new African regional labor markets not only retained local workers and boosted the stock of human capital, but they also attracted outsiders. From inside the EU itself, even in the Netherlands and Germany, young Europeans pressed their governments to secure them opportunities to move abroad to attractive regional labor markets in the old Global South.

As illustrated in the other two scenarios, countries of the “Global Middle” such as Morocco, Turkey, Indonesia, and Mexico were perhaps the first to feel this shift. They had gone from countries of origin to countries of transit to countries of destination; and they had tried to diversify away from the European Union, United States, or wealthy South Asian economies and use migration relations to access emerging local regional economies like ECOWAS or IGAD. Inside the EU, we can imagine that the EU’s eastern and southeastern member states were key to the EU’s own reassessment of the situation. Their recent experience of migration has been very different than that of the “old” member states – their nationals moved abroad in large numbers in the mid-2000s and often landed in poorly recognized roles. They experienced the divisiveness of mobility and of large populations that chose not to be mobile, and they were left with national problems. They also took the lead in the EU when it came to diaspora policy, finding ways to open up good emigration opportunities for their nationals and seeing that “circular migration” and “mobility partnerships” could apply to EU citizens going to attractive third countries just as much as to immigrants coming into the EU.

Bibliographic data

Chapter  from the report Building European Resilience and Capacity to Act: Lessons for 2030 published by the Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik on July 2, 2021.