Aragall, X. Migration in the Mediterranean, 2010

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Present international migration flows are affecting all five continents and the Mediterranean region is not an exception. Flows of people moving from one place to another are increasingly complex and diverse. As new typologies of migrants appear, the line between forced migrants and labour migrants becomes diffuse. Some traditional sending countries become receiving ones, other countries are simultaneously sending and receiving countries, while others again are simply transit migration countries.

Migration is not a new phenomenon, and an organized diaspora of communities established in different regions of the world induce new dynamics that drive us to observe that migration is not to be seen as a one-time and one-way event. It has to be seen as circulation of people as well as of money and information between two or more places.

Main geographical areas are characterised by migratory trends present throughout a given region as well as more ‘local’ dynamics occurring in specific areas or groups of countries. In any case, the progressive globalisation of migration forces one to take into consideration the complex backgrounds and structural factors of these processes in order to attempt to gain a comprehensive, global view of migration. Each continent, moreover, has unique characteristics in terms of economic development, political structures and international relations which must be taken into account.

The increasing differences in economy, demography, politics and security matters between sending countries and receiving countries are key to understand the flows of migration between countries in the South of the Mediterranean and the North. These disproportions, added to their geographical proximity, may explain why Europe is, and will remain, the main destination of Mediterranean migration, despite the increasing effort to reduce entry of immigrants, whether regulated, unregulated or asylum seekers.

Therefore migration is of increasing importance in Mediterranean countries of the Middle East and North Africa.  Not only are the numbers of migrants fairly large, but their rate of growth largely exceeds that of total populations. Med-MENA remains a major region of emigration, and at the same time it receives significant flows of immigration, whether destined for the region itself or as transit to Europe. The circulation of people has long been a key component—maybe even more important than trade—of the relations between countries, both within the region and with the outside world.

Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries, that is countries of the southern shore of the Mediterranean and countries of the Middle East region that also share the Mediterranean, nowadays form a major region of emigration, with a number of first-generation emigrants ranging between 10 and 15 million, representing some 4,8% of their aggregated population which amounted to 260 million in 2005.

Four MENA countries have more than 2,5 million of their nationals currently residing abroad: the Palestinian Territory, Turkey, Morocco and Egypt. Algeria counts more than one million nationals abroad, and Tunisia and Lebanon more than half a million each.

According to data provided by the countries of origin, Europe is the single largest destination of first generation emigrants from MENA countries, and hosts 50% of all such emigrants worldwide. The Arab oil countries, i.e. the Gulf States and Libya, constitute the second largest destination, with the rest of the world, mainly North America, ranking far behind. 

Migrants from the Maghreb and Turkey are predominantly destined for Europe, while those from Eastern Arab Mediterranean countries instead tend to travel to the Arab oil countries and other regions of the world.

The transit areas

There is great heterogeneity among Southern Mediterranean countries. There are immigration countries like Libya and Israel, and emigration countries which are experiencing growing immigration pressures, such as Morocco and Turkey; and there are Western Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries that have become transit areas of flows from Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa. These countries, including Cyprus, Malta, Morocco-Spain (Gibraltar and Canary Islands) and Tunis-Italy (Sicily and Lampedusa islands), are notably affected by such global human flows, and as members of the EU they have become “intermediate stops” in trans-Mediterranean migratory flows. These countries have become places of transit of migration originating in neighbouring or more distant regions.

This is composed of migrants who, though aiming for Europe, find themselves literally “blocked at the gates” as a result of tightened EU migration policies and border controls. These migrants often become irregular, putting a strain on the institutional capacity of host countries to effectively deal with immigration. This new category of immigrants has generated unprecedented challenges to labour markets and induced new political debates.

General trends Euro-Mediterranean migration flows

According to the latest data available on immigration in the Euro-Mediterranean area, during the second half of the present decade, 6% of the population in the European Union (EU 27) were immigrants (30 million people). Out of this immigrant population, 5,7 million (20%) came from Mediterranean countries.

Of these 5,7 million, 48% come from the Maghreb countries (33% from Morocco, 10% Algeria and 4,8% from Tunisia) , and 45 % from Turkey. Thus, in the year 2009, we have a population of Mediterranean origin distributed throughout different countries of the European Union who arrived in these countries at different historical periods.

Algerians, most of who live in France represents around 10% of the Mediterranean immigration in the European Union. This population arrived mainly after the independence process of Algeria. In the case of people from Morocco, they account for 33% of the total of the Mediterranean immigrant population in the EU. This migratory flow mostly took place in the period of economic growth in the EU when there was great demand for labour. Yet, this flow also extended to the last two decades due to the economic situation of the country, the flows being redirected towards the countries of the south of Europe such as Spain and Italy. The Moroccan immigrants in the EU amount to almost two million. This figure shows that 82% of Moroccan emigrants live in the EU. France has received 60% of them, followed by Belgium and the Netherlands with percentages that range from 15% to 20%. Spain and Italy have currently been consolidated among the first five destinations of Moroccan immigration with 6% and 10% respectively.

The most significant group of immigrants from Mediterranean countries are Turks, who represent 45% of the immigrants of Mediterranean origin living in the EU. The population of Turkish origin mainly arrived during the economic growth of the 1960s and provided necessary labour. In Germany, there are 2 million Turks; further communities also exist in France, where they represent 4% of the immigrant population as in the Netherlands. Finally, one should point out the inevitable migration resulting from the period of military confrontations in the area of the Balkans and the political instability in Algeria, which resulted in a significant increase of refugees and asylum seekers, thereby provoking circumstances similar to those established by the economic migrants.

The analysis of the south-north migratory trends, mainly from the Maghrebian area and Turkey towards Europe, must not displace the diverse and complex context in which these migrations move within the area of the Mediterranean. There are also south-south flows such as those from Algeria and Tunisia to Libya and countries of the Persian Gulf, or from Egypt to the Persian Gulf, and East-West migratory flows from the Balkans and Turkey to Western Europe. In their part, Mediterranean migratory flows are not specific any more and are characterised by elements common to migratory movements at a global level: feminization, highly and poorly qualified labour migration, new transnational movements and networks, illegal trafficking of people, overlapping flows of refugees, and asylum seekers with irregular migration.

Understanding Mediterranean migrations: demography, economic growth, lack of development

The explanations on the risk of the demographic differential between the North and the South of the Mediterranean, especially with reference to the Maghreb, only deal with one side of the analysis. During the first decade of the 21st century, we observe the arrival of the largest amount of persons on the labor market in history. One should bear in mind that we are facing a peak: from this stage onwards, a decrease is expected in the birth rate, which will begin to decline in absolute terms from 2010 on. For this reason, more than the dynamics of the population, the current concern must be the employment of this labour force, the largest in history, which coincides with a labour market that cannot absorb it. This (insufficient) labor market is based particularly on the economic reforms started following the recommendations of the International Monetary Fund.

Linked with the aforementioned demographic differences, one can also observe an important characteristic on both shores: while the northern shore has already overcome the demographic transition experiencing birth rates below replacement level, the southern shore still maintains an intermediate situation in the demographic transition. Simultaneously there will be a phenomenon of decreasing active population in the north (general ageing) while in the south, the active population will overcome the employment needs. This creates a situation of complementarity between both shores, where the south can provide the north with the active population it will lack.

After the demographical factors, we observe that the unequal development of the economic growth experienced in the last few decades has lead to a currently economically polarised region. Although in the past, the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea showed a great dispersion in terms of income per capita, there was a uniform grading between the upper extreme (France) and lower extreme (Morocco) with a difference between their levels per capita, a scale with 7 levels of countries with a differential between 25% and 45% from one level to the next.

By the end of the 1990s the countries of the north and south of the Mediterranean divided into two separate groups. The distance between extremes had increased: while the group of most developed countries has converged with its neighbours from the north, the less developed countries of the south of the Mediterranean saw a reduction in the levels of income per capita. Thus, there were two groups of polarised countries in both extremes, countries that are very homogenous in their interior and highly heterogeneous with reference to the other group.

As far as development level is concerned, we can state that the Mediterranean today is one of the worlds regions where great differences exist in terms of development within a very limited geographical space.  The income per capita of all Mediterranean societies was below 20% of the EU average. This difference, far from being reduced, tends to increase.

There has been considerable progress in laying the foundations for health, habitat, and education. Two notable achievements is the enormous quantitative expansion in educating the young and a noticeable improvement in fighting mortality. For example, life expectancy has increased by 15 years over the last three decades, and infant mortality rates have dropped by two thirds. Moreover, the region’s growth has been “pro-poor”: there is less dire poverty (defined as an income of less than a dollar a day) than in any other developing region. About 40% of the total population is illiterate.

Unemployment in the region was estimated to be no less than 12 million in 1995, or around 15% of the labour force. If present rates continue, the number is expected to rise to 25 million by 2010. Job opportunities and education were amongst the main concerns of the young. In a worrying trend, 51% of older adolescents interviewed and 45% of younger ones expressed a desire to emigrate, clearly indicating dissatisfaction with current conditions and future prospects in their home countries.


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Xavier Aragall, Institut Europeu de la Mediterrània (IEMed.), 2010




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