The debate on the challenges in addressing African youth migration is being hampered by ongoing dramas in the Mediterranean Sea and the overall mismanagement of irregular migration. However, our urgent attention should be focused on what is pushing most young people to leave Africa: unemployment and lack of perspective.
By 2050, the number of African youth will have almost doubled to 362 million. While this is a great talent pool, it is one that is at risk of unemployment in fragile regions. On the other side of the Mediterranean, Europe fears that nothing will stop them from crossing the sea. What can Europe do?
First of all, we need to gain a better understanding of the factors that drive African youth migration. The preliminary results of our interviews with youth from the Sahel and West Africa indicate that this is a complex mix of push and pull factors, varying per context or even per person. Commonalities are the search for secure livelihoods and personal security and, indirectly, bad governance.
Barriers to employment and youth-undermining structures are commonplace for young Africans in these regions. Many young people are in so-called ‘waithood’; they wait for a job that will allow them to move up in African society. However, political and economic elites control access to jobs and other assets, holding youth back.
Many young people end up as entrepreneurs in the informal sector, while dreaming of a steady job and a better future. In the exceptional case that they do become successful, they are obliged to share their income or use it to pay back loans, instead of reinvesting it in their company. This makes supporting entrepreneurial talent difficult. Development actors that try, often end up working through the same political and economic elites that disregarded youth (and their demographic impact) in the first place. Young people feel excluded and associate this with bad leadership, which pushes them to look for alternatives, including joining criminal or extremist groups, which can lead to instability and urban-bound, regional or international migration.
So how can policy-makers address lack of perspective and unemployment among African youth? Since public sector and other waged jobs will remain scarce, entrepreneurship should become a stable career option and a way to build a livelihood. However, this leads to the next dilemma: how to prevent young people from using their earnings to cross the Mediterranean Sea?
Helping to create perspective and develop an enabling environment for African youth at all levels could be a first step forward in countering this dilemma. It requires working from the direct community level up to the government level with a politically smart, locally-led approach. This entails a concerted effort by various actors, including partners that have leverage with elites and the government, so as to effectively address the structures currently undermining youth. The best way to implement this comprehensive strategy is through focused partnerships, for which the UN Sustainable Development Goals offer a suitable framework.
At the same time, the EU should critically review its support for managing migration, as it could exacerbate youth-undermining structures. In particular, the EU must examine the interplay between intensified border control on its shores and weak border control in unstable countries, such as Mali and Libya. The current situation may contribute to a profitable market which extremist and criminal groups, including migrant smugglers, infiltrate to lure vulnerable youth into their businesses. As long as any support, however well-intended, fails to tackle this situation, efforts to structurally deal with unemployment among young Africans may be futile.
Interested in further findings and recommendations? Please check out the infographic video and follow the SpringFactor blog series on how to structurally address youth unemployment in Africa in a more comprehensive manner, to allow young people to build a future and flourish in their own countries.