At the peak of the surge in 2015, more than a million migrants made the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean, attempting to reach Europe. The scenes of people crowded into unseaworthy boats in their effort to make it to Europe were heartbreaking. The loss of countless lives along the way was tragic.
The logical assumption was that only extreme desperation – grinding poverty, extreme violence, or brutal government oppression – could drive people to make such a perilous journey. That assumption, however, is largely incorrect according to a new report, Scaling Fences, by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
UNDP researchers interviewed nearly 2,000 migrants from 39 African nations who are living in 13 EU nations. Based on the accounts of the migrants, UNDP reports that the motivation for making the journey across the Mediterranean was “not for asylum or protection-related reasons,” although most of the people arriving on European shores requested asylum. Nor was the impetus a search for jobs, per se. “Around 58 per cent were either employed or in school at the time of their departure, with the majority of those working, earning competitive wages,” states the report.
In reality what the migrants were seeking were better wages, which they believed would be available to them if they could reach Europe. Not mentioned in the report, but no doubt another important factor that drove the 2015 surge (and continues to attract dangerous trans-Mediterranean migration), was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration that Europe’s doors were open to anyone who wanted to enter an asylum claim, however specious.
In many ways, the UNDP report affirms an ironic, but well-established phenomenon that economic development in sending countries, and the rise of large segments of their populations from extreme poverty to relative poverty (i.e. relative to the prosperity of the countries migrants are attempting to reach) can lead to an exodus of those who have managed to climb out of destitution. Large-scale migration is often a consequence of progress-impeding corruption and malfeasance on the part of the governments of sending nations, or understandable impatience on the part of young people in those countries to allow the long arc of economic development to play out. The exodus of educated, upwardly mobile migrants, and the growing reliance of those left behind on remittances, further impedes the economic development and government reforms that are necessary to make those countries attractive places to live.
The UNDP report should also serve as cautionary tale to our own government. The phenomenon of large-scale migration in our own hemisphere – and the tendency of well-intended people to view dangerous treks as a sign of extreme desperation – is not always what it may appear to be. And, as Europe has taken steps to stem the flow of people across the Mediterranean, Merkel-like policies that allow people to exploit our asylum laws are already showing signs of convincing migrants to cross the Atlantic and join the flow of Central American migrants seeking a short cut to greater economic prosperity.