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Pandemic deepens North Africa despair behind Med crossings

  • Published at 09:22 pm October 15th, 2020
Mediterranean sea immigrant
File photo: A boat, which was carrying 29 people and sank off the Tunisian coast, being towed near the Tunisian coastal town of Amra on October 13, 2020 AFP

Frustration is rife among young people across the Arab world, said the latest annual Arab Youth Survey

The Covid-19 pandemic and the economic devastation it wrought have deepened the despair driving young North Africans to embark on dangerous Mediterranean crossings bound for Europe.

EU countries have stepped up pressure on Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to stop the irregular crossings -- but the rickety boats keep leaving on journeys that all too often end in tragedy.

At least 21 people died when the latest boat capsized off Tunisia last week. Among the sub-Saharan Africans and Tunisians who drowned were three children, one of them a baby.

In a sign of the growing scale of the departures, Tunisia's interior ministry said that on Saturday night alone its officers foiled 32 more attempts to cross the Mediterranean on boats and arrested 262 people.

The fight against irregular migration is at the heart of EU diplomatic efforts in the Maghreb region, including a trip to Morocco on Thursday by French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

It was also the hot-button issue in Algeria during recent visits by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Italian Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese.

Italy has also toughened its rhetoric on the subject with Tunisia, where the level of clandestine departures this summer reached a level unprecedented since 2011.

Overall, irregular migrant arrivals in the EU were down 92% last year compared with the peak year of 2015, says the border agency Frontex.

However, now growing economic pressures are driving up numbers again, not just from lawless and war-torn Libya but also from North Africa's Maghreb region.

Youth unemployment 

The trend is fuelled by widespread disillusionment with governments and economic prospects there, said Ivan Martin, a Spanish researcher specializing in migration.

"The number one factor in departures from Morocco is the deterioration of the economic situation," he said.

"In Algeria it is despair linked to the failure of political change, and in Tunisia disillusionment with the lack of political and economic prospects."

Frustration is rife among young people across the Arab world, said the latest annual Arab Youth Survey released this month by the consultancy ASDAA BCW.

"Nearly half of 200 million young Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa region have considered leaving their country, frustrated with struggling economies and widespread government corruption," it found.

"One third are more likely to emigrate due to Covid-19."

The report pointed out that the Mena region has "the world's highest youth unemployment" at over 26 percent according to the International Labour Organization.

"Unemployment is a top issue and young Arabs are looking beyond traditional jobs," said the survey report. "Covid-19 has made finding a job more difficult."

Dashed hopes 

Moroccan anthropologist Chakib Guessous, whose country faces recession this year with a 6% GDP contraction, said that "every time there is a crisis, it pushes young people to leave."

Months of lockdown have driven Morocco's most vulnerable deeper into poverty and hardened the desire of many, including the highly qualified, to leave their home country, he said.

In Tunisia too, said Romdhane Ben Amor of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, "among those leaving, there are more and more graduates, people who are not unemployed but who have a precarious job."

In Algeria, where the government has sealed the borders because of Covid-19, many young people have been disheartened because hopes for political reform have fizzled.

The country's Hirak protest movement drove former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power, but its continued street protests calling for deeper, systemic change ground to a halt early this year as the pandemic hit.

"There is an unprecedented increase" in the departure of young people who "are no longer looking to the future of this country", said Kouceila Zerguine, an expert in immigration law.

In September, more than 1,200 illegal immigrants were intercepted off the Algerian coast within just 10 days.

And while overall migrant arrivals on the Spanish coast dropped off sharply over the first eight months of 2020, says Frontex, Algerians made up two thirds of them, ahead of Moroccans and sub-Saharan Africans.

Guessous said that while the EU focusses on hardening its external border, it should also support people in the struggling countries of origin.

"The only solution," he said, "is to act in advance so that they do not want to leave."