Who are "the" migrants from African countries who enter the European Union illegally? They are sometimes portrayed as a homogenous group -- and many people bitterly complain about them to score political points.
But the vast majority are people who have left their homelands in search of a safer and better life in a foreign country. They are fleeing poverty, a lack of opportunities and a lack of social safety nets.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has devoted an extensive survey to this group and published the results under the title "Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe."
Some 3,000 adults from 43 African countries were surveyed. The survey does not include those who said that they fled their homes because of war or political persecution. This reduced the sample group to those Africans who were looking for a better life in Europe, but were not allowed to do so because of European immigration laws. Researchers encountered them living in tent cities in the Spanish town of Lepe, where they toil away in greenhouses -- but also in rental apartments with their partners and children in places like Madrid, Rome and Frankfurt.
The results show that some of the supposed certainties about African immigrants to Germany are true, while others are not -- both in terms of their social backgrounds and reasons for emigrating.
Where do the immigrants come from?
Almost three-quarters (71 percent) of the surveyed immigrants come from the relatively prosperous and peaceful region of West Africa, primarily Nigeria and Senegal. In addition, most immigrants are better educated than their peers at home. Fifty-eight percent had regular jobs in their home countries or were pursuing an education before they left for Europe. And their earnings were higher than the national average.
They earned significantly more -- 60 percent more -- than their fellow citizens in their countries of origin, and thus were relatively well-off. Nevertheless, half of those who had a steady income say that it wasn't enough to live on.
The vast majority of migrants were between 20 and 29 years old when they set off for Europe, and a quarter of them were married or in a committed relationship. Roughly one-third of the men and more than half of the women (58 percent) already had one or more children.
Based on all of these results, researchers came to the well-documented conclusion that migration is a step that only becomes possible when people experience economic and social improvements in their situation. As prosperity increases, it gives people the idea and the opportunity to embark on their journey.
What triggered their decision to leave -- and what would have held them back?
A large proportion of the migrants who managed to scale Europe's fences had jobs and a good education.
But the economic situation remained unbearable for many of them. Not surprisingly, 60 percent of respondents cited work and the ability to send money to their families back home as the most important reason for coming to Europe.
However, the researchers point out that this was almost never the only reason. Nearly all of them indicated two or more reasons -- and the ranking of these influencing factors is interesting. The most commonly cited second reason -- i.e. after the ability to earn money -- was for 26 percent of the respondents the poor "governance/security context" in their home countries.
Europe has instituted a wide range of border protection measures that make it difficult for African migrants to enter the continent. There are practically no legal means, aside from pursuing studies or landing an extremely well-paid job that is arranged in advance.
Consequently, over 1,000 people have drowned in 2019 while attempting to cross the Mediterranean on unseaworthy vessels. And many -- some say even more than at sea -- are dying of thirst in the Sahara, which migrants from almost every African country have to cross without the option of flying.
Virtually all migrants experienced a horrific journey. More than half were by no means naïve, and 56 percent said they had expected dangers during their journey. Nevertheless, more than half of the men and two-thirds of the women said that the perils of the trip to Europe were worse than expected.
This raised the following question: What would have dissuaded them from undertaking this arduous, expensive and dangerous journey?
In view of European campaigns to deter migrants even before they leave, two answers are particularly intriguing: Neither more information about what life is actually like in Europe nor more knowledge about the dangers of traveling would have prevented migrants from setting off. In fact, in response to the question "What would have made you change your mind about coming to Europe?" most respondents replied "nothing." The second most cited response was: "improved economic circumstances at home."
This is also astonishing because life in Europe is extremely hard for African migrants who are forced to eke out a precarious existence as illegal immigrants. Despite the aspirations of most migrants to earn money and regularly send some of their earnings back home, only relatively few of them manage to enter the job market.
This is primarily because most are banned from working. Although the study also surveyed migrants who have been living in Germany for more than 10 years, the majority (64 percent) said they were not allowed to work in their host country. Those who do manage to find a job are often grossly overqualified. One-fifth of the men work as fruit and vegetable pickers, and more than a third of the women have cleaning-related jobs or serve as domestic helpers. And if they do manage to land a job, their average salary is below the minimum wage of their respective host countries.
An important motivating factor is to support their families back home, which an impressive 78 percent of working migrants manage to do -- and they send on average almost as much money home as they previously earned in their home countries.
Even though the average wage of 1,020 dollars a month that was calculated by the study must sound luxurious to the relatives back home, this is of course not a lot of money at European prices. But the researchers also calculated that, when adjusted for purchasing power, low-income earners in Europe still earn much more money than they would in their countries of origin.
From a European perspective, the housing situation is alarming. Although it improves from year to year, depending on how long migrants have been living in Europe, the figures for those who arrived between 2005 and 2010 still reveal many precarious living situations.
On the positive side, almost two-thirds of the immigrants from this group have managed to get into a rental apartment, many of which are subsidized by the state. But, roughly a decade after their arrival, one in six still lives in a shelter or a camp. And more than one in 10 are homeless.
Racism in Europe almost invariably hits African immigrants hard, as they are readily recognizable as migrants. In the six months preceding the interviews, 13 percent were victims of a crime; in more than 50 percent of the cases this was verbal abuse, and in nearly 30 percent of the cases it was an actual physical assault.
It may come as a surprise given the hardships they face, but most respondents nevertheless prefer to live in Europe, at least in terms of their financial situation and personal security. Nearly all found that their lives were better in this respect than in Africa. However, they do encounter emotional and social difficulties, prompting one-third to say that life is worse in this respect in Europe than in their countries of origin.
Based on these responses, researchers concluded that Europe should urgently change its policies toward people from African countries. Those who managed to earn money and send it home said that they intended to return to Africa in the medium term. Some also stated that their illegal status actually prevented them from returning home, even if they wanted to go back to their home countries.
If it were easier to acquire an official status and find a job, the researchers argue, the chances of migrants returning would increase, thus paving the way for what's known as "circular migration."
By contrast, those who earn no money due to discrimination and an undocumented status try to remain in Europe -- if possible forever.
This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe on injustices, societal challenges and sustainable development in a globalized world. A selection of the features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appear in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of DER SPIEGEL International. The project is initially scheduled to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is funding the project for a period of three years at a total cost of around €2.3 million.
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Yes. Large European media outlets like the Guardian and El País have similar sections on their websites -- called "Global Development" and "Planeta Futuro," respectively -- that are likewise funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In recent years, DER SPIEGEL has complete two projects with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the European Journalism Centre (EJC): "Expedition BeyondTomorrow," about global sustainability goals, and the journalist refugee project "The New Arrivals," which resulted in several award-winning features.