Can Better Policy Curb Irregular Migration to Europe?

With over a million migrants arriving on Greek and Italian shores last year looking to enter the EU, curbing the flow of third country asylum seekers from places like Eritrea is an urgent policy priority for European leaders.



New research from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) suggests that lack of access to employment for refugees in stable east African countries like Ethiopia—which host large refugee populations—makes the decision to take risky smuggling routes to Europe more appealing.

Based on interviews with 63 Eritrean migrants in Ethiopia, the ODI report suggests that there are specific policies Western governments and donors can pursue that could preempt irregular movement from east Africa’s refugee centers to the West.


Some 400,000 Eritreans—or roughly 10% of the population—have left their country in recent years. Most escape into neighboring Ethiopia. The small coastal country in the horn of Africa is known as one of the world’s most closed and oppressive. Poverty, political persecution and military conscription all contribute to people’s decision to leave.


While Ethiopia has an open asylum policy for refugees and provides some services to support them, Eritreans still overwhelmingly make the choice to attempt the perilous Mediterranean crossing. According to Amnesty International, around two-thirds of Eritreans in Ethiopia decided to pursue secondary migration in 2016.


“While there is no doubt this support is helping people meet basic survival needs, the policy has a limited effect on people moving,” says Richard Mallet, research fellow at ODI.


“If refugees are not allowed to work, then they are unlikely to want to stay where their opportunities are limited—and instead opt to take life-threatening routes, sometimes to Europe. Policymakers have to address these realities if their aim is to curb secondary migration.”


Eritreans account for most of the 3,000 people who drowned in the Mediterranean through 2015, according to humanitarian agencies. Trafficking operations net smugglers millions, while Europe’s political gridlock on how to respond to the waves of new arrivals leaves migrants stranded and stateless.


At present, all foreign refugees and economic migrants are barred from working legally in Ethiopia, making it nearly impossible to set down roots or provide for families independently of aid. The ODI research suggests that Ethiopia’s current livelihood support programs for refugees, while helpful and worthy of ongoing donor support, are not sufficient.


Enhancing refugee labour rights in Ethiopia is a key step, albeit a challenging one since most are housed in rural border camps far from any major towns or cities. Opening up the labour market to migrants can also be politically challenging when Ethiopia’s own population is also struggling with joblessness and poverty.


A proposed Jobs Compact in Ethiopia, which aims to create 30,000 jobs for refugees living there paid for by Western donors, shows promise. This would allow refugees to make a practical use of the skills and job training they are already being given through donor-funded livelihood support programs.


Still, much more must be done given the numbers of migrants arriving in Ethiopia every month.


The ODI research also suggests that if Western governments are serious about wanting to stem irregular migration, they need to step up formal resettlement programs. This should be coupled with better information to allow Eritrean migrants and asylum seekers to make informed decisions about their futures.


“By providing an opportunity for safe and legal migration, resettlement often produces an initial preventive effect, linked to people knowing how dangerous and expensive the irregular alternative is,” the report notes.


However, this effect dissipates over time if migrants are left in indefinite limbo. “Essentially, as faith in accessing formal channels declines, the risks of irregular transit become more tolerable,” the authors conclude.

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