The debate on the challenges in addressing African youth migration is hampered by ongoing dramas in the Mediterranean Sea and the overall mismanagement of irregular migration. Due to its potential to trigger instability, risking yet more irregular migration from Africa, our urgent attention should be focused on what’s 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; a great talent pool, but one that is at risk of unemployment in fragile or violent regions. On the other side of the Mediterranean, Europe fears nothing will stop them from crossing the sea. What can Europe do?

First of all, we need to gain a better understanding of 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 (Honwana, 2014); 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 they do become successful, they are obliged to share instead of re-investing in their company, or paying back loans. 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, ranging from joining criminal or extremist groups, leading to instability, to urban-bound, regional or international migration.

So how can policymakers 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 creates 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 might be a first step forward in countering this dilemma. It requires working from their direct community up to government level with a politically smart, locally led approach. This entails a concerted effort by various types of actors, including partners that have leverage with elites and government, so as to effectively address 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 to managing migration, as it might exacerbate youth-undermining structures. In particular, the EU must examine the interplay between intensified border control on its shores and weak border control in instable countries, such as Mali and Libya. The current situation may contribute to a profitable market where extremist and criminal groups, including migrant smugglers, are infiltrating to lure vulnerable youth into their business.

As long as any support, however well-intended, fails to tackle this situation, efforts to structurally deal with unemployment among young Africans may become futile. Interested in further findings and recommendations? This blog is the start of a 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.

(This blog was published on 4 May 2016 by the Knowledge Platform on Security & Rule of Law – photo credit: flickr – the commons – ONU mission au Mali)