Despite dangers, majority of irregular migrants from Africa to Europe would still travel: UNDP report

Landmark study gives voice to irregular migrants, and reveals strong links between migration and development

October 21, 2019

New York
– Irregular migrants who made the fraught journey from Africa to Europe would do so again despite knowing the dangers of the trip. Some 93 per cent of almost 2,000 irregular migrants surveyed experienced danger on their journey, but only two per cent said that greater awareness of the risks would have caused them to stay home.

This and other findings emerge from a landmark report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Scaling Fences: Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe, produced to close gaps in the global evidence base and paint a clearer picture of why irregular migrants move from Africa to Europe.

The report, which interviewed 1,970 migrants from 39 African countries in 13 European nations, all of whom self-declared that they arrived in Europe through irregular means and not for asylum or protection-related reasons, challenges commonly held assumptions around irregular migration from Africa to Europe.

It finds that getting a job was not the only motivation to move, that not all irregular migrants were ‘poor’ in Africa, nor had lower education levels. 58 per cent were either employed or in school at the time of their departure, with the majority of those working earning competitive wages. Still, some 50 percent of those working said they were not earning enough. In fact, for two-thirds of those interviewed, earning or the prospect of earning in their home countries did not hold them back from travelling.

The respondents also spent at least three years more in education than their peers.

Scaling Fences highlights that migration is a reverberation of development progress across Africa, albeit progress that is uneven and not fast enough to meet people’s aspirations. Barriers to opportunity, or ‘choice-lessness’, emerge from this study as critical factors informing the calculation of these young people,” said Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator.

“By shining a light on why people move through irregular channels and what they experience when they do, Scaling Fences contributes to a critical debate on the role of human mobility in fostering progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals and the best approaches to governing it,” he said.

The report finds that for many of those who move through irregular channels to Europe from Africa, the voyage is time-bound. The findings show that more of those who did not want to stay in Europe had a legal right to work, compared to those who did want to stay – by a wide margin of 18 percentage points.

The apparent shame of not achieving their ‘mission’ of sending funds back to families and communities emerged as a major factor in keeping respondents from returning, with 53 per cent of respondents receiving at least some kind of financial support from their families and friends in order to pay for their journey.

Once in Europe, of those earning, the vast majority – 78 per cent – were sending money back. Respondents earning in Europe were, on average, sending a third of their monthly incomes back – but this represents 85 percent of their total monthly incomes in their home countries.

The report also found that the experience of being in Europe differs between men and women: the gender wage gap between men and women in Africa resoundingly reverses in Europe, with women earning 11 percent more, contrasting with previously earning 26 percent less in Africa. A higher proportion of women were also sending money back, even among those not earning.

But gender differences were also apparent in experiences of crime, with a slightly higher proportion of women falling victim to a crime in the six months prior to being interviewed than men, and significantly more experiencing sexual assault.

Scaling Fences is a clarion call to continue to expand opportunity and choice in Africa while enhancing opportunities to move from ‘ungoverned’ to ‘governed’ migration, in line with the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. It is the second in a series of UNDP reports documenting the journeys of young Africans, with the first exploring what drives some into the arms of violent extremism.

Read this press release in Arabic (PDF)


“If you have a family, you have to ensure they have food, shelter, medicine, and education. I have a young daughter. People may ask what kind of father I am, to leave behind my wife and infant daughter. But what kind of a father would I be, if I stayed and couldn’t provide them a decent life?” - Yerima

“The idea to try and reduce the weight of migration is to look at the causes. It is… the governing policies that entrench people in poverty, that don’t develop anything. Schools that don’t exist, failing health and corruption, repression. That pushes people to emigrate.” – Serge

“In five years’ time, I see myself in my home country. For a good five years, (my family) haven’t seen each other. So one day will come when we will see each other. And when I go back to my home country, I don’t think I will come back” – Mahamadou

“It was all to earn money. Thinking of my mom and my dad. My big sister. My little sister. To help them. That was my pressure. That’s why Europe.” – Drissa

“When I went abroad, I did three years and eight months abroad. I missed my family very much. I couldn’t sleep at night sometimes. I was always thinking about my family, my wife and kids, what was going to happen to them with me over there.” – Drissa.

“I started work when I was very young. Remaining idle and doing nothing isn’t like me. There are many of us in that situation; we want to work, we want to get up in the morning, go to work, provide for our kids. Because for many of us, immigration means taking care of ourselves, taking care of our families back home, while participating in the country that let us in. So the idea is to be useful, and that’s what we’re fighting for.” – Serge.

“When (my wife) would call and say there was no money, I would cry. Because where I was, I didn’t have any money, but I knew she needed money here. That’s why I cried.” – Drissa.

“I always remember my mom and my dad. They always think about me. When I go back, they will be happy. My friends will be happy. I’ll be happy, too.” – Mahamadou


  • 58 percent of respondents were either earning (49 percent) or in school (9 percent) at the time of their departure. For a majority of those earning, income appears to have been competitive in the national context.
  • For 66 percent of respondents earning, or the prospect of earning, was not a factor that constrained the decision to migrate.
  • 62 percent of respondents felt they had been treated unfairly by their governments, with many pointing to ethnicity and political views as reasons for perception of unfair treatment.
  • 77 percent felt that their voice was unheard or that their country’s political system provided no opportunity through which to exert influence on government.
  • 41 percent of respondents said ‘nothing’ would have changed their decision to migrate to Europe
    Average earnings in Europe far outstrip average earnings in Africa, even in real terms.
  • Amongst those earning (both in Africa and in Europe), on average respondents were sending back just under one-third of their European income, representing 85 percent of their total incomes in Africa and over 90 percent in real terms.
  • Women on average earneed more than their male counterparts (compared to relatively lower levels in their home countries), higher proportions were sending money back, reporting lower levels of deprivation and higher levels of well-being.
  • Findings suggest that those who do not want to live permanently in Europe are more likely to be earning. Higher proportions of this group also have a legal right to work and are sending money back.
  • 67 percent of those who did not want to stay permanently in Europe said their communities would be happy if they returned, compared to 41 percent of those who did want to live permanently in Europe.

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For more information and media interviews, contact:

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