Maghreb – Migration Patterns and Policies between the Sahara and the Mediterranean

With their long-standing traditions of immigration and emigration, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia lie at the heart of Euro-African migration systems. Since colonial times, Maghreb migration policies both reflect and shape regional political priorities.

An art installation depicting a migrant is placed at the venue of UN Migration Conference in Marrakech, 2018. With their long-standing traditions of immigration and emigration, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia lie at the heart of Euro-African migration systems. (© picture-alliance/AP)

Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia lie at the heart of Euro-African migration systems. Over the past two centuries, trade, slavery and colonization have created strong human ties across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea. Today, the Maghreb is characterized by continuously high emigration towards Europe and beyond, as well as varying levels of immigration of students, workers and refugees from Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Although often analyzed together, there is no single Maghreb migration narrative: As this short regional profile shows, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have fundamentally different social-economic and political histories that have shaped migration patterns on the ground and the immigration, emigration and diaspora policies pursued by these three states over the past century.

A Short History of Maghreb Migrations

In pre-colonial times, intensive trade of precious goods between North and sub-Saharan African countries – such as textiles, salt or gold, but also slaves – strengthened human ties across the Sahara. These continue to shape African migration patterns up to today.[1] During the colonial period (1830-1962 in Algeria, 1881-1956 in Tunisia, 1912-1956 in Morocco), Europeans migrated to North Africa in large numbers: By 1950, Morocco counted around 450,000 and Tunisia around 250,000 European immigrants, mostly French but also Spanish and Italian. And around one million European settlers and their descendants lived in Algeria in 1960.[2] Although most Europeans left rapidly after the Maghreb countries had reached their independence in the 1950s and 1960s, the established social and economic connections laid the ground for future migration.

Maghreb emigration evolved in three phases:

(1) Over the 1960s and 1970s, emigration to France, but also Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium boomed in reaction to recruitment policies of European countries, as well as high unemployment in and emigration policies of Maghreb states. The so-called "guest worker" migration of that period provided the foundation for subsequent family and student migration.

(2) From the mid-1970s until the early 1990s, Algerian emigration decreased after the government enacted an emigration stop in September 1973 (in place until 1985). In contrast, emigration from Morocco and Tunisia remained high and has diversified – particularly to Spain and Italy, but also to Libya for Tunisians and to North America for Moroccans –, partly in response to stricter labor migration regulations in North-Western Europe and a high demand for migrant workers in Southern Europe.

(3) Since the 1990s, Moroccan migration increased exponentially from around 30,000 emigrants annually in the mid-1990s to around 150,000 in the mid-2000s. In contrast, Tunisian and Algerian emigration stagnated at around 40,000 and 20,000 emigrants annually respectively.[3] Interestingly, emigration from Algeria has remained low even throughout the civil war (1991-2002). Over the same period, Maghreb emigration has partly shifted into irregularity as legal migration restrictions were introduced by European countries, but demand for migrant labor across Europe persisted. Maghreb emigration has also remained high throughout the 2008 economic crisis and the political developments in North Africa after 2011.

Figure 1 showcases these three periods. Figure 2 zooms into Maghreb migration to Germany, which has steadily increased but overall remained limited. Apart from peaks in 1993 and 2015, Maghreb migration to Germany has on average hovered around 11,000 annually over the past fifty years.

Figure1: Annual emigration from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to eight major destinations, 1960-2010 (PDF-Icon Download figure) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Figure 2: Annual emigration from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to Germany, 1965-2017 (PDF-Icon Download figure) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Migration within the Maghreb has generally been low because of the limited economic and political integration of the region, dominated by the Moroccan-Algerian conflict over the Western Sahara territories. Nonetheless, Algerians have sought refuge in Morocco and Tunisia during the independence war (1954-1962) and the civil war in the 1990s, Moroccan workers have moved to Tunisia, particularly in the 1980s, and Tunisian workers to Libya since the 1970s, depending on the geopolitical relations between both countries.

In contrast to the colonial period, immigration to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia has remained low over most of the post-independence period. It was largely limited to student migration between sub-Saharan and Maghreb countries, a cornerstone of post-colonial cooperation policies since the 1960s, and to small-scale labor immigration from Europe and Africa. Since the 1990s, however, immigration from Europe and sub-Saharan Africa – particularly Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and DRC –, but also from other countries such as China or the Philippines is on the rise. This reflects both economic and educational opportunities in the Maghreb, as well as protracted political crises or economic hardship in the region of origin. Although they are often cast as "transit" migrants in public debates, the term does not capture migratory realities across the Maghreb.[4]

Migration After the Arab Spring: A Statistical Snapshot

As elsewhere, migration in the Maghreb responds to socio-economic and political dynamics at origin and destination, such as levels of unemployment, education, inequality and political freedom. It is thus not surprising that the 2011 "Jasmin" revolution in Tunisia was a migratory game changer: emigration skyrocketed as Tunisian border controls fell away in the immediate aftermath of the revolution.[5] At the same time, political turmoil in the region transformed Tunisia into a destination for hundreds of thousands of Libyan citizens, as well as refugees and workers from sub-Saharan Africa. While most sub-Saharan African migrants have left since 2011 and emigration quickly dropped to pre-revolution levels, Libyan immigration has become a permanent feature of Tunisian society.

In Morocco and Algeria, the relative absence of political change after 2011 has consolidated existing migration patterns. In Morocco, King Mohamed VI has forged closer political and economic ties with West African and sub-Saharan African countries over the past two decades. This has translated into more welcoming narratives on African migration, but has not fundamentally reshaped migration patterns on the ground. Legal and irregular emigration of young, educated Moroccans has persisted.[6] In Algeria, economic development projects continue to attract African and Asian labor migrants regardless of bleak living conditions, and the country’s youth seeks out (irregular) emigration despite its stigmatization and criminalization.[7]

Today, around four million Moroccans, 1.2 million Tunisians and two million Algerians live abroad, representing respectively twelve, eleven and five percent of these countries’ populations. Figure 3 and Table 1 show the distribution of Maghreb emigrant communities: 75 percent of Algerian emigrants live in France, compared to 50 percent of Tunisians and 28 percent of Moroccans. Migrant destinations have indeed diversified: 15 percent of Tunisians now live in Italy and seven percent in Germany, and respectively 16 percent and twelve percent of Moroccans reside in Spain and Italy. Algerians increasingly leave to Canada and Germany – albeit in low numbers. Although Maghreb asylum seekers have been central to European political debates in recent years, the region is in fact not a major refugee origin: By the end of 2018, only 11,676 Algerian, 12,090 Moroccans and 4,777 Tunisian refugees and asylum seekers were registered worldwide.[8]

Figure 3:The growth and distribution of Maghreb emigrant populations, 1960-2017 (PDF-Icon Download figure) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Table 1: Composition of Moroccan and Tunisian emigrant populations, 2012

Country of Residence2012Share of Emigrant Population (%)2012Share of Emigrant Population (%)
European countries1.032.000843.058.42975
Maghreb countries92.0008145.3264
Middle Eastern countries60.0005145.3264
Saudi Arabia17.000135.7241
Other countries39.000398.6592
United States15.000133.0471

Source: OTE/DIRP 2012, de Haas 2014. Data for Algeria is more sketchy and not presented here.

Statistics on immigration in the three Maghreb countries are highly inconsistent or inexistent. In Morocco, 86,000 migrants were officially recorded in the 2014 census. Although this is likely an under-estimation, even higher estimates of around 250,000 migrants do not challenge the general insight that immigration remains numerically minor, despite the political attention it has received since the launch of a national immigration reform by the Moroccan King in September 2013 (see below).[9] In Tunisia, the 2014 census recorded 53,500 foreign citizens, but the Libyan community alone is estimated at up to one million, of which half have de facto settled in Tunisia and are likely to stay depending on the outcome of the civil war in Libya.[10] In Algeria, immigration statistics are even more patchy, with the 2008 census recording only 95,000 immigrants but estimates varying between 318,000 in 2010 and 240,000 in 2012.[11]

Refugee numbers remain sketchy and are likely under-representing the reality on the ground: In Morocco and Tunisia, respectively only 7,775 and 1,330 refugees and asylum seekers were registered by the end of 2018. Algeria has historically been an important refugee destination, particularly for refugees from Western Sahara which have settled in the Tindouf refugee camp, and today counts 103,276 refugees and asylum seekers.[12] Figure 4 and Table 2 provide insights into the evolution and composition of immigrant populations across the Maghreb (excluding refugees). They show the continued importance of European immigration to Morocco and Tunisia, alongside migration from Africa and the Middle East. Particularly in Algeria, Chinese labor immigration has also become an important feature over the past decade.

Figure 4: The evolution of immigrant populations in the Maghreb, 1960-2017 (PDF-Icon Download figure) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Table 2: Composition of Immigrant Populations in Morocco and Tunisia, 2014

Citizenship2014Share of Immigrant Population (%)2014Share of Immigrant Population (%)
Arab countries28.50017.61721
European countries15.0002833.61540
African countries7.5001427.39733
Ivory Coast607-2.2713
Other countries2.50045.3726
United States60011.4282

Source: HCP 2015, INS 2015. The last publicly available census data from Algeria that disaggregates foreigners by nationality dates back to 1998 and is not shown here.

Although immigration remains a relatively limited phenomenon in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, particularly compared to the large-scale historical and sustained emigration, demographic transitions in all three countries indicate that in the decades to come, smaller generations of native workers will enter the labor market. This will inevitably have economic and migratory consequences in the future that will depend on how immigration and emigration is governed in the context of labor market, social and political reforms.

Immigration, Emigration and Diaspora Policies

Emigration policies have been central for post-colonial Maghreb states. In the 1960s and 1970s, institutions were established to manage the recruitment of migrant workers for the European labor market and hereby reduce unemployment and political discontent of citizens. The fear of emigrants’ political activism from abroad led to the tight controlling of the diaspora, for example, by embassy staff who actively made inquiries in mosques or labor unions. Only in the late 1980s did Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia develop diaspora policies to attract financial remittances and to socio-culturally tie migrant communities to the homeland.[13]

Maghreb immigration policies have been rather ad hoc over the past 50 years: After independence, immigration regulations were often taken over from the colonial period and supplemented by bilateral treaties or exceptions over time. In the early 2000s, all three countries criminalized irregular immigration and emigration, even if the implementation of these laws has remained sketchy and arbitrary, subject to domestic and foreign policy goals.[14] Similarly, although Maghreb governments have been paying lip service to European demands of stricter border controls, promises have often remained at the level of discourse, as tightened migration policies are highly unpopular with national populations.[15] For this reason, democratization tendencies across the region will likely reinforce Maghreb states’ reluctance to restrict their citizens’ freedom of movement.

While the focus of diaspora policies has shifted from control to support across the whole Maghreb, so far security approaches towards immigration have only been reformed in Morocco. In September 2013, King Mohamed VI has embarked on an immigration policy reform that entailed the elaboration of a National Strategy on Immigration and Asylum, two regularization campaigns in 2014 and 2017, as well as measures to integrate migrants socio-economically. This reform was key for Morocco’s aim to rejoin the African Union in 2017 and to deepen economic and political ties with African and European partners. Despite improvements of migrants’ rights, the liberalization is limited by continued violence towards (irregular) migrants in the border regions of Northern Morocco, e.g. towards those who try to reach Europe via Ceuta and Melilla.[16]

To what extent Algeria and Tunisia will embark on a similar policy of (discursive) openness towards immigration to strengthen economic and political cooperation with Africa and to bolster their negotiation power vis-à-vis Europe when demanding visa facilitations or rights for their nationals abroad, remains to be seen. So far, the settlement of hundreds of thousands of Libyan citizens in Tunisia is not subject to public debates, but consciously depoliticized by political leaders.[17] In Algeria, the security approach towards migration has prevailed over the past decade, with African migrants being violently expelled and emigrating youth cast as criminals. The large-scale popular protests in Algeria and the removal of long-standing President Bouteflika in April 2019, however, might in the mid-term trigger (partial) political change that could entail a migration reform.

What is clear, however, is that the gradual settlement and de facto integration of foreigners into the Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian society confronts Maghreb countries with dynamics of racial and religious diversity that have been dormant since independence. As we know from Europe’s recent history, in the longer term these migratory dynamics have the potential to question mainstream national identity narratives and thus to shape future political, economic and cultural developments across the Maghreb.[18]

This article is part of the Regional Profile North Africa.


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Katharina Natter

Katharina Natter

Katharina Natter has worked at the International Migration Institute of the University of Oxford (2013-2015) and has conducted her doctoral research at the University of Amsterdam (2015-2019). In her dissertation, she investigated processes of migration policy-making in Morocco and Tunisia. From January 2020, she will be Assistant Professor at the University of Leiden.

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