Europe is cool!

Britain votes to leave the European Union. Yellows vests color and unrest France and other European countries. Several European governments are elected with a mandate to express their strong disagreement with the traditional European values of solidarity and human rights protection. Many claim that Europe is in a downward spiral and people living in Europe will progressively become more depressed and unhappy with their lives.

And yet we need only to cross the Mediterranean to find a very different perspective. West Africans, in particular, are willing to sacrifice their lives to reach Europe. A recent study of the NOVAFRICA Knowledge Center at the Nova School of Business & Economics (Nova SBE), shows that 90% of young males in rural Gambia want to leave their country — even though they expect that one out of two people trying to reach Europe will die in the process.

Why do these men want to come to such dire Europe? The most obvious answer is that they are facing desperate economic conditions at home — even when they live in peaceful areas not affected by conflict. Despite recent dramatic progress in education and health conditions, most young men in rural areas of West Africa are still living with one dollar a day. In these areas there are no job opportunities apart from working the land, very much in the same way these men’s ancestors used to do — indeed facing the heat and drought risks that have periodically brought famines for centuries. These risks are on the rise with global warming, and are likely to create forced migration flows at a large scale in the next decades.

In this context, it is somewhat surprising that these people have not yet all migrated. And, in fact, those who stay behind, tend to be the poorest who are unable to leave because migration — even if irregularly through the sea — is expensive: the average cost to be smuggled from West Africa to Italy is 2000 dollars. In this sense, merely promoting economic development may not be the best policy to limit irregular migration flows, which may even increase as a result.

Perhaps the most striking fact that Nova SBE NOVAFRICA Knowledge Center’s fieldwork in West Africa has documented is a strong cultural norm among young males that making it in Europe is “cool.” Beyond economic gains from migration, arriving in Europe is itself understood as an individual success — often regardless of uncertain migrant status and the vulnerable conditions faced. Those who return home, even if they successfully arrived in Europe, are regarded as failures and stigmatized. For this reason, unsuccessful migrants often stay in Europe or Libya in dramatic circumstances instead of going back to their home villages.

The Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) of the European Union is spending more than 3 billion Euros on preventing irregular migration and supporting better integration of legal immigrants. AMIF has recently funded several campaigns on migration risk awareness and campaigns facilitating the return of legal migrants to their home countries. However, the effects of these campaigns have not been evaluated. And it is well known that development policies can often have unintended consequences. In this case, and according to the NOVAFRICA work that showed that potential migrants tend to overestimate the risk of dying when attempting to reach Europe, it could well be the case that providing official numbers on the risks of dying en route to Europe will actually increase irregular migration to Europe.

The NOVAFRICA Knowledge Center was awarded the only AMIF-supported project that will evaluate the impact of different policy interventions aimed at mitigating irregular migration from West Africa to Europe. We are currently working with 8000 young men in the Gambia, the country with the highest incidence of irregular migration to Europe in West Africa. Our randomized impact evaluation will follow these young men over the next two years to measure how different effective policies are as tools to prevent irregular migration.

The different policies being implemented and evaluated cover various dimensions that can deter irregular migration. First, an awareness campaign will counter the “coolness” of Europe with factual information about the arduous journey and circumstances that irregular migrants face in Europe — which existing evidence shows is also typically overestimated by potential migrants.

The second intervention to be evaluated will facilitate regional migration alternatives. This strategy follows earlier studies in Bangladesh showing that peasant families in rural areas often face famine during the lean season, before the harvest, and yet they tend not to search work in urban areas which are easily accessible by bus. Paying a 7-dollar bus ticket to these families was successful in increasing regional migration and decreasing hunger in rural areas.

A final policy to be tested is vocational training. Large training programs have been funded and implanted by the European Union in West Africa. Theoretically, they increase the skills and job possibilities of potential migrants, who may then decide to stay in their home countries because they find it easier to earn a living. Or it may actually promote legal migration through facilitating potential migrants’ access to work permits in Europe, for example. Either way, it would seem an ideal intervention in that it shapes in a positive way, rather than attempting to deter inevitable migration flows. But of course, unintended effects are possible, and rigorous impact evaluation is needed before large-scale adoption of any of these policies should be made.

Local governments and the European Union are very supportive of this work, but there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the impact of policies to prevent irregular migration to Europe. A lot of creative policy-design, experimentation and rigorous impact evaluation is needed before making definite statements on how to make the most of the inevitable migration flows to “cool” Europe.


Bah, Tijan, and Catia Batista. 2018. Understanding the Willingness to Migrate Illegally: Evidence from a Lab in the Field Experiment, NOVAFRICA Working Paper no. 1803.

Research Projects
1. Understanding Willingness to Migrate Illegally: Evidence from a Lab in the Field Experiment
2. Information Gaps and Irregular Migration to Europe


Written by Catia Batista, NOVAFRICA Scientific Director and Nova SBE Professor.
Originally published in the Estoril Conferences Global Review, Number 7, February 2019.

Photo by UNHCR / Massimo Sestini (UNHCR / Massimo Sestini).