The impact of Covid-19 on intentions to migrate from Africa to Europe

The COVID-19 pandemic restricted the already limited opportunities to emigrate legally from Africa to Europe. Border closures were a mechanism used by most countries to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Although this mechanism made migration more difficult, it did not reduce the willingness to migrate, often irregularly – rather the opposite. Given this scenario, it is urgent to find legal and safe ways to welcome these people who are seeking to fulfill their aspirations.

In recent months, in the current pandemic context, thousands of people from West Africa have continued to try to reach Europe irregularly by sea, both via the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, especially the Canary Islands. In 2020 more than 20,000 people from Senegal, Morocco and other countries in the West coast of Africa tried to reach these islands in a desperate attempt to reach the old continent.

Contrary to the pre-pandemic situation, the most recent groups of irregular migrants include entire families, contrary to the previous trend of migrants being mainly young people traveling without families.

In a recent study, a collaboration between the researchers Tijan L. Bah, Catia Batista, Flore Gubert, and David McKenzie, that the NOVAFRICA center has now published based on data it collected from nearly 4000 potential migrants from West Africa, it was observed that many of these people (mainly the poorest and least educated) have postponed their decisions to migrate to Europe. The economic crisis caused by COVID-19 puts them in a situation of aggravated poverty that does not allow them to pay the costs of emigrating, yet their intentions to come to Europe in the near future remain very high.

The truth is that there are few legal opportunities to migrate to Europe and so most African migrants do so illegally.

An expensive and dangerous journey made via what is called “the backway” – a journey starting in West African countries, continued through the Sahara desert until Libya, and then across the Mediterranean to Italy and other European destinations.

The images of young Africans on crowded rubber boats in the Mediterranean Sea have made the phenomenon an important political and humanitarian issue that the pandemic has not stopped. An example of this, was the most recent case of 8000 people (including almost 2000 minors) arriving in Ceuta in just 48 hours. The African migrants arriving through Morocco were trying to reach Europe in this way through the Spanish enclave. This is an episode that shocked and captured our attention because the numbers were much higher than usual, but it is just one more episode in a situation that is likely to get worse in the coming years.

These attempts are very serious not only because of the lack of European capacity to adequately host these migrants, but especially because this form of immigration is extraordinarily risky: countless lives have been lost. These migrants who try to reach Europe are usually the most educated and the most enterprising in their regions of origin. In short, those who could contribute most to the economic growth of Europe and Africa.

Opening legal migration corridors would be the best way to allow European countries to integrate these people in a dignified and productive way, which would support Europe’s own economic growth and demographic balance, while at the same time contributing to Africa’s economic growth through financial and immaterial remittances to their countries of origin.

In addition to the financial flows that African migrants send to their families greatly contributing to the improvement of their living conditions, these migrants pass on values of entrepreneurship, investment in health and education, and democratic accountability that translate into better institutions and better economic prospects in their countries of origin.


Cátia Batista, Director of NOVAFRICA and Professor of Economics at Nova SBE.

Article published in the 2021 special issue of Forbes África Lusófona.


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