How Europe is viewed.

Britain votes to leave the European Union. Yellow 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. That people living in Europe will progressively become more depressed and unhappy with their lives.

Why people try to reach Europe.

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 for those 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. Facing the heat and drought risks that have periodically brought famines for centuries. These risks are on the rise with global warming. Most 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. They are those 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.

The success of arriving.

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. It is often regardless of uncertain migrant status and the vulnerable conditions faced. Regarded as failures and stigmatized, even if they successfully arrived in Europe, are those who return home. For this reason, unsuccessful migrants often stay in Europe or Libya. They might live in dramatic circumstances instead of going back to their home villages.

Irregular migration to Europe.

The Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) of the European Union is spending more than 3 billion Euros on preventing irregular migration. They are supporting better integration of legal immigrants. AMIF has recently funded several campaigns on migration risk awareness. Furthermore, they have campaigns facilitating the return of legal migrants to their home countries. However, evaluating the effects of these campaigns does not occur. 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. Therefore we are currently working with 8000 young men in the Gambia. Which is 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 tools to prevent irregular migration.


Implemented and evaluated of various policies covering many dimensions, these 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. Potential migrants typically overestimate this, existing evidence shows.

Evaluated in the second interview are 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. Yet they tend not to search for work in urban areas which is 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.

The tests of vocational training are the final policy. The European Union has funded and implemented large training programs 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. Unintended effects, of course, are possible. Rigorous impact evaluation is needed before large-scale adoption of any of these policies should be made.

The impact of policies to prevent irregular migration.

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. Needed is a lot of creative policy-design, experimentation and rigorous impact evaluation. Only then can we make 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

Published in Global Review, Number 7, February 2019.

Published in NOVAFRICA, March 2019,

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


Author: Cátia Batista

Cátia is co-Founder and Scientific Director of the NOVAFRICA research center at the Nova School of Business and Economics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *