Written by Sabina Escobar


On 24 June 2022, the world witnessed one of the most extreme episodes of violence towards migrants. The events took place in the enclave of Melilla, a Spanish autonomous city located in the North of Africa, at the border between Spain and Morocco (Amnesty International, 2022). At least 23 men died in the attempt to reach European soil by climbing the fences surrounding Melilla, which constitutes one of the most strongly fortified territories of the external EU border (Human Rights Watch, 2022). Among the 2,000 people who tried to cross, most of them were Sudanese or South Sudanese resorting to Morocco as the transit country to enter Spain. While it is believed that most died in the attempt of climbing the fence due to a stampede, videos and photographs “show bodies strewn on the ground in pools of blood, Moroccan security forces kicking and beating people, and Spanish Guardia Civil launching teargas at men clinging to fences” (Judith Sunderland, 2022, as quoted in Human Rights Watch, 2022). At the same time, indications exist that the Guardia Civil organised pushbacks (summary returns) for those having managed to set foot in Melilla, with no trace of procedural safeguards or any option for them to apply for asylum, in turn violating both EU and international law (ECRE, 2022).  

According to independent investigations, the Moroccan authorities may have organised mass burials on the outskirts of Nador, in the Sidi Salem cemetery (Human Rights Watch, 2022). Numerous NGOs and organisations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Association Marocaine des Droits Humains and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (2022) are demanding independent and impartial investigations to find out the truth, as well as justice for the families of the dead and disappeared. However, such a horrifying event only constitutes another episode in the dynamics that characterise the EU’s migration policy and border control. In fact, the massacre at Melilla seems to  echo the 2014 episode at Tarajal, a beach in Ceuta, the second Spanish enclave in Moroccan territory. At least 14 migrants died at the time, most of them from Cameroon and, in October 2019, the judicial case saw this file as closed, thus opening up a space of impunity (Caminando Fronteras, n.d.) propitious for repetition without consequence.

Those extreme reflections of the reinforcement of border control constitute only the beginning of a journey characterised by racism and discrimination, in which narratives play an essential role (PICUM, 2021). However, migrants from the African continent continue to risk their lives to reach European soil. This research paper aims to explore the interaction of the different dynamics encapsulated in the Africa-Europe journey for African migrants from a human rights approach. The following question will serve as the basis for the analysis: “Is trust in the EU´s capabilities and aspirations to welcome migrants still justified?” In order to answer it, this paper will follow the chronology of a migrant’s journey, from the moment in which the individuals leave their country, until they integrate into the labour market in Europe, when applicable. First, the piece will consider an external vision of the EU, referred to as the EU utopia. Secondly, the paper will focus on the reinforcement of the EU external border control and its impact on human rights. Thirdly, it will analyse the existence of double standards concerning migrants and the labour market. The role of narratives, present at all levels of the journey, will be described transversally throughout the paper.

Leaving Africa: the EU as the ultimate utopia

Before delving into the specificities of the European imaginary, or, in other words, how the European continent is perceived from the outside, it is essential to nuance the term “migrant” for the purpose of this paper. The journey from Africa to Europe will be analysed through the case study of the so-called community of “economic migrants”. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, this community is constituted by “persons who leave their countries of origin purely for economic reasons not in any way related to the refugee definition […]. Economic migrants do not fall within the criteria for refugee status and are therefore not entitled to benefit from international protection as refugees” (UNHCR, 2006, p.14). Thus, it is understood that, according to the definition, economic migrants are to be considered in a context of voluntary mobility dynamics. However, this paper adopts a rather sceptical position on the categorisation of migration, particularly on the narratives related to economic migration. This is grounded in the idea that, whenever a person leaves his or her country to escape poverty, this can by no means be categorised as moving voluntarily. At the same time, denoting an individual coming from Africa to Europe as an economic migrant constitutes a reductionist and undermining position in face of the complex realities of the African continent;  a continent in which not only economic development plays a role in emigration, but also politics, conflict, or religion, among others (Adepoju, 1995). The following section will further delve into the impacts of narratives at the border.

The Spanish organisation Caminando Fronteras travelled to Cameroon in 2016 with the objective of filming a documentary on the 2014 incident in Tarajal, previously mentioned in the introduction. The purpose of this documentary was to dignify the victims as well as to give a space to the families demanding accountability. Among many testimonies, the words of Aboubakar Oumarou Maiga’s mother as well as Armand Ferdinand’s brother are revealing. The former mentioned that Aboubakar “didn’t leave to become a criminal. He left to earn money in order to feed his family” (Caminando Fronteras, 2016), while the latter explained that “before deciding to leave Cameroon, he came to see me and told me that he didn’t have the opportunity to go to university because of the family situation since the dad was dead and the mum didn’t have the means. Seeing the economic situation in which the family was, he said it was better to fight” (Caminando Fronteras, 2016). These testimonies are clear proof that those who left Cameroon and risked their lives to reach European soil saw Europe as a new opportunity for them and their families in their own fight against poverty. 

As Timmerman et al. (2014) suggest, perceptions of the EU from the perspective of non-EU countries and their citizens remain largely understudied. However, the last decade has been characterised by a debate around the meaning of Europe, present within various disciplines. For the purpose of informing the debate, a European collaborative research project was launched from 2010 to 2013 under the name of ‘EUMAGINE: Imagining Europe from the Outside’. The project aimed to analyse the impact that perceptions of democracy and human rights had on migration aspirations and decisions through the case study of four countries of origin and transit: Morocco, Senegal, Turkey, and Ukraine (EUMAGINE, n.d.). The main assumption that resulted from the research project was that behaviours, decisions and aspirations linked to migration are tightly connected with perceptions of human rights and democracy, including more specific factors such as safety, freedom of expression, social security, and job opportunities, among others (Timmerman et al., 2014). Linked to this idea is the description that Malmborg and Strath (2002) provide of Europe, defining it as an “imaginary discursive construction” which emerges from the debates of nation states in the attempt to shape the idea behind the European identity. 

As a way to further delve into the core questions of the EUMAGINE research project, Timmerman et al. (2014) have identified three main levels of impact corresponding to societal levels: the macrolevel, the mesolevel and the microlevel. After conducting 500 interviews, the scholars came to the conclusion that, at the macrolevel, migration aspirations are closely related to the socioeconomic situation of the emigration state. At the mesolevel, the fact of living in a region already impacted by migration, as well as belonging to transitional family networks working as feedback for those considering migrating, equally constitute a determining factor. Finally, at the microlevel, an intertwining of a variety of factors do influence the decision to migrate. Among others, the study considered age, household wealth, parenthood, marital status, and previous migration experiences.  

After having considered an outside perspective on the European continent from a more theoretical approach, it is clear that, at the core of any decision to migrate, numerous variables are to be considered in the equation. This goes beyond the rather reductionist scope of the expected job opportunities in Europe, as well as the ideal image of a land where democracy and human rights are always granted. 

Getting closer to the border: facing the externalisation of migration control

Unfortunately, the place of birth still strongly influences the relation that an individual will have with the human rights regime throughout his or her life today. In turn, it also affects the freedom with which this person can reach European soil. More precisely, the citizens of 104 countries are required to have a visa before entering any territory of the EU. Among these countries, the entire African continent is included (PICUM, 2021). In this sense, it is clear that African migrants find themselves in a disadvantaged position regarding mobility dynamics, be they forced or voluntary. 

Through the externalisation of border control within the EU border regime, the Union is currently ceding to countries of origin and transit the assessment of the right to asylum that the EU should be in charge of. The main concern here is that, generally, in those third countries, the protection of the right to asylum is weaker. In fact, “[…]asylum seekers who would otherwise have been able to avail themselves of asylum procedures, social support, and decent reception conditions are often consigned to countries of first arrival or transit that have comparatively less capacity to ensure rights and process claims in accordance with international standards” (Frelick et al., 2016, p.191). Consequently, this phenomenon weakens the right to asylum. 

It is in this context of border externalisation, further implemented in the aftermath of the so-called 2015 refugee crisis, that migratory control dynamics have been transformed both for EU member states and countries of origin and transit. The latter have become the guardians of the external EU borders. In this way, virtual borders have been constructed in countries of origin and transit to restrict physical access to the EU territory, therefore acting as an instrument of deterrence. The consequences are twofold. On the one hand, the applicability of asylum seekers’ rights is restricted; on the other hand, a human rights’ detriment is masked beyond the EU territory (Abrisketa Uriarte, 2017). In this sense, the boundaries between the internal and external realms of security and human rights vanish, leaving African migrants in an assistance and protection mechanism limbo. 

Integrating again the narrative aspect into the context of border and migration control, the fact of using the concepts of economic migrant, asylum seeker, or irregular/unauthorised immigrant interchangeably weakens the value of the specific protection that should be granted to them on a case by case basis. The EU uses the term “irregular migrants” more frequently, therefore limiting the concept of asylum and opening new spaces of vulnerability. Léonard and Kaunert build up on this argument by claiming that “[…] asylum-seekers are often subsumed under irregular migrants in so-called ‘mixed migration flows’” (2019, p.109). In relation to this idea, Campesi argues that the main focus of public concern has been on the “false asylum seekers”, which refer to those migrants claiming asylum without a genuine need to be protected (Campesi, 2018). Owing to the rising criminalisation of asylum-seekers, the EU perceives the vast majority of the arrivants as people trying to circumvent EU rules on conditional entry by exploiting the asylum system and the EU’s willingness to receive them, and to provide them with the right to seek asylum (Campesi, 2018). The adoption of this narrative and its implications in border control practices are therefore not without consequences for migrants.

Together with the criminalisation of migration and the stigmatisation of asylum-seekers coming from the African continent, racist and discriminatory dynamics can equally be found at the border. The EU participates in shifting border control dynamics, closely linked to the reinforcement of the EU external border management. By this, the paper refers to a sum of elements increasingly and actively contributing to a higher surveillance and deterrence of migrants. Those include the use of technology for control purposes or the construction of walls, among others. In this sense, it seems that border dynamics have evolved towards self-agency in the control of migration. One of the most noticeable practices of border control is ethnic profiling. According to the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, racial or ethnic profiling in policing has been defined as “the use by the police, with no objective and reasonable justification, of grounds such as race, colour, languages, religion, nationality or ethnic origin in control, surveillance or investigation activities” (ECRI, 2007, p.4). In order for the practice of profiling to respect international and human rights law, it should be non-discriminatory and, therefore, would require the existence of information-based reasonable grounds justifying the practice rather than protected grounds (including ethnic origin). Under EU law, the right to non-discrimination is guaranteed by Article 21 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and Article 1 of Protocol No 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2019). In this sense, the practice of ethnic profiling at the border represents an additional layer in the complex dynamics that African migrants face at the EU border, not only in that ethnic profiling constitutes a breach of the law, but also for having stigmatising and racist connotations.

Integrating into the labour market: when double standards come into play 

While the EU has strongly reinforced its external border control in the name of security, labour migration has been, and is currently more than ever, an essential factor in mobility dynamics towards Europe. According to Papademetriou and Martin (1991), the practice of the Global North borrowing workforce from the Global South is not a novelty and perpetuates a bilateral dependent system in which the African and the European continent require each other to fulfil everyone’s needs. Emigration states are at risk of becoming dependent on remittances that migrants send while working in immigration states while at the same time, emigration countries wanting to cover gaps in their labour market might as well become dependent on this community in the long-term. At the same time, the authors argue that the expectations of both sides are not completely fulfilled within these dynamics, referring to this phenomenon as a disappointment. They justify their point by claiming that “[…]the migrant labour tap [can] not be turned on and off at will[…]” and that “[…]there is no automatic process which turns remittances and returning migrants into development” (Papademetriou & Martin, 1991, p.1). 

During the last decades, globalisation has acted as a catalyst for the above-mentioned dynamics, unavoidably leading to the emergence of contradictory processes, for which the analysis has already provided a hint in the previous sections. While there is a noticeable expansion of migration patterns towards the Global North, potential receiving countries are tightening migration control regulations. This is therefore leading to a clear imbalance in the labour mobility dynamics in which the declining opportunities for migration are translated into the adoption of informal or unauthorised routes by migrants (Akopari, 2000). This duality drives this paper to consider what Ceccorulli and Lucarelli (2017) refer to as the economic-societal narrative, according to which migration is an opportunity for the hosting community, represented in this case by the EU. In fact, the Union accepts that, “[…]to be competitive, its economy needs skills which cannot always and immediately be found inside the EU’s labour market” (Ceccorulli & Lucarelli, 2017, p.87). Thus, a gap exists between the available skills and the needs that the EU has. 

This paper claims that the economic-societal narrative that has been described is encapsulated in a wanted versus unwanted migrants narrative, reflecting the hypocritical attitude of the EU towards economic migrants. While the Union is willing to welcome and facilitate the arrival of skilled individuals from the African continent, it equally adopts stricter measures to contain the arrival of economic migrants who are not able to reach European soil by authorised or regular channels, risking their lives in search of better opportunities for them and their families. This selection by the EU within the migrant community constitutes a clear example of its double standards. Although narratives and imaginaries play a major role in racist and discriminatory discourses, it is at the policy level that those attitudes become institutional and operational. For instance, those migrants having the required skills according to EU standards and needs are often granted priority access to the Union through the Blue Card Directive. This established policy facilitates the admission of skilled workers as well as their families, at the same time  granting them social and economic rights similar to those from which EU citizens benefit (Ceccorulli & Lucarelli, 2017).

Another important variable in the equation is the integration of the African workforce into European societies. Korkill (2010) identifies in his survey article the shifting trends in immigration in Spain and Portugal, which corresponds to the dynamics described above. Both countries are in need of labour due to the ageing of their populations, but they still need to develop more effective mechanisms for a greater integration of the migrant community. In his research, the author treats this question in more detail, raising serious concerns about human rights when it comes to migrants covering the gap in the workforce consisting of more precarious jobs. Indeed, “unscrupulous employers often exploit […] and fail to pay their foreign workers in the knowledge that any complaint to the police might expose them to expulsion” (Korkill, 2010, p.835). This constitutes a major problem since control systems to monitor exploitation are still inadequate and therefore perpetuate abusive dynamics.


After  taking a closer look at the main episodes characterising the Africa-Europe journey for the so-called “economic migrants”, it is clear that emigration and immigration dynamics intertwine to result in a complex puzzle of narratives, policies, and events. In this regard,  there is no straightforward answer to the initial question: “Is trust in the EU´s capabilities and aspirations to welcome migrants still justified?”. 

From an outsider perspective, it might be understandable that the EU is still conceived as a place where human rights and democracy prevail. However, it is important to bear in mind that those perceived privileges are only granted to its citizens. In this regard, the question of trust is complex. While the EU is currently seen as a utopia for many potential migrants, events taking place at the border between Africa and Europe point to the contrary, smashing this idealised image of the latter. The promise that the EU has made to welcome migrants is increasingly questionable since there is clear evidence that, for those leaving their home countries in search of better opportunities, the journey is accompanied by racism and discrimination at every stage. 

While the border constitutes a space of violence and increased deterrence for those migrants reaching Europe by irregular channels, the Union opens its arms to skilled migrants that cannot be found in the European labour market, and that are therefore seen and treated as an added value. This clearly shows the EU’s double standard and hypocritical narrative of wanted versus unwanted migrants. This paper equally claims that the brain drain from Africa to Europe, in which the EU is actively participating, is jeopardising the African continent´s own development. In addition, now considering the capabilities, the EU has repeatedly shown that it has ample capacity to welcome migrants, more specifically when thinking about Ukrainian refugees and the effective and quick response that the EU put in place to shelter them. However, it seems that the categorisation of certain groups of migrants by the EU has turned against a big community, having as a very legitimate aim the improvement of their economy, as well as their work and education opportunities. 

Although the ageing population within the whole European continent is already a concern in terms of labour market gaps for Europeans, the UN calculates that, by 2050, the EU will have a deficit of 60.8 million workers and the current migration policies will only cover 23% of these requirements (Mas de Xaxàs, 2022). In order to face this increasing challenge, the EU should stop being a fortress and open up to the added value that migrants from the African continent can bring in terms of workforce, but also cultural enrichment. At the same time, efficient mechanisms of human rights monitoring and migrant workers integration should be developed, both as a way of avoiding abusive and exploitative systems at the workplace and to improve the coexistence of the different cultures that will be more and more intertwined in European societies in the coming years.


Abrisketa Uriarte, J. (2017). La dimensión externa del derecho de la Unión Europea en materia de refugio y asilo: un examen desde la perspectiva del non-refoulement. Revista de Derecho Comunitario Europeo, 56, 119–158. https://doi.org/10.18042/cepc/rdce.56.04

Adepoju, A. (1995). Migration in Africa. An overview. In J. Baker & T. Akin Aina (Eds.), The Migration Experience in Africa (pp. 87–109). The Nordic Africa Institute. https://books.google.be/books?hl=fr&lr=&id=rdj643mG0OAC&oi=fnd&pg=PA87&dq=economic+migrants+africa&ots=M4EytAOGD9&sig=82OZTmmrIVhabltC3zsNiwjgSJc&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=economic%20migrants%20africa&f=false

Akokpari, J. K. (2000). Globalisation and Migration in Africa. African Sociological Review, 4(2), 72–92.

Amnesty International. (2022, June 28). À Melilla, plus jamais ça.

Caminado Fronteras. (2016). Tarajal: Transformar el dolor en justicia. https://vimeo.com/154265793

Caminando Fronteras. (n.d.). Tarajal: Transformar el dolor en justicia. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://caminandofronteras.org/tarajal-transformar-el-dolor-en-justicia/

Campesi, G. (2018). Seeking asylum in times of crisis: Reception, confinement, and detention at Europe’s southern border. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 37(1), 44–70. https://doi.org/10.1093/rsq/hdx016

Ceccorulli, M., & Lucarelli, S. (2017). Migration and the EU Global Strategy: Narratives and Dilemmas. International Spectator, 52(3), 83–102. https://doi.org/10.1080/03932729.2017.1332850

Corkill, D. (2001). Economic migrants and the labour market in Spain and Portugal. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 24(5), 828–844. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870020063990

ECRE. (2022, June 30). Atlantic Route and Spain: “There was no massacre” Spanish Minister of Interior says, Large Number of Arrivals and Rescue Operations as Morocco and Spain Attempt to Delay The Melilla Investigation  . https://ecre.org/atlantic-route-and-spain-there-was-no-massacre-spanish-minister-of-interior-says-large-number-of-arrivals-and-rescue-operations-as-morocco-and-spain-attempt-to-delay-the-melilla-in/

EUMAGINE. (n.d.). Imagining Europe from the Outside. Retrieved December 25, 2022, from http://www.eumagine.org/

European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. (2007). ECRI General Policy Recommendation n.11 on Combating Racism and Racial Discrimination in Policing (pp. 1–24). https://rm.coe.int/ecri-general-policy-recommendation-no-11-on-combating-racism-and-racia/16808b5adf

European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, (2019). Preventing unlawful profiling today and in the future : a guide, Publications Office. https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2811/73473

Frelick, B., Kysel, I. M., & Podkul, J. (2016). The Impact of Externalization of Migration Controls on the Rights of Asylum Seekers and Other Migrants. Journal on Migration and Human Security, 4(4), 190–220. https://doi.org/10.1177/233150241600400402

Human Rights Watch. (2022, June 29). Morocco/Spain: Horrific Migrant Deaths at Melilla Border. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/06/29/morocco/spain-horrific-migrant-deaths-melilla-border

Léonard, S., & Kaunert, C. (2019). Refugees, Security and the European Union. Routledge/UACES Contemporary European Studies. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429025976

Mas de Xaxàs, X. (2022, November 3). Europa necesita 60 millones de inmigrantes para sobrevivir. La Vanguardia. https://www.lavanguardia.com/internacional/20221103/8591234/europa-necesita-60-millones-inmigrantes-sobrevivir.html

Papademetriou, D. G., & Martin, P. L. (1991). The Unsettled Relationship. Labor Migration and Economic Development (1st ed.). Greenwood Press.

PICUM. (2021, February 8). Tarajal et l’héritage du racisme dans le système migratoire espagnol. https://picum.org/fr/tarajal-and-the-legacy-of-racism-in-spains-migration-system/

Strath, B., & Mikael, M. (2002). The Meaning of Europe: Variety and Contention within and among Nations. Berg Publishers.

Timmerman, C., Marie-Lou De Clerck, H., Hemmerechts, K., & Willems, R. (2014). Imagining Europe from the Outside: The Role of Perceptions of Human Rights in Europe in Migration Aspirations in Turkey, Morocco, Senegal and Ukraine. In N. Chaban & M. Holland (Eds.), Communicating Europe in Times of Crisis. External Perceptions of the European Union (1st ed., pp. 220–247). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137331175

UNHCR. (2006, June). UNHCR Master Glossary of Terms. https://www.refworld.org/docid/42ce7d444.html

Leave a Reply

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

You may also like