Drivers of irregular migration in North Africa


What is the evidence on the drivers of irregular migration from and through North African countries?


Irregular migration is the movement of people that takes place outside the regulatory norms of the sending, transit and receiving countries (IOM definition). A complex array of factors drives irregular migration. Most literature states that economic and conflict-related reasons, along with social networks and social support, are the major factors influencing migration. Economic migrants usually cite several reasons for moving, in the search for a better life, while refugees and asylum-seekers have political reasons, fleeing conflict or violence.

The key findings of this report are:

  • Irregular migration is not a first choice for anyone. Repressive policies on legal migration increase the likelihood of opting for irregular migration, as migrants are pushed into this choice.
  • Economic reasons are by far the primary motivation for migration in this region. This is broader than ‘poverty’ and is better understood as a multi-faceted mix of unemployment, wages, and living conditions at home and abroad.
  • Conflict and outbreaks of violence are important drivers of irregular migration, and can be considered shocks or ‘tipping points’. Refugees and asylum seekers are willing to risk lives and use irregular routes in order to escape appalling conditions at home.
  • Network ties are an important determinant of destination choice. Social networks and returnees provide knowledge about migration and often influence the decision to leave.
  • Migrants are subject to difficult conditions in transit, and those fleeing conflict particularly need psychosocial assistance as well as livelihoods support. Migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers are commonly subjected to xenophobic abuse.
  • Smuggling and trafficking are primarily driven by the economic gains for the providers, and lack of alternatives for migrants. Smuggling and trafficking are facilitated by conflict.
  • Migration gains momentum through networks and self-reinforcing mechanisms which are not necessarily affected by state policies. Responses to irregular migration must be holistic and respond to the economic and conflict drivers.


Suggested citation

Browne, E. (2015). Drivers of irregular migration in North Africa (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1271). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.