Shlomo Toren

An economic migrant/refugee choice model

לאו עכברא גנב אלא חורא גנב

(גיטין מה ע”א)

There is a saying in the Talmud: “It isn’t the mouse that steals, rather it is the hole that steals”. Applied to the present issue of the migrants/refugees from Africa and I would expect immediate denunciations over the “racist” comparison of migrants/refugees to mice. Relax. The Sages didn’t mention mice except as an allegory. The real discussion was on motivation and opportunity. And with both of them, there are also choices.

In economics or in transportation studies there is a fair amount of discussion over choice models. People choose when and how they will travel depending on a fair amount of factors: the cost, whether in time or in money, their income levels and the level of service from their origin to their destination. Our goal, as individuals is to raise our utility, or say, well being, by our choices.

A citizen of an imaginary African country, let us call it Diasteria, would be no different. If Diasteria is in East Africa, there isn’t much to hope for. The countries are poor, unemployment is rampant and inflation degrades what you earn.  Motivation to leave may be high, but with limited opportunities, most people are stranded where they are. An equilibrium is established where nothing appears to change. But stasis, as I learned in biology, is the case when the cell is dead, and Africa is certainly alive and changing. And with change comes new choices.

I wouldn’t have thought about this if not for an article I ran across while researching about Eritrea: “The questions no one is asking about Eritrea” 

Reports on Eritrea tend to ask why so many are fleeing the country. The more relevant question is: Why are so many fleeing the country now?

In short, in Israel and in Europe, people tend to associate the great number of people leaving Eritrea as being connected to the infamous army service there (and other ills). We don’t ask why, when Eritrea has been making reforms in her military/civil service apparatus, and after over a decade of having such a mandatory induction policy, that only in 2008 that appreciable numbers of Eritreans started to come, by infiltrating Israel’s border with Egypt. We assume that the Eritreans are refugees, but we don’t ask why they decided to become “refugees” when they did. To ask, it seems, is to acknowledge that the “refugee” problem is actually one of economic migration.

So by using choice model theory, we can assume that something changed that caused Eritreans to choose to leave their country and to travel to Europe and Israel. What exactly changed is difficult to ascertain, but I have made several tables to help see if there is some connection.

country GDP per captia unemployment  rate inflation rate
eritrea $1,400 8.6% 9.0%
ethiopia $2,100 17.5% 8.1%
rwanda $2,100 2.7% 7.1%
kenya $3,500 40.0% 8.0%
sudan $4,600 19.6% 26.9%
egypt $13,000 12.2% 23.5%
israel $36,200 4.3% 0.2%
italy $38,000 11.4% 1.4%
germany $50,200 3.8% 1.6%
switzerland $61,400 3.0% 0.5%

The first table, based on information from the CIA World Factbook, paints a rather dim picture on East Africa. As poverty goes, Eritrea is the “top” of the list with a Gross Domestic Product per person of $1200 a year. After almost two decades after the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Eritrea is a poor country and there is no Wakanda to flee to nearby. In fact, there is no Wakanda at all (but there is always Canada). Motivation to leave Eritrea is naturally pretty high. It is also clear, that if one chooses to leave, best to aim for Switzerland because Switzerland is a wealthy country with plenty of jobs available.

However (as per table 2), Europe was not always an option. Italy made several agreements with Libya from 2004 till Gaddafi’s fall in 2011 to prevent migrants from transiting Libya on their way to Italy and then Europe.  Israel, however, was not so far away, had a porous border with Egypt and a robust economy (especially compared to parts of Europe in the years 2008-2012). Not the motivation brought them to Israel, but the opportunity and perhaps the feeling that they would be welcomed. Once the vanguard had arrived, others quickly followed and by the time the border fence with Egypt was finished, over 60 thousand migrants managed to arrive in Israel.

The choices that define us

Getting back to choice models and economic reasoning, what can we observe from this migration?

Smuggler fees as an investment in the future

To leave Eritrea must be a daunting proposition, yet it is estimated that over 100 thousand Eritreans have left the country in the last decade. Smuggler fees to Europe are estimated at over $2000, more than what a young male (the typical migrant) could earn in any reasonable period of time. The answer could be that families gather their savings to send the candidates with the best chances to survive the journey. It is also reasonable to assume that the migrants choose their destination in order to maximize their investment. No one chooses Sudan or Egypt even if those countries are much wealthier than Eritrea because there are, most likely, few jobs waiting in those countries. If already in Europe, no one (almost) stays in Italy but rather the motivation is to continue to Germany or Switzerland, countries much wealthier, with better social benefits and more available jobs. Stipends from those who find work in Europe or Israel can be used to send over other relatives or can be used to improve their families’ position in Eritrea.

Why so many young men? Why so few women

Men will survive the journey easier and once in the country of refuge will also earn more.  Perhaps women lib has yet to reach Eritrea. One can assume that if given refugee status, the single males will find ways to bring over “wives” so they can start a family in their new country.

The reason so many males come is the compulsory army service.

Certainly an added incentive, but there are increasing signs that more and more adolescents are also leaving Eritrea. If twelve-year-old boys leave, it is because their families are sending them way before the army service should be a factor. Perhaps they do so because minors are more likely to be granted refugee status and more likely to receive advanced education at the expense of the host country (and in turn to earn higher wages).

It is a bit unclear how repressive Eritrea’s compulsory service is. Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch claim it is close to slavery, but we in Israel are familiar with these organizations and should take those claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.  Eritreans requesting refuge will, in turn, use Eritrea’s army service to justify their request. Israel does not expel Eritreans and Sudanese back to their own countries because of such claims of potential harm to those returning.

Here I would suggest reading the Guardian’s “Inside Eritrea: conscription and poverty drive exodus from secretive African state” or the New York Times “It’s Bad in Eritrea, but Not That Bad“, both give a slightly different perspective on Eritrea’s army service.

Traveling to Israel or Europe is a dangerous and risky journey

Risk or uncertainty can be factored into any choice model. There are risks in staying in Eritrea and there are definite risks in boarding a raft to Europe. Young men are notorious risk takers though and may underestimate the danger due to incomplete information. Until 2011, Libya was known to be “closed” to migrants so few chose that route. After 2013, when Islamist militants began waging a war against Egyptian security forces in the Sinai, perhaps gave added incentive to migrants to shift towards Europe and away from Israel. Risk isn’t just danger to one’s life, but also the real risk of getting to Israel and being detained in Saharonim, unable to work. At the end of  2012, the Knesset passed a law that would have done exactly that.

Walls, ladders, and snakes

If this were a game (and it certainly isn’t), one might be called it “walls, snakes, and ladders”. The walls are the barriers we build to keep the migrants away, the ladders, the by-passes and overpasses that the migrants or their helpers find to overcome the walls, and the snakes?  Isaias Afworki , the president  (dictator) of Eritrea.

Yet even a snake and a dictator can act out of reason and self-interest. It is no secret that around 30% of the Eritrean economy is funded by remittances from Eritreans working abroad. There are even suggestions that Afworki is half indifferent, half invested in having so many young men, many who would be unemployed and disgruntled if in Eritrea, working in Israel and Europe and sending chunks of their earnings back to Eritrea. In other words, both Afworki and the migrants are “playing” Israel (and parts of Europe) to get preferential treatment. One indicator would be Eritrea Independence Day celebrations in Tel Aviv or the number of Eritreans paying their  2% “tax” on their earnings.

And in Europe…

The pro-refugee associations in Israel make much noise about Israel, by not recognizing the migrants as refugees, is not living up to her obligations to the1951 Refugee Convention. Yet even in Europe, there are second thoughts on whether Eritreans avoiding army service are refugees or economic migrants. Switzerland has changed her policies,  and the United Kingdom too. The once open doors in Europe could be closing, and the overflow from Africa will most likely go where ever it can, including Israel should we lose our resolve.

Incidentally, a look at table 2 would show more than a casual correlation between European actions and the flow of migrants to her shores through the Mediterranian. When Italy blocked and hampered the flow (through arrangements with Libya and by returning migrants back to Africa up till 2011), migration was lower and part was directed towards Israel (examine how migration to Europe was greatly reduced in 2009 in comparison to 2008).  There are even some who claim that Italy’s proactive course of intercepting refugee boats close to Libya (to prevent drownings) is actually an impetus for more migrants to attempt the trip. By lowering the cost to the migrants in their journey, Europe increased the observed demand of those making the trip.

We can make our choices

So when discussing the new law that allows Israel to send migrants from Eritrea to third-party countries or to imprison them until they leave, it is important to remember that our choice will affect the choice of the migrants/refugees amongst us. Beyond that, our choice will also influence those still in Africa whose motivation to find a better life elsewhere is greater than their desire to make their present homes livable.

We can also try to use our influence, limited as it might be, to enter some sort of arrangement where we temporarily allow migrants from Eritrea to stay on work permits, receive some training in agriculture, health care and other fields useful to Eritrea in return for the migrants signing an agreement that they would leave after the course of their contracts. Eritrea would, in turn, obligate herself to accept the returning migrants and not impose undue hardships on them (limited national service in their fields of training).

Those unwilling to any compromise must be made to understand that they will never get refugee status and that their future is somewhere else.

other sources worth reading:

Reuters: “Trapped by the system, Ethiopian workers in Lebanon see no freedom

There are 100 thousand (!!!) Ethiopians working in Lebanon.

5 things everyone should know about Eritrean refugees   (Open Immigration)

The questions no one is asking about Eritrea (African Arguments)

2003 Knesset applies “Right of Return”  to Falash Mura from Ethiopia
2004 The Libyan and Italian governments reach a secret agreement that obliged Libya to accept African immigrants deported from Italian territories. This resulted in the mass repatriation of many people from Lampedusa to Libya between 2004 and 2005, a move criticized by the European Parliament
2005 Egyptian police raid an encampment of Sudanese refugees in Mustapha Mahmoud Park in Cairo resulting in the deaths of between 28 to 100 Sudanese Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decides that all of the Falash Mura from Ethiopia would be brought to Israel by the end of 2007
2006 Sudanese begin to transit from Egypt to Israel through the Sinai
2007 After years of an open door policy, in 2007 Libya imposed visas on both Arabs and Africans, instates a policy of expelling migrants to Southern neighbors.·         The financial crisis of 2007–2008, also known as the global financial crisis begins.·         Sudan  hit by devastating floods, with over 400,000 people being directly affected NIF funded groups petition High Court (HCJ) against “hot return” policy
2008 Eritrea insists that the UN terminate its peacekeeping mission on 31 July 2008 HCJ rules against “hot return” policy; migrants/refugees move on to Tel Aviv
2009 Libyan leader Mu`ammar al-Gaddafi will visits “Italy to celebrate the ratification of an Italy-Libya Friendship Treaty that has already resulted in joint naval patrols that run roughshod over refugee and migrant rights” – Human Rights Watch Elections for the 18th Knesset. Binyamin Netanyahu forms the government, appoints Ehud Barak Defense Minister
2010 The Eurozone and the International Monetary Fund agree to a €110 billion bailout package for Greece. The package involves sharp Greek austerity measures Knesset decides to build a border fence in the Sinai to prevent infiltrators from crossing.
2011 ·         Revolution in Egypt; Mubarak resigns.·         NATO intervention in Libya·         Start of Syrian Civil War·         Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi killed
2012 Mohammad Morsi elected president of Egypt Knesset approves 3rd amendment to Law Against Infiltration allowing the incarceration of migrants to up to 3 years in the Sahronim Prison
2013 Morsi deposed in a coup. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi replaces Morsi as military ruler. ·         HCJ strikes down part of Knesset law allowing the incarceration of migrants for 3 years.·         Border fence with Egypt completed
2014 ·         Libya has been riven by conflict between the rival parliaments since mid-2014. Tribal militias and jihadist groups have taken advantage of the power vacuum. Most notably, radical Islamist fighters seized Derna in 2014 and Sirte in 2015 in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In early 2015, neighboring Egypt launched airstrikes against ISIL in support of the Tobruk government.·         Number of migrants from Eritrea to Europe triples over previous year ·         Knesset approves 4th amendment to Law Against Infiltration allowing the incarceration of migrants to up to 1 year.  Holot detention center established for migrants from before 2014 whom are unable to be repatriated to their own countries.·         HJC strikes down most of the Knesset amendment.·         Knesset approves emergency order addressing problems raised in HCJ ruling.



Year Infiltrators through the Sinai “Refugees” through Libya to Europe
Till 2007 7,765 N/A
2008 8,755 39,800
2009 5,212 11,807
2010 14,669 7,288
2011 17,299 69,559
2012 10,440 20,672
2013 43 45,000
2014 21 170,760
2015 220 153,946
2016 18 181,459
About the Author
Shlomo Toren has been a resident of Israel since 1980, and a transportation planner for the last 25 years. He has done demand modeling for the Jerusalem Light Rail and Road 6. He is married to Neera and lives in Shiloh.
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