Irregular migration from Africa across the Mediterranean to the EU has become a central policy issue. While the establishment of a Libyan SAR zone and of a Libyan coast guard has lowered the numbers crossing the Mediterranean since mid-2017, there are strong concerns about the sustainability of the current approach and its reliability given the severe political instability in Libya. Due to this state of affairs, increasing legal access to the EU—for study and work purposes—has re-appeared on the European agenda as one potential way to reduce irregular crossing in the future. This comes at a time where legal access to the EU labour markets for African citizens has been steadily reduced. Moreover, actions aimed at streamlining access to existing pathways for legal migration, or opening new ones, can be used as lever in improving cooperation in migration management with countries of origin when it comes to returns and readmissions.
We review the evidence bearing on to what extent increasing legal access via labour migration is effective in reducing irregular migration. While our focus is on irregular crossings of the Mediterranean, we draw on evidence from different world regions. We conclude that increasing legal pathways for migration from Africa to Europe, in itself, will have only a limited effect on the number of people trying to cross irregularly. Substitution can take place only if expansion of legal pathways—tailored to labour market needs and migrant profiles—is envisaged in a comprehensive policy mix including strong enforcement of migration legislation (i.e. control of employers at destination together with border control) and streamlining of recruitment procedures.