Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

After the 'migration crisis': how Europe works to keep Africans in Africa

Since 2016 the EU has intervened massively into African affairs in order to prevent further migration. But has it been effective, and how have Africans perceived this onslaught?

Liliane Mouan Simon Massey Cameron Thibos
17 May 2020
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

Migration from Africa to Europe has, since the long summer of migration in 2015, been at the top of the European political agenda. As right-wing parties have gained at the ballot box through their anti-migration rhetoric, the priority for most policymakers has been to look tough and – above all – to prevent such an experience from ever happening again.

To this end, the European Union (EU) and individual EU member states have devoted large amounts of resources to trying to keep people in Africa. One usually speaks of carrots and sticks, but given the sheer scale and variety of interventions it might be more appropriate to speak of bushels of the former and bundles of the latter. As this feature demonstrates in great detail, an awful lot of activity has been going on.

Being based in Europe, we are generally only exposed to European accounts of what is happening and why it is happening when it comes to migration. In order to break through our own filter bubble, we set out to explore the question of migration from a more African perspective. This feature is the result of that endeavour.

In the pages accompanying this introduction, you will find seventeen voices from Europe and Africa that we have set into virtual conversation with each other. Their responses are cleaned and condensed versions of the telephone interviews we had with them, and all participants approved their final texts prior to publication as accurate reflections of their ideas. Our primary motivation in speaking to them was to try to understand what this onslaught of migration-related intervention looks like and feels like on both sides of the Mediterranean.

What projects have been happening, and how have they affected African communities? How have African states balanced European demands with domestic pressures and priorities? How do African policymakers and citizens even understand migration? What are their own migration agendas? And how can Europe and Africa reset the conversation on migration to the benefit of all? These are just a few of the many questions we asked our participants, and time and time again their answers surprised us and brought nuance to what is all too often a one-sided conversation. Producing this feature has been an enormous learning experience for us, and we warmly encourage you to explore its many pages in the hope that it will be for you too.

Is there a migrant crisis?

According to the Pew Research Centre, in 2017 there were somewhere between 3.9 and 4.8 million unauthorised immigrants living in the member states of the European Union and European Free Trade Area, up from 3.0-3.7 million in 2014. According to Eurostat, around half a million migrants registered for asylum in EU member states in 2014. In both 2015 and 2016 the number was almost three times that amount (1.2 million per year).

This spike led to what is often referred to in the destination countries as the ‘migrant crisis’. The numbers involved, however, scarcely amounted to a crisis. As Pew points out, unauthorised immigrants still amount to less than 1% of the 500 million people living in the 27 EU member states, four EFTA member states and the UK. It is also important to note that new arrivals have dropped significantly since 2015, with just over 600,000 people entering the EU irregularly in 2019 according to Frontex, the agency that controls the borders of the European Schengen Area.

For Europe, the impact of the spike in 2015 was primarily political. Reflecting the polarisation of public opinion within and between countries, European governments and politicians adopted divergent responses. Angela Merkel’s Germany initially adopted an open-door approach and accepted nearly one million migrants, mostly refugees from the Syrian conflict, as part of a ‘culture of welcoming’ policy. After less than a year, the policy was reversed in the face of electoral advances by the populist right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD). Right-wing parties in other member states also grasped the opportunity to recruit new supporters. Their rhetoric exacerbated and, to an extent, defined these migration flows as a crisis.

Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic rejected the EU Commission’s co-hosting metric – a proposal for all member states to accept a proportional share of asylum seekers – and closed their borders to migrants. Centrist politicians in other countries, recognising that their electoral majorities were at risk, pushed for the EU to produce a fast and visible response. The first result was the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement. This promised Turkey €6 billion in financial assistance and a more liberal visa regime for its citizens if Turkey successfully restricted the flow of people – mainly from Syria and Afghanistan but also the Horn of Africa – into Greece.

To limit the number of migrants using the Mediterranean’s most dangerous route from Libya to southern Europe, the EU Commission and individual EU member states – notably Italy and Malta – sought to further externalise the securitisation of Europe’s borders into Africa. From now on responsibility for managing migration would be shared with countries of origin and transit. To this end, in late 2015, a summit was organised in the Maltese capital of Valletta to get European and African states onto the same page. The subsequent Valletta Action Plan detailed priority areas including addressing the root causes of irregular migration and the protection of refugees. However, for the EU negotiators, the overarching concern was the suppression of unauthorised migration. A concrete framework was finalised in June 2016, three months after the agreement with Turkey.

Describing migratory pressure from Africa as the “new normal”, the EU Commission announced a revival of bilateral partnerships with third countries in the form of “compacts”. The African countries prioritised were Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and Ethiopia. The framework governing these compacts called for increased collaboration and promised support for UN plans to develop alternative routes into legal migration. However, it was once again clear that the EU’s pre-eminent concern was “breaking the business model of the people smugglers”. As many of our contributors argue, this emphasis on countering migrant smuggling, human trafficking and ‘irregular’ migration has not only led to the increased securitisation of migration, but reoriented and subordinated development funding to migration governance and management as well.

The securitisation of the Mediterranean

Securitisation permeates migrant journeys made from Africa to Europe, from point of departure to well after arriving in the destination country. Often driven to migrate by the absence of physical or human security in their home countries, migrants face securitised borders as well as state and non-state actors seeking to exploit their vulnerability along land and sea routes. And on arrival, migrants face an increasingly fragmented security environment: sometimes detained, sometimes encouraged to move on, and often at risk of exploitation and abuse.

If African migration to Europe has long been opposed on economic and cultural grounds, more recently it has been assimilated into the rhetoric of insecurity by situating it as a driver of such diverse ‘globalised’ threats as terrorism, organised crime and the spread of disease. That migrants are characterised as security threats is ironic given that many are themselves fleeing insecurity. So too is the fact that the security measures supposedly imposed to counter the ‘threat’ further undermine migrant’s security and wellbeing.

Whilst the EU strategy to reduce migration uses both hard and soft power, precedence is given to the former. The EU has spent vast sums of money upgrading the security infrastructure of transit states as well as its own high-tech assets in the sea, air and space. In the central Mediterranean, search and rescue (SAR) – promoted as a priority in the partnership framework – is secondary to countering migrant smuggling. This is demonstrated by the EU’s refusal to help pay to continue Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation in 2014, which did prioritise SAR and which saved well in excess of 100,000 migrants before it was shut down. It was replaced by the Frontex-led Operation Triton. With less funding than its predecessor and fewer air and sea assets, the number of migrants drowning whilst attempting the crossing increased from an estimated four in every thousand crossings to 24 in every thousand. Triton was re-named Operation Themis in 2018. Its new mandate – in conformity with the Italian government’s hard line against irregular migration – removed the automatic authorisation to disembark rescued migrants in Italian ports.

Alongside Triton, EUNAVFOR Med – also known as Operation Sophia – was established in 2015 under the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy to disrupt migrant smuggling from North Africa to southern Europe. SAR was not part of its mandate, although between 2015 and 2018 its assets rescued 49,000 people. During almost the same period vessels operated by humanitarian NGOs saved over 100,000 migrants. Critics of Sophia, including a UK House of Lords report, argued that its profile and objective was incompatible with SAR and that rescuing migrants in international waters “incentivises” smugglers to send migrants to sea in unseaworthy vessels.

Italy withdrew its political support for Sophia earlier this year, and as a result it was replaced by EUNAVFOR Med Irini on 1 April 2020. Irini’s mandate is primarily to implement the UN arms embargo on Libya, although it continues to be tasked with disrupting the business model of migrant smuggling as well as training the Libyan Coast Guard. SAR is not explicitly mentioned in the council decision establishing Irini, but its assets are required by maritime law to come to the aid of vessels in distress. However, in an explicit concession to the incentivisation argument, its vessels have been deliberately stationed away from the routes most commonly taken by the boats transporting migrants.

With the effective withdrawal of EU and member state assets from pro-active SAR in the central Mediterranean, and the ambivalent activities of the Libyan Coast Guard, rescue at sea has been left to humanitarian organisations and private commercial vessels. Both have a clear duty under international law to assist persons in danger at sea. Nevertheless, as Sandra Hammamy explains, EU member states have sought to restrict these SAR actions by prosecuting humanitarian actors and by confiscating rescue vessels.

The hostile takeover of development aid

Alongside security measures, the EU has also sought to repurpose development aid to tackle the root causes of migration. Job creation programmes are, unsurprisingly, a prime example of this sort of work. Yet, whilst this sort of aid can be beneficial to the countries receiving it, the partnership framework makes clear whom the EU hopes will benefit most from its largess: “A mix of positive and negative incentives will be integrated into the EU's development and trade policies to reward those countries willing to cooperate effectively with the EU on migration management and ensure there are consequences for those who refuse”. Development is now a tool of European border control.

The primary mechanism for this work is the EU Emergency Trust for Africa (EUTF). As of May 2020, 225 programmes have received funding from the EUTF in 26 countries across three regions: the Sahel and Lake Chad, the Horn of Africa and North Africa. Most of these are either strongly security related, such as capacity raising for local police forces, or attempt to promote “economic and employment opportunities”. The Youth Empowerment Project based in The Gambia, which this feature highlights, is a high-profile example of the latter. So far the YEP has supported around 250 youth-led start-ups with the equivalent of $1,000 in seed money each. A minority of projects under the EUTF also engage in areas like food and water security, education, and conflict prevention.

The EUTF has received more than €4.7 billion in pledges to date. Although this exceeds previous levels of EU development aid to the continent, it falls well short of the estimated €27 billion sent home in remittances each year by African migrants living and working in Europe. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the EUTF has yet to have a major impact on African migration.

The EUTF is premised on a misguided understanding of both the drivers of migration from Africa and the relationship between migration and development. This is a point that our contributors repeatedly emphasise. For the fact is, migration within and outside the continent is marked by mixed motivations. A recent UNDP study found that often the decision to migrate is based less on immediate poverty than ‘choice-lessness’ – the absence of, or severe limits to, life opportunities. When it asked over 3000 African migrants in Europe why they had left, only 36% cited conflict or human rights abuses. The rest of the sample cited economic betterment or related aspirational rationales as their main motivation for migrating. They weren’t so much moving away as moving toward.

Active or passive agents? African actors and the migration question

How then have African states, regional agencies, and civil society balanced the aspirations of citizens, their own economic and political priorities, and the demands of the EU?

Those who were asked this question as part of this project provided a two-pronged answer. A first reaction was to highlight Europe’s role in creating many of the conditions that lead to migration – be it through colonialism, the violent exploitation of African labour and natural resources, or through military interventions and support for states suspected of human rights violations. A second reaction was to emphasise the divergence between European and African perceptions of, and approaches to, migration. While European actors have pushed a rhetoric of migration and refugee ‘crisis’ and chosen to securitise migration, their African counterparts have stressed the importance of migration as a lever for development and argued for legal pathways for regular mobility, as well as the need for a humanitarian response to irregular migration.

This African approach to migration is underscored in numerous statements and policy and legal documents. It stems partly from the African culture of human solidarity and partly from Africa’s long history of migratory flows, and thus from the cultural and social bonds that link many African communities within and across countries. It also reflects Africa’s empirical realities. On a continent where artificial colonial borders often bisect traditional ethnic homelands, communities in countries of origin and transit often rely on hosting and transporting migrants – usually not understood as a criminal activity – to generate employment and income. In these circumstances, it is believed that enhancing border security alone can only temporarily restrict migrant flows and might, in fact, lead to unintended consequences.

Despite this apparent common belief in the transformational potential of migration, however, African actors have adopted different attitudes toward European migration rhetoric and pressure. Countries such as Ethiopia have strategically used the negotiation capital stemming from their position as “aid donor darling” to advance their domestic migration and development agendas. But others have struggled to balance demands from Europe with those emanating from their citizenry. Mali, for example, has strongly pushed back against Europe’s demands to readmit migrants forcibly returned to the country because of the pressure coming from civil society. This is also the case of Niger, Europe’s presumed “migration laboratory”. Despite being a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which allows the free movement of people within its borders, Niger has criminalised migration-related economic activity under pressure from the EU. This approach has been widely criticised by Nigeriens, who contest what they see as their government’s subservience to European interests.

Covid-19 and the future of unauthorised migration from Africa

The UN Commission for Africa has estimated that between 300,000 and 3.3 million Africans could die as a result of coronavirus before the end of 2020. The impact on the economy could result in 27 million being pushed into extreme poverty. There is also growing evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic is changing attitudes of state and non-state actors, as well as the wider population, in countries along the three main migration routes. A report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime finds that communities in southern Libya are calling on the groups controlling the border to intercept migrant transport. Those involved in moving migrants across Algeria’s southern border are apparently voluntarily limiting their activities. The report speculates that whilst there is currently fear of contagion in the region and a ‘stigma’ against human movement, increased unemployment and Covid-19 outbreaks are likely to compel many to migrate in the near future.

A further immediate impact of the pandemic has been the official closure of Italian, Maltese and Libyan ports to humanitarian rescue vessels, with all three states declaring that their ports no longer constitute ‘safe places’ of disembarkation. With all other rescue vessels confined to port, by early-April only the German NGO Sea-Eye’s Alan Kurdi was patrolling the central Mediterranean. After making two rescues off the Libyan coast, the vessel had 150 rescued migrants on board but was unable to dock. With no port willing to allow the rescued migrants to disembark, twelve days passed before the Italian authorities transferred the rescued migrants to a passenger ferry for quarantine. The Alan Kurdi was later confiscated for technical irregularities, according to the Italian authorities. Sea-Eye and other humanitarian rescue organisations perceive this latest confiscation as a further attempt to stifle non-state SAR in the Mediterranean. This took place at a time when the Italian government announced a six-month amnesty for African migrants working as agricultural labourers in an effort to prevent a large part of the country’s harvest being lost.

It is too early to predict the overall impact of Covid-19 on migration from Africa to Europe. However, given the stark disparity in wealth, and hence life chances for those living on the two continents, the fundamental conditions will persist. So, whilst the externalisation of border security into Africa and the perilous situation in Libya have contributed to reducing flows since 2017, this is liable to be temporary. For the EU, the political dilemma caused by unauthorised migration not only from Africa, but also Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, is likely to deepen. The pandemic seems to have further loosened cohesion within the EU’s institutions, already under pressure following the fallout from the financial crisis. The electorates in many parts of the EU are turning away from the mainstream liberalism of Europe’s traditional governing parties – and the EU itself – to populist parties that are markedly nationalistic and anti-migrant.

These trends are likely to continue unless the EU and mainstream parties find a way to reset the conversation on migration, embrace its benefits as well as its challenges, and make good on their promises on legal pathways so that people stop dying high-profile and needless deaths on the Mediterranean.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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