The European Union (EU) is desperate to stem the flow of irregular migrants from Africa due to political backlash at home. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from Sub-Saharan Africa embark on the perilous journey north to Libya to secure risky passage across the Mediterranean Sea. EU states processed nearly one million (970,000) asylum applications between 2010 and 2017.
The most affected EU states are Spain, Italy, and Malta due to their geographical proximity to North Africa. Since 2014, Italy has received 600,000 people. Spain received 10,231 in 2016, with an increase to 22,900 in 2017. The island of Malta, located two hundred miles off Libya’s coastline, receives upward of two hundred migrants per week. In August 2018, Italy and Malta went back and forth about who would accept a coastguard ship carrying 177 migrants rescued from an overturned boat in the open ocean. For five days Italy blocked the ship from docking while waiting for assurances from the EU that the migrants would be transferred out of Italy. The motivation behind this obstruction is the 2003 Dublin II Regulation, which states that the first EU Member State in which an asylum seeker lands is solely responsible for reviewing that person’s asylum application.
Political instability, violent conflict, and poor economic prospects drive migration to Europe. Africans embark on the treacherous journey north through the Saharan desert to Libya where smugglers launch them into the sea toward Europe. Migrants face numerous threats from gangs, police, rebels, and other migrants who exploit, sell and extort, and detain them. Young Africans living in poverty and insecurity feel an unspoken pressure to migrate from family and community. Those who succeed earn respect, while those who remain are perceived as failures. Social media plays a role in encouraging people to make the perilous journey. Despite the harsh reality as a migrant abroad and the horrors experienced on the journey, those who have made it post pictures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram dressed well and seemingly living enviable lives.
The EU Policy to stem irregular migration from Africa is a security centered strategy focused on stopping migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers at the source rather than addressing the structural problems that drive the exodus in the first place. The EU coerced the government of Niger with aid and development assistance to take a harder line on immigration enforcement. This produced the controversial anti-smuggling law decried by development professionals. Other strategies are focused on blockading migrants in Libya and elsewhere (see: EU policy brief). The policy includes the following strategies:
- Discrediting of search and rescue NGOs: EU politicians are accusing search and rescue NGOs of colluding with smugglers. Countries such as Italy are refusing to let these ships dock in their country. This pressure has led to many operations to shut down.
- Training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard to stem migration: This tactic leads to migrants being placed in detention centers with poor conditions and the possibility of being held indefinitely.
- Co-opting militias: The Italian government has denied paying militias that operate human smuggling operations to monitor the coast and block departures; however, these claims have been corroborated. The blockade of the Libyan coast by the coast guard and militias has reduced the number of migrants reaching Italy by nearly 78 percent in 2017 from 181,000 in 2016.
- Assisted voluntary return and reintegration (AVRR): The EU funds the AVRR program in which the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) facilitates the return of irregular immigrants held in Libyan detention centers back to their countries of origin, about 10,000 of the estimated 20,000 people detained in Libya have been repatriated.
- UNHCR’s Emergency Evacuation Mechanism: Asylum seekers and refugees detained in Libya who can prove that it is too dangerous for them to return home may be eligible for this program. As of June 2018, 1,600 people have been afforded this status and 174 of them have been resettled to Europe.
The EU is also funding a widespread campaign across Sub-Saharan Africa to convince people not to migrate to Europe. Propaganda events across Sub-Saharan Africa are one aspect of the campaign. For example, one event that coincided with the Fifth EU-Africa Summit in Cote d’Ivoire was a concert featuring a professional football star who led the crowd in a chant, “I promise I won’t migrate!”. Another aspect of this is the Aware Migrants Project realized by the IOM and funded by the Italian government. The Project website presents emotional testimonies of the hardships experienced on the journey, news articles, and a section on opportunities in Africa for people to mobilize against migrating out of Africa.
The EU is expending a tremendous amount of capital to hold back the tide of African migrants without addressing the root causes of the problem, the lack of socio-economic development. Therefore, it can be expected that the EU migration crisis will persist as African youth continue to risk their lives to secure a better future.
For data on migration flows to Europe visit http://migration.iom.int/europe/
Written by [Refugees Welcome!] Board Member, Jason McSparren.
Jason is a PhD Candidate in Global Governance and Human Security at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His research focuses on natural resource governance in West Africa.