On 10 June 2018, NGO vessel, the Aquarius, approached the Sicilian shore from the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The 250-metre long vessel had sailed to Sicily from Malta, having been denied permission to dock by Maltese authorities. The vessel, with 629 African passengers on board, would never make it to its intended destination. Sea-sick and malnourished, the passengers would spend several days at sea. At 35 nautical miles off the Southern Italian coast, the ship’s journey was halted by authorities. The recently elected Italian government had risen to power on the pledge to deport illegal immigrants and prevent new migrant entries. With the vessel’s imminent arrival, the new government faced a test of its credentials.
On 11 June, Salvini released a statement declaring that all Italian ports would be closed to the Aquarius. Ominously, he accused humanitarian organizations of providing a taxi service into the country and emphasized the government’s reluctance to receive more migrants. Despite Italian obligations to international laws on refugees, it was not, according to Salvini, the government’s duty to ‘transform Italy into an enormous refugee camp’.
With the Aquarius and its 629 passengers stranded at sea, Italy denied the vessel permission to dock on its shores. The reprieve would only arrive seven days later when, following an uneasy standoff, Spain offered the vessel permission to dock. Spain’s foreign secretary, Josep Borrell, observed that the gesture’s intent was to ‘jolt Europe out of ostrich politics’. Salvini, on the other hand, declared victory, and promised similar confrontations in future.
The event would set a precedent for Europe. In succeeding months, the far-right Italian government would turn away additional ships carrying a combined 347 asylum seekers, culminating in the passing of a security law punishing migrant rescue vessels entering Italian waters in 2019. Malta would also refuse to offer its docks to rescue vessels, and the governments of Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Croatia would follow suit, tightening migrant controls in various capacities ranging from inhumane detention to the passage of laws restricting asylum.
Somewhat sadly, government backlash would result in the Aquarius ceasing its rescue operations in late 2018, after being blocked at the French port of Marseilles following intense pressure by various European governments. The Aquarius had been upended at Marseilles for several months after its deregistration by Panama, which claimed that it had suffered political pressure from the Italian government. The Aquarius was the last migrant rescue ship that was operational in Libya.
The migrant question, as illustrated above, continues to pose a problem for Europe. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there were 120,676 migrant arrivals to Europe from Africa and the Middle East in 2019. Since 2017, there have been close to 500,000 arrivals, with about 6,700 migrants reported either dead or missing while making the perilous journey.
While political refugees seeking sanctuary from war and devastation in the Middle East account for the majority of the migrants, a substantial number, especially from sub-Saharan Africa, hail from countries that are experiencing neither conflict nor civil strife. While there are varying and complex reasons for migration, the UN Development Programme notes that a lack of economic opportunities as well as the potential of a better future in Europe are the most common motivations. Consequently, every year, migrants from Senegal, Eritrea, Cameroon, Nigeria, The Gambia and several others leave in search of greener pastures in Europe.
Contrary to the common stereotype, migrants are often well educated and urbanized. A 2019 study on African migrants by UNDP found that 58 per cent of West African migrants held jobs in their home countries, with several earning wages that were higher than the national average. What the study noted, however, was that migration was a ‘reverberation of uneven development and a development trajectory that is failing young people in Africa’. In other words, limited opportunities, and few prospects of economic growth for the youth were the main drivers of migration.
This mass migration has had ramifications for Europe, which can point to economic pressures and the rise of populist far-right political parties as consequences brought on in part by such immigration and its real or imagined threats. Such far-right movements have largely campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, but their composition has often included fascistic elements unseen since the Second World War, and whose very essence threatens to undermine European democracy.
The consequences have been much worse for Africa, which continues to lose well-educated and capable youth at a time when their contributions are much needed for the development of the continent. Furthermore, the migrant crisis has resulted in a set of uneasy alliances between the European Union (EU) and paramilitary forces on the continent, which further undermines local attempts at democracy and equal opportunities. In Sudan, for instance, the EU has been accused of funding paramilitary forces with links to the government’s state apparatus. Such forces have reportedly been engaged in routine torture and extortion, and ironically, been involved in human smuggling themselves. In Libya, the EU-funded coast-guard has faced repeated accusations of torture of captured migrants in detention centres, where they also lack access to adequate food and medical care.
Ultimately, the sheer scale of the continued migration thus poses significant risks to both the lands of arrival and departure.
African Immigration, European Instigation: Background
A brief reading of history illustrates the numerous tragedies that have befallen the African continent in previous centuries. The international slave trade deprived several kingdoms, chiefdoms and villages of vital labour in the 16th and 17th centuries, stagnating generations of development and stunting cultural and economic growth through the plunder of resources. Such resources would subsequently be used to develop the Western world into the force that it is today.
Colonialism would succeed slavery in the plunder of African wealth. The 1884 Berlin Conference subdivided the continent into the colonies for European powers that would later become the artificial African states of the present day. This had insidious effects on African development, as it was not done on African terms. Africa remained a producer of raw materials for the factories of developed countries, while simultaneously being a market for its own products in finished form, with Europe being the primary beneficiary of this state of affairs.
Politically, the short-lived glory days of independence were succeeded by a sequence of one-party states and dictatorships and failed political ideologies. The subsequent political instability would, in turn, cause civil wars and upheavals. In a short period of time, states like Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau (where no president has completed a full-term since independence) would experience a succession of attempted coups, political assassinations and instability. From the independence period of the 1960s, only 14 of Africa’s 54 countries have not experienced a military coup, with the continent experiencing close to 200 successful or failed coups since that time.
Today, Africa is home to several failed states as well as fragile countries on the verge of collapse. In the 2018 Democracy index only one African state, Mauritius, ranked as a full democracy. 26 African states, on the other hand, were classified as ‘authoritarian regimes’ characterized by a lack of free press, political pluralism, and free and fair elections.
Consequently, common tyrannical and authoritarian regimes prioritize force and patronage as instruments of maintaining power instead of providing basic services and opportunities for citizens. This trend is also replicated in the more ‘democratic’ African states where, despite regular elections, a reliance on patronage and short-term politics have oriented governments away from service provision and long-term development.
The ‘Hidden Hand’ of Europe
While several commentators have placed blame for Africa’s situation solely on African governments and people, western governments have been complicit in making things as bad as they are on the continent.
Firstly, unfair and unequal trade relations between Africa and Europe have depleted local industries and left local farmers impoverished. Despite having 60 per cent of the world’s arable land and producing a lot of the world’s coffee, tea, cocoa and cashew nuts, Africa sees its farmers get little competitive value from their produce. Unequal trade conditions also allow for the importation of otherwise domestically produced goods. The EU’s Economic Partnership Agreement, for instance, has resulted in an influx of cheaply produced and sold European produce that has undercut local producers. The European Union, while imposing punitive tariffs on competitive imports from the Far East, prevents African countries from doing the same against European imports to protect local industry. As a result, local farmers and producers find it difficult to compete against heavily subsidized imports from Europe.
Additionally, the continued rapacious exploitation of mineral-rich African states by multinational companies enabled by lax international laws and a compliant local elite have left African countries impoverished. The use of exploitative labour has had destructive effects on African societies, which are further affected by expansive tax avoidance schemes by these companies that deprive them of revenue. The brutality of such exploitation has seen suits filed against several multinational technology companies in countries like the DRC, for the deaths of child workers in mines.
Furthermore, brutal African dictators such as Mobutu Sese Seko, Idriss Deby, Ali Bongo, Daniel Arap Moi and Gnassigbe Eyadema have all found patrons in European nations, despite atrocious records of corruption, nepotism and human rights abuses. Such leaders have also found ready havens for the storage of pilfered wealth in European banks and overseas territories, with the West doing little to stop them. Support for such dictators stands in contrast to antagonism shown towards leaders such as Thomas Sankara and Patrice Lumumba, who were domestically popular and seen to be working in the interests of the African people.
Lastly, Africa continues to suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change, despite only being responsible for two per cent of global carbon emissions. These impacts, resulting from the industrialized activities of developed nations, have contributed to annual decreases in rainfall across the continent, as well as irregular weather patterns and extreme weather events. Recent cyclone catastrophes in Mozambique and Malawi, as well as forest fires in the DRC, have been attributed to climate change caused by industrial activities, in which Europe plays a major role. Despite these catastrophes, through which several African lives and livelihoods have been lost, little has been done to address climate change by the developed nations.
These factors thus combine into a toxic cocktail of events that renders African countries destitute, undemocratic, and with narrow prospects for growth or development, a state which encourages several Africans to leave in search of better lives.
Is There a Way Forward?
While the various problems that contribute to African immigration to Europe may seem extensive, there are a number of possible measures that can be taken to mitigate the problem. First, western Europe, particularly colonial powers such as France and the United Kingdom, should revisit debt arrangements between their governments and African countries. Several African states have been stuck in debt repayment arrangements originating from the post-independence period, and such finances would be better applied in developing the continent. France’s control of West African economies through the CFA currency, for instance, is a colonial relic that must be revisited and the inequalities emanating from this control addressed.
Second, Europe should pay financial reparations for its slavery and colonialism. As already mentioned, Europe benefited immensely from both slavery and colonialism, and its present economic position is as a direct result of both conditions. The benefits to Europe, however, came at the expense of African people, and the legacies of the slave trade and colonialism have contributed to the current destitution on the continent. There is precedent for such discussion. The 1999 African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission Conference and the 2001 World Conference Against Racism are instances in which actual monetary reparations to Africa for slavery and colonialism by African scholars and economists. Such discussions can be revived and analysed in view of present developmental needs.
Paying reparations and revisiting debt arrangements would have the added benefit of addressing Europe’s historical role in Africa’s present economic plight. Potentially, reparations also offer the chance for African countries to take both initiative and responsibility for their current economic positions.
Third, Europe, as controller of several of the world’s most influential banks and overseas tax havens, must play a fairer role in the regulation and control of the international flow of money. European governments must do more to regulate the reception of finances looted from struggling regimes by despots and corrupt leaders, as well as finances stored as a result of extensive tax avoidance schemes by multinational companies.
Lastly, Europe must address its trade relations with Africa. Africa can no longer solely be the source of raw materials and the destination of finished products. European tariffs on African products must be revisited and trade re-established on a more equitable basis. This could take the form of a greater say for African nations in international financial and trade organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization, where the bulk of decision making power is held by industrialized nations. This would then enable the continent to have more agency in determining the terms and conditions of international trade.
The Truth of the Matter
Before her recent appointment as European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, in a move to deformalize existing commission posts, renamed the migration, home affairs and citizenship post to the new office for ‘protecting our European way of life’. The move, while widely condemned, is an indication of the mood of several European people. In the face of unabated migration, it is evident that there is a great deal of apprehension among Europeans at the current state of international affairs.
European governments cry that their way of life is under threat, that they cannot afford to accommodate ‘every migrant’ and that Africa should take responsibility for itself, and yet, this only tells half of the story. The truth of the matter is that Africa finds itself in its current position due to its past and continued exploitation by Europe, which, by abetting ruthless dictators, imposing unfair trade and enabling unfettered exploitation of natural resources by its companies, has played a major role in the present-day poverty and destitution of the continent.
While Europeans cry that their way of life is under threat, it is Africans who suffer under exploitative conditions on their continent. It is Africans who are oppressed and tortured by dictators supported by Europe’s powers. It is Africans who ultimately die attempting to make it to their shores.
Europe, therefore, faces a critical decision: it can choose to adequately address its role in perpetuating the root causes of poverty and deprivation that force so many Africans to leave for its shores in pursuit of a better existence, or it can continue to preserve a ‘way of life’ that exists at the expense of the deprived.
Should it choose the latter, it should have no reason to complain when ‘poor Africans’ decide to make their way to its nations.⎈
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