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Europe's migration crisis and the fallout for Africa

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Europe's migration crisis and the fallout for Africa

Anne Hammerstad

07 Aug 2017

5min min read
  • Migration

ince the beginning of 2015, some 1.5 million refugees and migrants have arrived by boat across the Mediterranean Sea to the southern shores of the European Union. In the same period, some 10 600 people lost their lives in the attempt to cross. Most of these 'irregular migrants' (a term used to describe people migrating without valid travel documents, often along informal or clandestine travel routes) arrived within a few months in late 2015 and early 2016, when a new, shorter and less dangerous route was established from Turkey to Greece’s eastern islands in the Aegean. 

The migrants did not stay long in Greece, but continued on foot to seek asylum and jobs in the strong economies of northern Europe. Initially they received a warm welcome. People volunteered in droves to assist the exhausted arrivals. Germany and Sweden suspended the Dublin principle, which stipulates that asylum seekers must apply for asylum and stay put in the first EU country they arrive in – i.e. in Greece or Italy.

But the backlash came soon. The rest of the EU did not emulate Germany and Sweden’s welcome, leaving the two states with an unsustainable burden. As migrant numbers swelled, social tensions increased. When it emerged that some of the terrorists who killed 130 people in Paris in November 2015 had come to France using the ‘migrant trail’ from Turkey, concern over immigration became mixed with fears of terrorism. 

The repercussions from Europe’s ‘migration crisis’ have been felt across the continent. Without it, the British electorate would probably not have voted to leave the EU in a referendum in June 2016. In Britain, as in many other EU countries, populist political forces gained from voters’ sense of worry, frustration and helplessness. In Austria, the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer came close to winning the 2016 presidential election. In Poland and Hungary, hard-line ‘law-and-order’ parties consolidated their power on anti-migrant, anti-Muslim – and indeed EU-hostile – platforms. 

With far-right forces on the rise, mainstream political parties responded by taking tough stances on border control and refugee policy, reacting unilaterally and defensively to stem the migrant flow. Beginning with Austria, borders closed and fences went up in a domino effect rippling southwards and eastwards to the EU’s external borders. National assemblies approved new migrant deterrence policies, including harsh detention practices, hurdles to family reunification, stricter asylum rules and the ramping up of involuntary returns.  

Meanwhile in Brussels, the EU geared up diplomatic efforts towards migrant transit states, offering them political and financial incentives to stop migrants from getting into boats in the first place. The Eastern Mediterranean route closed abruptly in early March 2016, after the conclusion of the EU-Turkey Migrant Deal and Macedonia’s closure of its border with Greece. This left some 50-60 000 refugees and migrants in limbo. More than a year later, they continue to live in abysmal conditions in Greece, unable to move forward, unwilling to return. 

"In Britain, as in many other EU countries, populist political forces gained from voters’ sense of worry, frustration and helplessness." 

This has not put a complete stop to boat migration across the Mediterranean. Unlike the dramatic peak and trough of the Eastern Mediterranean route, migrants have continued to traverse the longer, more dangerous Central Mediterranean route from North Africa (especially Libya) to Italy. In 2016, a record 181 436 'irregular migrants' arrived in Italy. This year, a high number of arrivals were reported in May and June, but there was a sharp decline in July. This may be due to a host of deterrent measures introduced by the Italian government. However, a much stronger deterrent is news coming out of Libya about the abysmal treatment of African migrants. The International Organisation for Migration has documented harrowing testimonies involving murder, rape, torture and slavery from migrants on the North African migrant route. 

The numbers of arrivals in Italy cannot be called a ‘migration crisis’ in an operational sense of the word for a regional organisation of 28 industrialised states with a combined population of more than 500 million people. But the sense of crisis has not abated, for several reasons.

The EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

The EU-Turkey Migrant Deal could collapse from the political tensions between an increasingly authoritarian and bellicose Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and European leaders. The continuing influx to Italy is a serious burden on that country, and attempts by the EU Commission to create a burden-sharing mechanism, sending asylum applicants to other member countries, has been a spectacular failure. No member country has accepted significant numbers, and Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have refused to take a single asylum seeker. 

While recent general elections in the Netherlands, France and the UK signal a successful fightback against far-right forces, the EU’s inability to control the sea border continues to have a profound impact on political priorities and dynamics both inside the EU and in its dealings with states along the migration route towards Europe. 

The Libya-Italy route

The Libya-Italy route is primarily about African migration. Although desperation often drives young men (few women and children take this route) to risk the crossing, few will be accepted as refugees in Europe, in contrast to the almost automatic granting of refugee status to the Syrians arriving in Greece in 2015. Viewed by EU officials as economic migrants, most try to disappear and live and work illegally in the EU, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. 

The EU’s attempts to close down the Libya-Italy route have become the key driver of Europe-Africa relations. For EU countries, individually and as a regional group, relations with their African counterparts are primarily viewed through the lens of combating irregular migration and terrorism (the two phenomena are almost always grouped together in EU discourse). 

Migration policy

First, in foreign policy the agendas for the Africa-EU summits since the 2015 Valletta Summit on Migration have been dominated by how to stop irregular migration. The EU Migration Partnership Framework, established in 2016, formally incorporated migration policy into EU foreign policy. Under this framework, the EU has established Migration Compacts with key countries along the migration route in West Africa, the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa.

While in the longer term these compacts are meant to deal with the economic and political root causes of displacement and migration, for now the emphasis is on assisting states along the migrant route to better police their borders.  

The next AU-EU Summit, due to take place in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in November, has ‘Youth’ as its theme. Underlying this heading is the thorny question of how to create employment and opportunities for African youth in their homelands, abating their desire to emigrate. 

Second, the migration agenda permeates European humanitarian and development aid policy. The purpose of the Trust Fund for Africa is promoting ‘stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons’. Humanitarian aid to refugees, as well as development aid towards refugee hosting countries, has been ramped up. 

This is a positive development that can benefit fragile states in Africa. But the incentive behind boosting this funding, through aid programs such as the Trust Fund or the UK’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, is Europe’s own security interest: to combat irregular migration and terrorism by investing in conflict management and peace building and to contain refugee flows through humanitarian action. 

Where does the European migration agenda leave its African partners?

At first glance, it could provide leverage in negotiations with the EU, as was seen when Kenya cited Europe’s example when announcing the closure of its Dadaab refugee camp complex. 

But for Africa as a whole, the EU’s obsession with migration is a setback. Most African states are not particularly interesting to the EU from a migration perspective, since they are neither migrant-sending nor transit countries. Thus, while a few African states can hope for increased resources and bargaining power, many others will likely suffer from inattention. 

This can be seen already. Apart from the troubled belt from Sahel to the Horn of Africa, Europe has refocused its attention from sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa and the Middle East. And even for those on the EU’s list of ‘priority countries’, the long-term benefits of EU assistance are doubtful, due to its narrow focus on border control, such as intercepting migrants and hunting down human smugglers. The longer-term, more positive aspects of EU-African migration partnerships, such as promises to increase refugee resettlement quotas and legal migration channels for African migrants, are highly unlikely to be realised in the current anti-migrant political climate within the EU. 

(Main image: Getty/NurPhoto)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.