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How the EU Is Handling the African Migrant Crisis

By Diego Barrera ’22

African migrants packed on a boat to Europe (Photo Credit: Global Risk Insights)
African migrants packed on a boat to Europe (Photo Credit: Global Risk Insights)

The massive wave of migration through North Africa and into Europe has led to the arrival of nearly 4.8 million refugees in European Union (EU) member states since 2014. Migrant crossings through the central Mediterranean Sea have increased four-fold since 2013, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has reported that 182,000 migrants have landed in Italy specifically in the last year. While migrants come from all over the continent, this journey has one gateway to Europe from North Africa: Libya.

While all African migrants eventually find themselves in Libya, they come from all over the continent. African migrants often flee their home countries in turmoil in an attempt to find a better life in Europe. Broad regions of sub-Saharan Africa have been enveloped by poverty, oppressive governments, or extremist militias that thrive on terror. Libya is the only entryway to Europe, and the migrants face the deadliest stretch of the Mediterranean Sea.

Eritrea, Somalia, and Syria account for the largest number of African migrants. Eritrea, whose government is notorious for maintaining no human rights records, along with condemning citizens to lifetimes of mandatory military service, accounts for nearly 40,000 migrants per year. The presence of armed conflict in Somalia for decades has led to the rise of al-Shabaab terrorist group affiliates throughout the nation. Furthermore, Syria has been engulfed in a civil war for the last nine years, although Syrian migrants generally leave directly from Syria instead of using Libya as a point of exit. While most migrants leave Eritrea and Somalia, Libya intercepts a diverse group of migrants. In a single leg of the journey, one may find a mix of Nigerians, displaced by militant insurgent group Boko Haram; Gambians, fleeing an authoritarian government; or Senegalese people on the brink of survival, due to the country's low position on the human development index. This makes addressing the migration influx extremely difficult: shutting off the flow would necessitate addressing the needs of migrants from half of the entire continent of Africa.

In order to reach Libya’s ports, migrants must spend months or years crossing the Sahara Desert or countries ravaged by violence. As a result, the desert has turned into a hub for human trafficking. Migrants are shuttled between refugee camps, stash houses, and overcrowded detention centers, many of which have allegations of torture and unsanitary conditions. Meanwhile, kidnappers hold migrants for ransom for weeks until families back home can send money. Travelers are used as pawns in a power struggle against the struggling governments of many North African nations.

Upon arrival to Libya, migrants encounter chaos in the form of Libya’s economic and political state. While Libya used to be a stable and prosperous country, it is now engaged in a civil war. Since the downfall of the toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has had rivaling factions vying for power. As of July 2020, six foreign countries—Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Syria, Russia—are involved, either directly or as strategic suppliers, in Libya’s near decade-long civil war. As threads of instability linger after Gaddafi’s rule, the country is left with chaos and lawlessness. On top of political turmoil, the failed state’s economy has lost $126 billion in the last 5 years. The vast majority of the country’s workers can receive their pay, and many have to wait outside of the national bank for weeks or even months on end. Many angry government workers end up contributing to the ongoing problems by turning a blind eye, simply due to their frustration with Libya’s lack of order and legislation.

These conditions are ripe for crime: human trafficking, drug smuggling, weapon smuggling, oil smuggling. Terrorist organizations, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have also re-situated themselves inside Libya. While ISIS was defeated with the help of the US and militias funded by the Government of National Accord (GNA), threats and movements exist on the outskirts of cities across Libya. Sleeper cells scattered across the country present a quiet yet dangerous threat to Europe, which lies just across the Mediterranean Sea.

Conditions in Libya are far from sound. However, this fact does not stop thousands of migrants who continually decide to put themselves through psychological and physical trauma for an imagined reality waiting on the other side of the Mediterranean every year. “That Libya serves as a beacon of hope points to the desperation that drives families from their homes,” MSNBC’s Amanda Sakuma stated.

One may wonder why families decide to put themselves and their loved ones through this; social media is often a driving factor for this significant decision. Facebook feeds all across Africa have been flooded with pictures of friends and family who have made it safely to Europe, enforcing the notion that a dramatically improved lifestyle is achievable and within reach. Remittance packages from loved ones have further emphasized the idea that higher wages are not just a myth. Suddenly, people became increasingly desperate and connections to smugglers trafficking in safe passage to Europe were just a phone call away.

Africa’s generous refugee law and policy regime has significantly improved the situation. For example, Ethiopia hosts neatly 740,000 refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria, and several other African countries because of the country’s open-door policy. Uganda has offered free movement, employment opportunities, and land for building new homes to migrants in despair. Governments of African countries have stressed the importance of migration as a lever for human development and have emphasized the need for humanitarian response to irregular migration. However, their European counterparts have not been so optimistic and cooperative.

Many of the EU’s deals with bordering countries have solidified their anti-migrant approach to curb an influx of migrants to Europe. In 2008, the EU agreed to pay $500 million to the Libyan government in exchange for keeping migrants away. Italy later doubled this deal. Furthermore, Gaddafi would receive an additional $5 billion over 20 years on the condition that he deals with the border issue. However, in 2010, Gadaffi did little to hide the racial subtext in his threats to Western leaders. He continued his mantra that without him, European countries would be clogged with unwanted foreigners, and is on record for saying that “Europe runs the risk of turning black from illegal immigration. It could turn into Africa.” Gadaffi pushed the right buttons to provoke a response from the anti-migrant EU government.

For a short time, world leaders were able to keep the migration wave into Europe contained. However, this didn’t last, as smuggling culture only grew and continued to thrive in Libya’s government under Gadaffi. What was left of these deals completely dissolved after Gadaffi’s death and consequent fall from power in 2011. Now, EU ships patrol the Mediterranean and call the Libyan Navy, which uses European naval ships, to round up migrant boats and bring migrants back to Libyan coastal cities mired in conflict like Misrata, Benghazi, and Tripoli.

Suddenly, corpses began to wash up on the shores of Italy, making it clear that the cost of this journey was much more demanding than many thought. Countries like Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic closed their borders to migrants, and the EU promised Turkey $6.83 billion in financial assistance to restrict the flow of people into Europe from the Horn of Africa. Italy and Malta sought to further externalize the securitization of Europe’s borders into Africa. Furthermore, Africans “rescued” at sea “risk being tortured, abused by guards arriving high on drugs, drunk at night, abusing, beating up refugees in total impunity—deciding that they are going to intentionally starve them for weeks," according to Giulia Tranchina, a lawyer who has represented migrants captured on the Meditteranean. The detention centers are more like prisons and opportunities for militias to make money rather than a makeshift home for those escaping violence, disease, and famine.

Additionally, according to a 2017 CNN report, Libyans have been traded like slaves in the last few years, being sold for under $400 each. Libya’s slave trade is thriving under the crippled government with open-air slave markets comparable to pre-abolition America. Under Gaddafi, human trafficking and slave trading were punishable by death; now, they run rampant in the most rampant human trafficking market in the world. While this growing problem has received increased attention on social media, political leaders have generally failed to acknowledge or act on this issue.

While both Europe and Africa have worked to address the crisis, progress has been slow because the two continents also have completely different approaches and priorities when addressing these issues. Europe, which often looks to Africa to tackle the underlying causes of migration “crises”, is more concerned with tackling the security threats that this “crisis” brings to Europe, while Africa is more concerned with managing intra-African migration and creating legal opportunities for migration into Europe.

In the past decade, anti-migrant policies have flourished in Europe, as most asylum seekers are characterized as “economic migrants.” Europe’s patrolling of its southern border has intensified, and in Britain, the majority Conservative government has persistently rejected refugees. The words “flow,” “flood,” and “crisis” have instigated a public fear of migrants in Europe as a whole. Europe has construed an image of itself to be the victim of a migrant or refugee crisis, while the refugees themselves are the ones fleeing insecurity. Migration into Europe has been portrayed as an “invasion” of different cultures and a “clash of civilizations,” justification similar to the colonial era where the colonized were cast as racially inferior beings. Migration is now a driver of perceived threats such as terrorism, organized crime, and disease spread.

Looking at the present day, the EU must find a way to reset the conversation on migration, as COVID-19 will certainly impact the economies of African countries and therefore the migration situation. The United Nations Commission for Africa estimates that between 300,000 and 3.3 million Africans could die as a result of COVID-19 before the end of 2020. As a result, 27 million Africans may be pushed into extreme poverty. COVID-19 will also impact migration from Africa to Europe. Electorates in many parts of the EU are turning away from the liberalism of Europe’s traditional governing parties towards populist parties that are markedly anti-migrant. The benefits of migration must be embraced to stop people from dying needless deaths on the Mediterranean.


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