"It wasn't always like this": the Spanish coastguard intercepts a fishing boat carrying African migrants off the island of Tenerife. UNHCR/A. Rodriguez/Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Stories of African migrants in desperate conditions, usually on the Mediterranean sea heading towards Europe, have become common place. It wasn’t always like that. As recently as 2013, when the UN held a High-Level Dialogue (HLD) on migration, a boat capsizing off the coast of Italy claiming the lives of over 400 migrants, many of them young children, sent shockwaves across the world. The Pope issued a moral call for response to the migration crisis. World leaders, including the UN General Secretary vowed this would ‘never again’ happen, taking it as a turning point for new policy measures to save lives.
A week ago, an Okayafrica story told of African migrants sold in ‘slave markets’. It described Senegalese migrants in Libya auctioned off or held for ransom. If the article’s intention was to shock, it was successful. For Africans in the diaspora, these words conjured painful images of ancestors, enslaved Africans who suffered inhumane and unspeakable brutality as they cross the Middle Passage.
To gain a basic understanding of what is behind this story and the reality of African migration globally, one needs to take a step back from the shocking stories to review the patterns over the past decade. In 2006, when the UN held its first HLD on Migration, few countries considered it a priority agenda of concern. Migration policy at global platforms was framed primarily through the lens of ‘development’, lauding the growing power of remittances migrants send to their home countries.
It is a far different scenario today. In 2016, the UN held the first High-Level Summit on “Large Movements of People” where 193 world leaders issued The New York Declaration setting an unprecedented recognition that the migration crisis is urgent and needs to take centre stage in policy discourse. The figures speak for themselves, according to a 2015 UN study:
- The population size of international migrants worldwide was 244 million in 2015, up from 222 million in 2010 and 173 million in 2000
- Of the 244 million, 43% are from Asia, 25% from Europe, 15% Latin America and the Caribbean, and 14% Africa
- Women comprise almost half of all international migrants.
- The median age is 39
Another little-known fact about mobility is that migrants are likely to remain within their region. Whether it is a Korean migrant in Japan, a Somali migrant in Kenya, or a Zimbabwean migrant in South Africa, the vast majority of refugees and migrants remain close to their countries of birth.
Yet the majority of news about African migrants is not about what happens within Africa but about African migrants heading to Europe. European media images perpetuate stories of African refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea inciting racism, xenophobic fear and anti-immigrant sentiments. Europe responds subsequently with policy directives that ultimately serve the perceived need to control its borders and bring an end to the flow. From billions of dollars spent on Frontex, EU’s border control agency, to the “trust fund” launched by the Valletta Agreement in 2015, African migration has become a top agenda item for Europe.
Following inter-regional mobility, Europe is the second continent of destination for migrants from Africa. A recent report showed 24,513 people had arrived in Italy by April 2nd of this year alone. Despite the vast majority of these being refugees from Syria, the European press continue to post images of African refugees and migrants along with misleading facts and figures.
The most frequently used terms in global migration platforms focused on Africa are the need to “address root causes” that drive people to leave home. They are the usual list associated with Africa: poverty, perpetual war, weak institutions and corrupt leaders, not necessarily in this order. This has been the Africa narrative for decades with little change. There is no mention that ‘root causes’ are linked with the traumatic history of the forced removal of enslaved Africans, nor the profound impact of decades of colonial control which resulted in the current borders' demarcations. Not to mention neo-colonial economic measures of unfair trade, extractive industries and land grabs that continue to drive outflow of African migrants.
Europe’s immigration policies are primarily focused on blocking migrant flows and the role of smugglers and traffickers. The Okayafrica article centres on “smugglers demanded ransoms from their families in exchange for passage.” Indeed smugglers and traffickers are key to facilitating mobility in precarious conditions and profiting highly from the current crisis.
But as Dr. Khalid Koser, a respected expert on migration, states, we may be misguided in our undue focus on smugglers at the exclusion of all else. In this video “Why migrant smuggling pays” he makes a convincing argument that smugglers are business operatives responding to growing demand for their services. Focusing on blocking smugglers or over emphasising their role in the bigger picture can be simplistic and will not fundamentally alter current global migration dynamics.
If ever there was a heaven for smugglers, it would be Libya, a country which is politically complicated with virtually no centralised government. Two weeks ago, an article appeared in in The Economist (April 15) that Italy has signed agreements with ’60 tribal leaders’ in Libya to secure the over 3,000 miles of frontier. There is little information about the details of this secret agreement, how the borders will be ‘secured’ or monitored, or the inevitable violations of migrants’ rights in the hands of tribal militia.
The lawlessness in Libya creates lucrative grounds for smugglers and migrants from other north and sub-Saharan Africa are flowing there more than any other country. Since the war that ousted Ghadaffi, Frontex has been unable to control the Mediterranean Sea and boats leaving the Libyan coast. Italy took this radical step to work out a deal directly with the multitudes of tribal groups who are at war with one another and some with neighbouring countries. If this agreement is effective in stemming the flow of African migrants, and there is no way to know this, it will no doubt come at high cost to the thousands of migrants. To Europe, and Italy in particular, this is obviously not a primary concern.
The role of the 'evil smugglers,' and the stories like the one from Okayafrica should be viewed within this context. Such stories force us to ask who should be held accountable for the continued violations of rights and the deprivations of lives and dignity of African refugees and migrants. Who ultimately bears the responsibility to end these acts of crime against humanity? Will we continue to hold smugglers and traffickers as our target, or countries like Italy whose single-mission policies can result in serious violations of rights and human lives?
On the larger global scope, there are currently ongoing negotiations initiated from the September 19th UN Summit called Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. These negotiations and consultations will be adopted by the end of 2018 and set the global standard on migration policy. In the draft document, the compact emphasises the need to protect and uphold human rights of migrants.
Migration is primarily understood from the national perspective, where border control and management of migration are the mandate of the nation state. When it comes to global policy, many lose interest or misunderstand how processes like the global compact can have any direct impact on our lives.
Will the ongoing consultations change the current global mobility or is this yet another high-level policy dialogue politicians engage in that is inaccessible and intelligible to many on the ground? Are there ways that we, particularly as African migrant, diaspora, labour, women, academic and other civil society organisations can be involved and even influence its outcome?
These and many other questions raised at multiple levels make this process too critical to leave it in the hands of political operatives and policy wonks. Inclusion of civil society actors and migrants’ voices into this process is imperative. No process can be relevant without input from those who are directly impacted.