Europe’s refugee colonialism

Image via Wiki Commons.

In August 2015 when Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel declared an open-door policy for Syrian refugees — the first and only European country to do so — it seemed possible Europe would take a different course on migration. A year and a half later, it’s as if that moment never occurred. In contrast, Europe today is outsourcing its “migration problem” to a set of authoritarian or unstable regimes in Libya, Egypt, Sudan and elsewhere. The US is now following Europe’s lead with Donald Trump threatening to ban Syrian refugees from entering the United States, and to block all refugees for at least 120 days.

The European Union already began abdicating its response to the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016 with the EU-Turkey deal, which paid Turkey to prevent refugees from heading to Greece. Now, similar deals are being made with African countries. An interactive map by German journalists shows the 24 African countries already receiving funding to “stem migration.”

This hands off approach, aimed at curbing the flood of migrants before they reach Europe’s shores (out of sight, out of mind), resembles the strategy of indirect rule employed by European nations during their colonization of Africa and the Middle East. During this time, European countries like Britain and France sought to control their colonies by sending a small occupying army, along with white settlers, and imposing a top down order with authority passed on via European administrators to local leaders and existing power structures. These local rulers would be the ones who would perform most of the governing of the “native” population. This allowed European countries to dominate economic and military interests in the colonies without having a large on-the-ground presence.

In 2017’s version of this remote control command, security and defense contractors in Africa, colluding with state officials, will likely start halting men, women and children as they cross the Sahara desert and on the Mediterranean sea in an attempt to reach Europe. Ensnaring these African bodies will be paid for by European tax dollars and cleverly packaged as “aid” to quell questions from the public.

While the EU-Turkey deal essentially halted the flow of people from Turkey (at least for now, as its uncertain how long Turkey will uphold its end without the EU fulfilling its promise to lift visa restrictions for Turkish citizens), 363,348 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy and Greece in 2016, primarily transiting from Libya. Now the EU is so frantic to cut off this migration route that it’s willing to dish out millions of dollars to Libya, even though right now Libya consists of three governments and at least eight armed groups vying for power, including the Islamic State.

The EU has already started funding the Libyan coast guard to patrol Libya’s coastline – despite the fact that Amnesty International documented that the coastguard has left migrant boats to sink. Africans passing through Libya on the way to Europe are almost all jailed – either by the government or by different armed groups. Women in detention are systematically sexually assaulted. Human rights and humanitarian organizations have detailed the torture and abuse migrants and refugees face in Libya, often having to buy their freedom only to set out on another perilous journey. In 2016, 5,079 people drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean sea.

The EU is also exploring increased funding to Egypt, the other main (although less used) departure point for Africans hoping to reach Italy. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government continues to consolidate its power and demolish civil and human rights groups. Independent monitoring of refugee and migrant rights in both Libya and Egypt will be virtually impossible, as will be tracing the EU’s millions. No doubt the EU’s aid agreements with poor countries around the world will continue to demand accountability and human rights, while the EU shakes off accountability for these same concepts.

Recently, German Development Minister Gerd Müller released a new plan for Africa. One of the intended aims is to stem migration. Full details of the plan are not yet online – it remains to be seen whether the funding will make any tangible difference for individuals and their families, or rather further bankroll German corporations to “invest” in Africa.

In a predictable development, defense and security firms are also getting in on the EU’s deals with Africa – the German TAZ newspaper documents a slew of Orwellian scenarios, including plans for biometric controls to pop up across the continent. This is especially alarming considering the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been using biometrics to provide services to refugees and displaced people. Could an eye scan to receive food at a refugee camp later hinder you from fleeing violence and crossing a border to safety?

Trying to come to Europe via these routes already involves, for most Africans, a series of indescribable journeys where people routinely lose their lives. Those that survive may have lost children or loved ones, and have spent their life savings to make the journey. There are many policies that have been proposed to make migrant journeys within Africa and to Europe less deadly and dangerous, key among them is opening more legal avenues for Africans to travel, including student, work and humanitarian visas. Such a system would also allow Europe to reap millions in visa fees, rather than those same funds going to smugglers and traffickers.

But as is the case globally these days, from America to Australia, Europe’s debates about migration are not logical or rational. The vast majority of refugees and migrants are hosted outside Europe: for example, 1.3 million South Sudanese have currently sought refuge in neighboring countries, and Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt together host over 4.8 million Syrian refugees. Yet Europe continues to suffer from historical amnesia, ignoring the role European countries play in fostering conflict, crime and poverty on other continents, which secured a high quality of life for their own citizens.

The majority of Europe’s politicians prefer to amplify fear and sort people into categories that are to be served by different UN agencies and aid organizations elsewhere: migrant, refugee, displaced person, asylum-seeker. Such labels allow Europe’s security forces to sort Africans (and other non-Europeans) back into their bin – deportations of failed asylum-seekers from countries like Germany, the UK, Norway, France and elsewhere are expected to increase this year. One country in Africa has resisted: Mali. Although last year Mali entered into an agreement with the EU to accept failed asylum-seekers, public outrage and condemnation from civil society groups has caused the government to re-consider. In late December 2016, Mali refused to accept two people deported from France and flown to Bamako. It’s unclear whether other African countries will re-consider their deals.

Meanwhile, the people Europe deports and that countries refuse to accept continue to suffer, their lives suspended. Just yesterday, a young Gambian man drowned in Italy’s grand canal to the jeers and spectacle of tourists, who did not think an African man’s life was worth saving. They saw him as a migrant, a black man, a foreigner – but not as a human.

In the superb short film, Becky’s Journey, Becky, a young Nigerian woman, describes how desperately she wants to come to Europe, agreeing to sell sex upon arrival in Italy to secure her passage. Becky made two failed attempts to reach Europe; the first at Lagos airport where they would not allow her to board a plane, and the second in Libya, where conflict forced her back to Nigeria. On her third attempted crossing, not covered in the video, Becky dies. Her death could have been prevented if there was a legal and safe way for her to come to Europe – but no such pathways exist. And in 2017, Europe’s leaders have no intention to create them.

Caitlin L Chandler

Caitlin is on the editorial board of Africa is a Country and a writer who’s most recent journalism appeared in The Nation

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