African migration and the charade of ‘return to safety’

The UNHCR and African Union's policy of returning migrants to their countries of origin, suggests that Africans should be grateful to just stay alive, and are only—theoretically—entitled to anything beyond that on their own continent.

17 year-old Jacky in Ethiopia. Image via UNICEF Ethiopia Flickr CC.

Over the past few weeks, the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), the African Union and the Rwandan government have jointly initiated the “evacuation” of African migrants from torturous Libyan detention camps to Rwanda. All actors involved, as well as the European Union, which likely contributes significant funding, have celebrated this intervention as a “lifeline” providing migrants with “options for a safe future.” The UNHCR quotes a woman saying upon arrival in Kigali that “we had a dream of getting out of Libya and now we are finally able to live in peace.”

These evacuations follow the well-established pattern of casting the return of Africans to Africa not only as an act of protecting lives, but also of restoring migrants’ dignity and enabling their very futures. Other common types of interventions also link protection to return in this way: taking those who have been shipwrecked in the Mediterranean back to North African shores, “assisting” migrants to go home “voluntarily” or informing them about “the risks of irregular migration” and unseized opportunities at home.

Image: Bjørn Heidenstrøm, via Flickr CC.

Yet, making access to even the most basic safety dependent on immobility or return is a double-edged sword: while it saves lives in the most immediate sense, it also suggests that Africans should be grateful to just stay alive, and are only—theoretically—entitled to anything beyond that on their own continent. It seeks to confine Africans in Africa, urging them to accept their fate and, as a young Nigerian returnee wearily acquiesces, “stay in our country and feed on what we have.” Critically, using the language of protection also omits that evacuation has meanings other than the restoration of safety. To evacuate also means to empty out. To expel. After all, before the dream of “getting out of Libya,” there was another dream, now entirely eclipsed: to go to a place of one’s own choosing. This omission reinforces and naturalizes the idea that national communities best stay separate if they want to be safe and prosper.

Image: Jonathan Morgan, via Flickr CC.

The focus on rescue also hides that the threats migrants face are the direct result of political decisions and practices that deliberately make life for migrants life-threatening—so much so that return becomes not just their only option but something they are made to feel grateful for. Something they are generously permitted to do, as reinforced by the International Organization for Migration’s expression of gratitude to the EU “for their continuous support allowing thousands of migrants to return home safely.”

Limiting the focus to safeguarding the right of Africans to stay conceals that real freedom and dignity mean to have a choice: to stay or to move. While evacuations and other forms of return may save physical lives, let nobody try to tell you that this furthers Africa’s progress, dignity and emancipation. Reproducing colonial discourses and methods of controlling African movement, it serves the very opposite.

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