Africa’s existential exodus

| September 30, 2017 | 0 Comments
This Irish naval ship was dispatched to the Mediterranean as part of the EU's ongoing migrant rescue efforts. To stem the flow, the EU and its members need to accelerate programs to give real work to millions of jobless Africans. Funds for roads, railways, bridges and schools would be a good start. (Photo: IRISH DEFENCE FORCES)

This Irish naval ship was dispatched to the Mediterranean as part of the EU’s ongoing migrant rescue efforts. To stem the flow, the EU and its members need to accelerate programs to give real work to millions of jobless Africans. Funds for roads, railways, bridges and schools would be a good start. (Photo: IRISH DEFENCE FORCES)

The Italian navy is tired of plucking Africans from dangerous Mediterranean waters off Libya night after night. Thousands of Africans are smuggled weekly across the dunes of the Sahara Desert from the northern outposts of Niger by people smugglers. After desperate days in holding camps in northern Libya, another set of people smugglers sends African men, women and children towards the islands of Italy in overcrowded dinghies or other unsuitable craft. Close to 2,000 lost their lives at sea in the first half of 2017 and hundreds continue to risk their lives each week. They seek the kinds of promising futures that sub-Saharan Africa no longer provides — at least not for them and their ilk.
Europe, especially Italy, wants the various warlord governments of Libya to prevent Africans from leaving holding camps in Tripoli and Benghazi. As a second best, they often try to cajole Libyan forces to enforce bans on smugglers setting out to sea in flimsy, or any other kind of boats. But the smugglers are making obscenely good returns, and Libyans are also profiting from the unholy shifting of mostly hapless humans from the less privileged lands of the south to the potentially much more opportunity-yielding asylum areas of the north.
The barriers that Europe has imposed will hardly stem the tide of Africans fleeing impoverished countries that offer them little hope — countries, such as Eritrea, that repress their freedom; countries that discriminate against them on religious or ethnic grounds; countries, such as Somalia, Mali, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria that are consumed by strife; and countries such as nearly all of the African nations that are afflicted by the cancers of corruption.

These Sudanese migrants are at the camp in Calais. Our writer suggests an international anti-corruption court would stem migration. (Photo: VOA- Nicolas Pinault)

These Sudanese migrants are at the camp in Calais. Our writer suggests an international anti-corruption court would stem migration. (Photo: VOA- Nicolas Pinault)

Europe’s own desperate physical attempts to slow the flow of refugees fail to address these deepest sources of intense migratory displacement. Only by turning off the spigot at its source will Europe — theoretically still the home of boundless promise — be at all able to reduce the surge of men and women, and their babies, trying to better themselves by leaving sub-Saharan villages and cities and bankrupting themselves to cross sand and sea.
Many migrants are being pushed out of their homelands by violence and repression. But the majority of migrants, especially from the rest of West and Equatorial Africa, are being pulled toward Europe by the possibility of a better life.
The largest proportion of would-be immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa comes from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Niger, Mali, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. These are the desperate lands where millions toil for less than $1 a day and think that by surviving a perilous journey across the Sahara and through Libya they can strike it comparatively rich somewhere in northern Europe. They have heard from relatives or kinsfolk who have already made it into the maelstrom of Europe that milk and honey flow there, at least compared to the starchy gruel at home. They underestimate the dangers and predators along the long trek; the profiteering, cruelties and disdain of the smugglers; the weaknesses of the Italian navy to save them when they founder and capsize; the difficulties of obtaining asylum; and the legal, social and economic obstacles within Europe.
But still they come. With populations in the sending countries swelling, jobs scarce (40 per cent unemployment rates are typical) and corruption rampant, thousands are tempted every day by the allure of Europe. Hence, the pull of an imagined betterment in Europe is too great for the mass movement of African economic refugees to be halted by naval actions off the Libyan coast.
If there were a reasonable single national government in post-Gadhafi Libya, police action might manage to curtail human smuggling and compel those who traffic in migrants to move elsewhere. But hardscrabble Libya is badly fractured and mean.
Likewise, stepped-up naval patrols and the pursuit and detention of smugglers will have less of a long-term salutary impact on African prospects and illegal immigration to Europe than will damping down the supply side. If Europe wants to receive fewer Africans, it needs to make it more genuinely possible for desperate people to remain profitably at home.
Europe’s best hope of stemming the African exodus is to help build the economies and strengthen good governance in the places supplying most of the migrants. The usual foreign assistance for economic development in poor countries has been shown to work too slowly, if at all, to uplift the poor legions of Africa. National gross domestic products grow glacially even when overseas aid is well targeted and well deployed by recipients.
The EU and its members need to accelerate short-term crash programs to give real work opportunities to millions of jobless Africans. A burst of funds for roads, railways, bridges, schools and other infrastructure could put droves of people to work. China is already investing in Africa and constructing 300 large dams, six or so railways, many kilometres of new highways, hospitals, sports stadiums and more. These projects employ local and Chinese workers. But still there is such a large unemployment problem (Zimbabwe is at one extreme with 85 per cent of its people lacking gainful formal employment) that young persons despair of ever “making it” and being able to marry and provide for families. Or their families are already poverty-stricken and their young men and women migrate to try to provide for their families and themselves.
Together with injections of ample cash for specific construction and similar Keynesian employment-generating options, European and American countries could redouble efforts to help Africans govern themselves well. In too many African countries, ordinary people feel estranged from their ruling regimes. They feel beaten down rather than ennobled. Surrounded by corrupted elites, but aware of lands to the distant north, where merit rather than favouritism largely drives the filling of jobs and day-to-day life, they weigh the risks versus the misery of their present state, and migrate.
European, Japanese and North American aid programs have paid too little attention over the years to improving governance. That means building capacity now for integrity and probity among younger politicians, backing organizations focused on transparency and accountability, supporting ombudsmen and their offices, helping to support the free media, training younger judges before they succumb to temptation and funding technological innovations that return power to the people.
There is another innovation that could deter kleptocracy and indirectly, but profitably, help to dampen the supply side of migrancy. If an international anti-corruption court, mooted by an American federal judge and since supported by leaders of the United Nations, Africa, Europe and Latin America, could be established to bring large-scale corrupt politicians to the bar of justice, many of the most poorly led African nations would begin to pay attention to the needs of their peoples, and migration would slow. Europe and North America could help to create such a court.
The movement of migrants from inner Africa to Libya and around the West African coast will cease only when the pull of Europe becomes less attractive or much more costly or, significantly, if the push of economic or moral destitution in Africa is relieved by gainful, sustaining opportunities at home.

Robert I. Rotberg’s most recent book is The Corruption Cure: How Leaders and Citizens Can Combat Graft (Princeton University Press, 2017). He also edited the most recent special issue of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal. It is devoted to
Canadian corruption.

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Robert I. Rotberg is Fulbright Research Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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