Europe must stop exporting its migration fears – or face the consequences

By Ruben Andersson

IRIN Columnist

In a new column, anthropologist and author of "Illegality, Inc." Ruben Andersson of the London School of Economics warns that European Union initiatives to collaborate with African states may fuel irregular migration rather than stem it.

In 2010, on the eve of the Arab spring, the time had come for the big yearly gathering at Europe’s borders as police, Navy officers and border guards congregated in a swish hotel in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Eighty-nine security chiefs from 25 countries mingled in the fifth Euro-African policing conference on irregular migration. In the breaks, African marines sipped tea with Spanish civil guards on the hotel terrace while Algerian and Greek officers snapped pictures of each other as souvenirs. As journalists and border guards streamed back into the halls, the director of Spain’s security forces assured his audience that the fight against the “scourge” of irregular migration was proceeding apace thanks to “the collaboration between all the institutions represented here”. His speech was strident; the battle for Europe’s borders was being won.

Memories of the triumphalism of 2010 came back to me amid the past months’ drip-drip of news on Europe’s scramble to deal with the latest “migration crisis” in the Med. Instead of investing in more rescues and establishing legal routes into Europe, politicians are now calling for more “collaboration” with African states to halt flows at source or in transit. Refugee reception centres on African soil, naval patrols by North African states and political deals to curtail human smuggling are some of the options on the table as the Union builds towards the May launch of its “agenda on migration”. Yet there is one fundamental problem with these varied bids for more African cooperation: they have been tried numerous times already. Worse, they have repeatedly failed, despite the bright and shiny view from migration policing HQ during those distant days of springtime 2010. 

Regardless of which of the rumoured African cooperation initiatives come to fruition – and going by earlier failures, few will – they all share some common traits. The idea is to outsource tough policing while heaping risks and responsibilities onto African countries, all under the guise of a humanitarian concern for the wellbeing of migrants. The experts on such outsourcing have long been the Spaniards, hosts of the Canaries border guard bonanza. As one Spanish civil guard told me in those heady days of 2010, explaining the logic behind patrols along West African coasts: “You have to prevent them leaving, you can’t wait for them to arrive… That way you save many lives.” 

“Collaborations” of the kind touted in Las Palmas have so far simply exported the idea of migration as a security problem to Europe’s neighbouring states, from Senegal in the west to Turkey in the east. This export has come with a hefty pile of gifts for those willing to play their part in the “fight against irregular migration” from policing equipment and top-up pay to repurposed development aid and diplomatic concessions.

As European politicians sign secretive deals with African governments, a border business has grown in Europe’s backyards – and the perverse incentives generated by this business have in turn helped contribute to precisely the type of crisis we now see in the Med. 

Well aware of Europe’s anxieties over the statistically small flows of sub-Saharan migrants and refugees into the Union, North African states in particular have in the past decade squeezed substantial political capital out of deepening border cooperation. Morocco has perfected the art of using its newfound status as “transit state” to extract concessions in fields as varied as fishing rights, aid, acquiescence over occupied Western Sahara and even some selective mobility for its own citizens. In Libya, long an important destination for African workers, Gaddafi used migrants as a bargaining chip even as NATO bombs started to fall. That legacy has been continued by militias and security forces, which have increasingly treated African migrants as fair game for extortions, beatings and arbitrary detentions. Further south, in similarly migration-dependent Mauritania, cooperation with Spain has brought arbitrary raids, detentions and deportations. And in Algeria, migrants have been serially expelled and robbed at gunpoint: deportees I met in Mali and Morocco alike told me how Algerian soldiers had stolen their cash and mobiles, leaving only their SIM cards as they were bundled into cattle carriages rumbling through the Sahara. 

The rare “success stories” – especially Spanish operations along West African coasts – come not just at the cost of migrants’ rights, but also simply displace routes into more dangerous areas. Meanwhile, migrants arriving in North Africa are becoming a valuable commodity not just to smugglers preying on a captive client base, but also to police and politicians. All this makes life increasingly impossible for black foreigners, who desperately start scrambling for an exit. It is a vicious cycle that has to be broken. 

Instead of fuelling this trade in human misery, European politicians should be doing the opposite – minimising rather than inflating gains from the border business. This would mean encouraging the normalisation of mobility, for instance via more legal pathways into Europe and via the decriminalisation of irregular migration in North Africa. It would mean offering more substantial support to the world’s top refugee-hosting nations – countries such as Turkey and Lebanon – as well as grappling seriously with the chaos in Libya and Syria. And it would mean reframing migration not as a security problem in need of more policing cooperation but as an inevitable socio-economic force that can yield substantial benefits to Europe as well as its neighbours.

Plenty of political courage is needed to dismantle the policies and collaborations that have so far contributed to making the migration crisis a self-fulfilling prophecy. Optimists may take heart that there seems to be some political will for such a change among “partner” states, not least Morocco. Yet the border amnesia in European political circles – not to mention the onward march of the far right – means there is sadly little chance of a rethink as leaders gear up to meet this May on the EU migration agenda. Rather, expect more warm words on deepening policing collaboration with African states, in a faint echo of the Spanish security chief’s strident assurances during those seemingly distant days on Las Palmas. 

ra/ks