At the end of May 2017, leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) major industrialised countries met in Taormina, Italy to discuss the globe’s most pressing issues.
The location of a Sicilian town whose rugged hilltops overlook the vast expanse of the Mediterranean Sea was significant since Italy, which will hold the G7’s presidency until the end of the year, hoped to find consensus on preventing migrants, especially those from Africa, from risking their lives to reach Europe’s shores.
Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, who played host to G7 leaders from Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as European Union (EU) observers, proposed that the summit focus on discussing facilitating more regular and legal pathways for migration and curbing economic migration by investing in Africa.
A few African leaders, including Nigeria’s Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, were also invited to the G7 summit. But Gentiloni’s proposition fell on deaf ears – literally in the case of US President Donald Trump, who did not bother to wear headphones to listen to the prime minister’s translated comments – due to the UK, the US and Japan being unwilling to commit to any major new immigration initiatives.
Together, these three industrialised nations hosted about 1.5% of the total number of forcibly displaced people globally in 2016, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In comparison, Uganda hosted 1.7% of the world’s displaced people last year.
Instead of adopting Gentiloni’s proposals, the G7 nations agreed to unspecific aims to support African economies, the promotion of sustainable agricultural practices and good governance in African countries. The discord within the G7 about how to tackle the issue is also mirrored in the EU, where some members want to find more legal pathways for migrants to travel and others want a complete halt to migration. The lack of a coherent strategy to provide more legal avenues for migration continues to push those seeking refuge to travel irregularly, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and injury, according to Hannah Postel, research associate at Washington-based Center for Global Development.
“There really haven’t been any new legal channels for migrants to travel and some European countries, such as Hungary, are turning away asylum seekers, which has led to people travelling on the black market and hiring smugglers and facing difficult conditions to arrive at their final destination,” she says. “So we see it more as a migration policy crisis rather than a migration crisis per se because when you look at the EU migrant population now, then the numbers are quite small in terms of migrants per capita.”
Europe’s inability to accommodate the current influx of people fleeing violence is because of a failure of policies and institutions, not because of unprecedented numbers, Postel adds. According to data from the UN’s migration agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), around 73,189 migrants and refugees arrived on European shores via the sea in the first six months of 2017, down from 211,433 people over the same period last year. While the number of people arriving via sea has declined significantly, deaths over the same period still remain relatively high.
Most of the migrants travelling via the sea are from Africa, with the main countries of origin being Nigeria, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia and Senegal. The surge of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea, which peaked last year, is the result of a complex mix of reasons including the security vacuum left by the overthrow of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, poverty, human rights abuses and deteriorating security, according to William Lacy Swing, director general of the IOM.
Migration to Europe is also being driven by a perfect storm of global issues. Firstly, Europe’s declining birth rate and the rapid ageing of its native-born population is set to create a jobs shortage over the next 30 years. Meanwhile, Africa’s population is expected to double over the same period, and the African economies, which experienced growth up until the slowdown in 2015, will struggle to create jobs fast enough to absorb the growing youth population.
“Under these conditions, migration is not going to be stopped anytime soon, so we have to learn to make it work for all concerned and to govern it in a sustainable way,” says Swing. While discussions about finding more legal channels for migration have been put aside for now by the G7 nations, the EU, through the leadership of Germany, has been exploring preventative strategies in the form of aid and investment into Africa.
Aid and investment
After receiving blowback from the German electorate over her handling of 2015 refugee crisis, German chancellor Angela Merkel changed strategy from accepting asylum seekers with open arms to preventing migration and deporting failed asylum seekers. As part of her new preventative policy, she pledged to ramp up development aid and private investment in Africa.
Since then the EU has implemented the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa worth over €2.5bn ($2.9bn) and the European External Investment Plan (EIP), worth an initial €3.35bn. Additionally, Merkel has taken advantage of Germany’s presidency of the G20 to push through the Compact with Africa, a framework for supporting private investment, including infrastructure.
This is closely connected to Germany’s Marshall Plan with Africa, which aims to support economic development and strengthen relations between Europe and Africa, taking inspiration from the original US Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Western Europe at the end of the second world war. The Marshall Plan with Africa calls for “equal cooperation between Africa and western countries in areas such as education, trade, business development and energy”, better market access for African exports and an end to illicit financial flows from Africa and tax evasion by multinational companies.
The EU hopes to entice countries across Africa to sign up to the plan. Compliant countries will be able to enjoy benefits including a share of the billions of euros available in the investment fund, generous visa rules for citizens and better trade deals. Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal have already signed up to the EU’s Migration Partnership Framework, which promises investment in return for collaboration on immigration issues.
Despite the potential for the deals to have a positive effect on African countries, some analysts believe that the strategy being pursued by the EU will not have the desired effect because research shows that in very poor countries emigration often increases with GDP per capita, as more people acquire the means to travel out of their country.
Postel explains that the EU efforts are misguided as migration does not tend to fall until per capita income reaches levels of around $7,000–$9,000, and most African countries are at a much lower level than that. According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa’s average GDP per capita is around $1,594, and only a small minority of sub-Saharan countries have per capita incomes above that level.
“So if the development aid is effective and achieves its goals of development then it will only increase migration in the medium term,” says Postel. “However, that’s not to say development shouldn’t be implemented broadly. We’re saying that as a migration policy it won’t yield the results that the EU might wish.”
Development agency Oxfam has also raised concerns about the effectiveness of the EU’s policies. “When the EU uses terms like ‘we’re trying to stop irregular migration by tackling the root cause of the problem’, it doesn’t correlate because migration is a part of human nature and it’s happened for millennia,” says Hilary Jeune, Oxfam’s EU policy adviser.
“We recommend opening up safe passages to have migration under safe and protected passages because at the moment EU countries are increasing funds to finance border and security patrols using development assistance money, but that doesn’t stop migration, it forces people to more difficult and dangerous routes.” Instead, analysts urge the EU to focus on “policy innovations” that allow creative solutions that offer more legal routes for migration.
“Right now the enforcement and deterrent aspect is being pushed by the EU, but they should think outside of the box, whether it’s encouraging skills training in the countries of origin with mobility opportunities built in or other legal channels such as temporary movements,” Postel says.
Policymakers could also follow the example set by trade agreements, according to Swing. “A lot of our visa policies are pretty dated compared to measures implemented to address the free flow of capital, goods and services,” he says. “We’re not talking about open borders but we are talking about being more creative.”
But while the migrant crisis in Europe has garnered most of the headlines, most migration occurs within Africa, with the continent being home to around 30% of the world’s displaced people. This is much higher than the 17% of displaced people living in Europe. Therefore, perspective is important when discussing African migration to Europe because Africa currently hosts the largest number of displaced people in the world, Aida Opoku-Mensah, the special adviser to the executive secretary at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).
A sense of urgency in dealing with the global migration crisis was particularly evident during the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants in September 2016. However, many African countries were left frustrated that the main focus of the summit was centred on the situation in Europe and not Africa, which hosts the largest population of refugees in the world.
In response to the European focus of the summit, African institutions decided on creating their own panel to discuss the issue of intra-African migration on the continent’s terms.
“We felt that the discussions in New York [where the summit was hosted] on migration were very much based on the situation in Europe without considering our perspective,” Opoku-Mensah says. “While it is important to discuss the situation in Europe because of the very sad and dramatic images of people drowning or dying in the Sahara, we shouldn’t also forget that the percentage of Africans that leave this continent [as irregular or regular migrants] is much lower than the number of people that migrate within the continent.”
In a bid to redress the current narrative on migration a High-Level Panel on Migration (HLPM), chaired by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was established in cooperation with the African Union, UNECA and the IOM. The panel aims to build closer cooperation between African states while looking at ways to prevent forced migration.
“We also want to show that migration is not only a negative thing,” says Opoku-Mensah. “It’s a positive thing as well because migrants can bring all kinds of advantages into societies.” Intra-African migrants face numerous challenges, including strict visa restrictions, while refugees in some countries are denied the right to earn a living. Although progress has been made to improve some of the challenges, including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) allowing visa-free travel in at least 14 nations and Uganda giving refugees property rights, much more needs to ease intra-African travel.
The HLPM will submit its report to the African Union Heads of State summit in July 2018. But migration remains a part of African life as evidenced by the way that remittances dominate many countries’ economies, and with the youth population set to continue to explode in future, migration will play a vital role in giving young Africans opportunities that are not available at home.
Therefore, instead of investing heavily on ineffective deterrents, policymakers should focus on creating a conducive environment for both refugees and economic migrants to travel across borders in an orderly and safe manner. “People have migrated as long as we’ve had humankind, it’s the oldest poverty reduction strategy as the economist John Kenneth Galbraith used to say,” says Swing. “Migration is not going to be stopped so we have to learn to make it work for all concerned and to govern it in a sustainable way.”