Africa at the gates: Europe’s lose-lose migration management plan

Since the summer of 2015, the question of how to stem the flows from Africa and the Middle East is at the centre of increasingly existential debates about the very future of Europe. Loren B Landau and Iriann Freemantle contemplate the underlying logics and effects of EU migration management.

Cover photo by Irish Defense Forces.

by Loren B Landau and Iriann Freemantle

Europe has not been this scared of Africans since Hannibal drove his war elephants over the Pyrenees. Since the summer of 2015, the question of how to stem the flows from Africa and the Middle East is at the centre of increasingly existential debates about the very future of Europe. Mobilising the full portfolio of its hard and soft powers, Europe is flexing its enforcement muscle to reach deep into the African continent. Working together with African political elites, the results will be reconfigured politics, norms and conceptions of rights north and south of the Mediterranean. This will worsen Africans’ ability to cope with climate change, economic precarity, and other challenges by heightening oppression and limiting resilience. In the process, it will lessen Europe’s moral standing and the strength of its union.

Ministerial meeting on Libya (16 May 2016). Photo by European External Action Service.

Following the 2015 ‘migration crisis’, Europe has launched a series of extraordinary initiatives to stem the ‘migrant tide’. Most famous is its billion Euro Turkey deal. But even more elaborate and expensive are collaborations with governments (or those that claim to be) across North Africa to build African-based detention centres to hold would-be migrants. That is just one of many steps. Europe is also working hard to prevent migrants from ever even reaching the sea. To achieve this, Europe is empowering military regimes with undeniable disregard for human rights such as Omar Al Bashir’s Sudan. To themselves and the world, European leaders justify these actions with an elaborate apparatus of technocratic explanations about the universal benefits of ‘orderly’ migration. Intermittently, they also deliver low blows such as alleging that the discarded clothes of migrants pose a public health risk.

Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Malian president Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta at the UN General Assembly in New York (2018). Photo by European External Action Service.

Across Africa, Europe is also working with governments and civil society organisations to prevent mobility under the guise of good ‘migration management’. This includes essentially drafting immigration policies and legislation for African countries and seeing to it that that these are adopted. In Niger Europe threatened to cut off aid if the laws were not adopted. It also funds a growing number of ‘multi-purpose centres’ in West Africa to help (mis)inform and return migrants to their places of origin.

It dedicates billions of Euros to collecting migration data and improving border security. While the EU indefatigably assures us that these interventions will make migration ‘safer and better managed’, the primary goal is, undoubtedly, to limit movement northward. Yet global inequalities mean people will continue to move. And when they do so, European interventions make migrants far more violable, not safer. A few years ago, Pope Francis already called the Mediterranean ‘a vast cemetery’. In 2018 alone, more than 2100 people have died or are missingwhile attempting to cross the sea.

The motivations driving these extraordinary efforts to reduce migration are diverse: there are those anxious about the collapse of overburdened social systems or hostile takeover by dark-skinned, threatening Others. Others, ‘including Hillary Clinton, argue that this is the only way to stop the rise of far-right parties recently emboldened by and further feeding the moral panic about ‘uncontrolled’ immigration. Then there are those who genuinely think that Africans would be better off at home once Europe has created enough economic growth for them to stay there.

Jungle of Calais (2016). Photo by Malachy Browne.

Whichever way it is looked at, not ‘managing’ migration is presented as a lose-lose scenario. Recognising the expense and limits of fortification alone, Europe now supports a growing range of initiatives intended to address ‘root causes’. The idea, as an agreement hashed out at a summit in Brussels in June 2018 put it, is to generate ‘substantial socio-economic transformation’. This includes tackling endemic poverty and fertility rates that outstrip African labour markets’ capacity to absorb. Taken together, these initiatives intend to bring about something that might best be characterised as ‘containment development.’ Under this rubric, developmental success becomes less about promoting human development as an end in itself. Instead, development becomes a means to prevent mobility.

Taken together, these initiatives intend to bring about something that might best be characterised as ‘containment development’

Some of what is envisaged by containment development initiatives – such as support for vocational training, reproductive health facilities, and other economic enterprise – will undoubtedly have positive effects on African lives. However, the approach also has multiple flaws that, if not addressed, will ultimately harm Africans and do little to ‘protect’ Europe from the perceived security and other threats migrants pose.

The first flaw is a fundamental misreading of African demography and the possibilities of creating the jobs needed to absorb surplus labour. Second, such approaches underestimate the potential of migration to be a mitigating effect against both economic and environmental precarity. Indicative of Europe’s containment development plans, the recently published German Marshall plan with Africathus argues that ‘it is vital that Africa’s young people can see a future for themselves in Africa.’ Third, by seeking to fragment African economic development into national rather than continental (or even global) supply chains and labour markets, people will be trapped in areas that are economically unviable. This will not only mean sustained poverty, but also intensify practices that further denude agricultural lands and forests. In either case, as is well documented, development is more likely to spur migration than stem it. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these plans ignore what is perhaps the most important limit on African development and human security: the state itself. The confinement of migrants to the status of ‘irregularity’ in the de facto absence of legal migration avenues is the singularly most significant obstacle to migrants’ safety and productivity.

The confinement of migrants to the status of ‘irregularity’ in the de facto absence of legal migration avenues is the singularly most significant obstacle to migrants’ safety and productivity

So far, European approaches have not worked, at least not in the way they are officially supposed to. Africans have not stopped coming. The ‘Turkey Deal’ has been more ‘successful’, in large part because of Turkey’s institutional capacity and the distance between its borders with Syria and the EU. By supporting police and militaries to close trans-Saharan migration routes, Europe is effectively bisecting the continent into north and south, putting a heavily militarized border across an invisible line that was previously permeable and largely unregulated. Yet if the United States’ experience on the Mexican border is anything to go by, enhanced border controls have limited effect on the numbers of people moving. Instead, they tend to generate increasingly elaborate mechanisms to subvert such controls.


Austrian chancellor (then minister) Sebastian Kurz attends the simulation of a border control mission on a FRONTEX vessel (24 March 2017). Photo by Dragon Tatic, Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äußeres.

And this is what we already see. Across the Mediterranean, militarized borders have set off a kind of arms race between states and smugglers, with increasing collusion between the two. The Libyan slave marketsare the most notorious of examples, but within Sudan, Niger and elsewhere state and state-like authorities are forming profitable smuggling partnerships. The European military and security industryas well as international organisations implementing the EU’s migration management agenda benefit from ongoing ‘irregular’ migration and the threat supposedly emanating from it. Not only do they benefit, in more than one way they actively contribute to sustaining the ‘migration crisis’.

Throughout all this, Europe claims that its approach to governing migration is fundamentally ‘migrant-centred’and its relationship with Africa ‘characterised by equality and the pursuit of common objectives’.But Africans clearly don’t buy into the idea that their continent is about to brim with new opportunities or that Europe is working on their behalf. Indeed, Europe’s policies are almost entirely self-serving, adding to a long and appalling track record of Europeans furthering their interests under the guise of helping poor Africans. Europeans have previously found ways to justify abducting and enslaving Africans as the rescue of their heathen souls. Today, Europe pushes Africans out and back in the name of Africa’s development and progress. Tragically, European efforts to limit African mobility through coercion and containment development will ultimately save neither continent but only threaten lives in both Africa and Europe. That this is done with African leaders’ complicity truly makes this a lose-lose scenario.

About the authors

Loren B Landau is the South African Research Chair in Human Mobility and the Politics of Difference based at the University of the Witwatersrand’s African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS). A publically engaged scholar, his interdisciplinary work explores human mobility, community, and socio-political transformation.

Iriann Freemantle is an Associate Researcher with the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Over the past decade, Iriann has worked extensively on migration, xenophobia and social cohesion in South Africa. Her current work focuses on the role of the European Union and international organisations in the governance of mobility in Africa.

Recent publications

L.B. Landau. 2019. ‘A Chronotope of Containment Development: Europe’s Migrant Crisis and Africa’s Reterritorialization,’ Antipode 51(1):169-186. 

L.B. Landau and C.W. Kihato. 2019. ‘The Future of Mobility and Migration Within and From Sub-Saharan Africa,’ Foresight Reflection Paper. Brussels: European Policy Analysis and Strategy System.

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