Roland Benedikter explores how Africa is taking steps to address the flow of refugees to Europe.
In Northern Africa, on March 19, 2014, the heavily fortified Spanish exclave Melilla was overrun by 1,000 African refugees eager to reach the European Union. In dense fog which hindered the border police, 500 of them made it onto European territory, many of them injured or dangerously exhausted.
It was the third time in a row of similar events in only half a year, and yet nothing compared with the number of Africans that each month try to reach the southern shores of Europe via the Mediterranean in squalid vessels, often provided for extortionate fees by criminals who frequently force the refugees to swim the last few miles, an attempt that costs many of them their lives. Within the two months of February and March 2014 alone, more than 6,000 refugees from Africa were rescued from distressing situations by Italian authorities and brought to refugee camps in Italy – with the number of those who died in the attempt unknown, but estimated in the 1,000s.
The numbers are rising fast. In the two days of the 8th and 9th of April 2014, the Italian navy rescued 4,000 refugees south of Sicily within 40 hours. As Italy’s interior minister Angelino Alfano stated on that occasion, the rescue of boat refugees has become a permanent, daily task that costs Italy US$415,000 per day, burdening the heavily indebted country with additional costs to which the European Union doesn’t contribute, and keeping most of its navy too busy to fight smugglers and criminals. As Alfano warned, “the refugee emergency is becoming worse every day”. He concluded: “Europe must do more to fix the problem, since it is both an African and a European problem, not an Italian or Spanish issue alone.”
Alfano is right, and Europe is starting to listen. The notorious unsolved problem is the lack of strategies and measures addressing how exactly to fix the issue. The 28 member states of the European Union haven’t found a consensus yet. That’s because the issue is complex.
Despite a development aid that amounts to around US$12 billion from Europe, that has to be added to the U.S. federal aid estimated at least US$8 billion and China’s aid of around US$7 billion (part of which is investment, not traditional “aid”), hundreds of refugees are taking the risk of searching for a new life every single day, and embark to the open Mediterranean sea headed north. In April 2014 Italian authorities estimated that at least 600,000 Africans are waiting at any time for immediate transfer to the European Union, and these are only the known numbers transmitted by African governments and institutions. Widespread corruption, governmental preference for short-term or high risk re-investment of the funds received, outdated neoliberal policies imposed by international institutions like World Bank or International Money Funds which are not always appropriate to the situation on the ground and too often serve mainly the rich and influential, and lack of infrastructure nullify a good part of the international aid. Another reason for the mass migration is simpler: despite its financial and debt crises since 2007, Europe is still seen by many Africans as sort of a promised land, where at least a lower middle class life is accessible to everybody willing to work hard, even to those poorly qualified professionally or academically.
But that remains widely a myth, like so many others. Without appropriate education, be it vocational or theoretical, most refugees end up as beggars or mendicants on the European streets before being deported to their countries of origin, just to make the next attempt to reach Europe a couple of months later. And if they don’t lose their life and succeed in their endeavor, the cycle starts again.
European politics have taken note of the situation, and are trying to strengthen the European joint border protection agency Frontex. But this is neither sufficient nor a solution of the problem, because it doesn’t address its origins which lie in underdevelopment and social injustice. This may be the only consideration shared by most member countries and independent observers, while there is disagreement about almost every other single issue involved.
As a consequence, Europe has taken action, and a European Union-Africa summit (the 4th since the historic inaugural summit in Cairo 2000) was held on 2-3 April 2014 in the capital of the European Union, Brussels. It assembled more than 60 EU and African leaders, and a total of 90 delegations. Somewhat surprisingly, it brought, for the first time in many years, interesting news. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, in a remarkable turn away from traditional Western strategies, declared that “a new African policy” was needed. The core of a “turnaround” in the relationship, she said, should be that development aid should no longer be understood as helping people to help themselves, but rather as economic cooperation as broad as possible. The new European formula should be: “Fair trade instead of first aid”.
The background of this new tone, which for the first time in many years leads beyond the (necessarily depreciative) traditional notion of “helping the disadvantaged”, is not only a new generosity or pure insight of Europe’s political leaders: It is also an effect of pragmatic economic considerations. According to European Union estimates, Africa is becoming the most important growth market in the world, with most of its main economies growing at a pace of 7 percent per year, and huge potential ahead for decades. China recognized Africa’s true potential long before Europe and the United States: It has increased its trade volume with the continent by 20 times since 2002, from US$9.6 billion in 2002 to US$199.3 billion in 2013, while Europe has barely tripled it, from US$152.5 billion in 2002 to US$427.35 billion in 2013. That in turn is now spurring European action in order to recover lost terrain.
Another reason is no less important and also based on economic reasons, as Europe learns from the United States. Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address of January 28, 2014, asserted that the reform of U.S. legal and illegal immigration could produce additional economic growth and a US$1 trillion reduction of the domestic federal debt deficit by 2035, i.e. within just two decades. Because, as Obama stated, “when people come here to fulfill their dreams – to study, invent, and contribute to our culture – they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everyone.” If this is the case, then it must be true also for Europe. Most probably the numbers in Europe would be lower, but not significantly. In times of the European debt crisis it could lead to huge gains if both legal and illegal immigration from Africa (and elsewhere) could be regulated in a more reasonable manner, particularly if it could be better concentrated on the use of potentials, education and integration.
Consequently, the final declaration of the 4th European Union-Africa summit on 3 April 2014 stated that new regulation and better control of migration as well as increased economic and social cooperation and integration through trade and investment agreements should replace traditional patterns of “help”.
But the most important statement in a long-term perspective came not from Europe, but from Africa. The chairperson of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, stated that “if we educate our people better, they don’t have to come to the European Union with boats, but they will come using the airports. ” The fact that the European Union is planning to finance up to 20 new universities all over Africa over the coming one and a half decades is an encouraging signal that Europe has understood the message.
What is the conclusion? The EU-Africa summit 2014 was a small, but important step towards a new, more sober, pragmatic and efficient Africa policy of the European Union, a step long overdue. It will hopefully mark progress towards a new cooperative strategy that is badly needed by both Africans and Europeans. The fact that at the Unesco Cup 2014, a joint benefit event in Turin on 2 June 2014, the two leading European football Clubs Real Madrid (Spain) and Juventus Turin (Italy) destined all of revenues to underpriviledged children in Africa stating that “we are in huge debt with the continent” (Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid), was an encouraging, and moving sign of a potential new attitude too.
Roland Benedikter, Dr. is Research Scholar at the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies of the University of California at Santa Barbara, Full Academic Fellow of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies Washington DC, Trustee of the Toynbee Prize Foundation Boston and Full member of the Club of Rome. Previously, he served as Research Affiliate 2009-13 at the Europe Center of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University. He is co-author of two Pentagon and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff White Papers on the ethics of Neurowarfare (February 2013 and April 2014) and of Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker’s Report to the Club of Rome 2003: “Limits to Privatization”. His latest book is “China’s Road Ahead: Problems, Questions, Perspectives” with Springer New York, February 2014.