Does the tragedy in the Mediterranean illustrate a new British Africa policy? – By Richard Dowden

Friday, 24 April 2015
Richard Dowden

Suddenly the British election has an international issue: African migration to Europe. The sight of boatloads of poor Africans heading towards our southern European beaches induces primeval fears of being overrun. Keep them out! The sight of drowned bodies of men, women and children in the water and rows of coffins, many of them very small, induces pity. Something must be done! Or shall we just switch channels? 

Then comes the thought:  This is only the beginning. 

1,700 people are estimated to have died in the Mediterranean so far this year but the figure may be twice that or more. No one knows. Whatever the risks, the stories of people like Malik Touray from the Gambia leave you in no doubt that millions of young Africans are prepared to risk losing their lives to get to Europe. He and his wife travelled 4,750 miles through six countries, was robbed, arrested, jailed and turned back before he finally reached Europe. Here is his story:

Many more are fleeing persecution in the collapsed states of Syria, Libya and Somalia, whilst thousands seek to escape repressive, militarised Eritrea. The decision by the Italians to force Europe's hand by ending operation Mare Nostrum meant that a catastrophe was inevitable. It worked - at a direct cost of 800 lives. It has forced European leaders to throw more money and resources at the problem. But they know that short term alleviation may mean a longer term increase in the migrant flow. If people are in such dire circumstances that they are prepared to spend all their resources, travel thousands of miles and risk robbery, starvation, kidnap and death, they are likely to keep trying, whatever the cost.  

This is not a new problem. It is called globalisation and has been flooding the world at the instigation of the USA and Europe for decades, making businesses based there exceedingly rich. In Africa there has been modest economic growth but not nearly enough to attract big investment and provide jobs for Africa's doubling population. Two billion people by 2050. And at present more than 40% of the population exist - you cannot call it living - on less than $1.25 a day.

For the last few decades, ambitious young Africans from as far south as Zimbabwe have been trying to work their way through Africa to cross the Mediterranean to the Promised Land. Many headed for Libya when Gadaffi was in control. Then there was some order although the police often robbed the migrants, leaving them stuck, often effectively becoming slaves just to survive. Now there are two chaotic Libyan states and the people traffickers are having a field day. Smash up their boats say some. So will we see raiding parties coming ashore from European navies, killing anyone who gets in their way and burning all the small boats they find? The local fishermen will be ruined. And would that be an end game or just a pause on the great migration northwards?  

I am ashamed of the British government's refusal to support the Mediterranean patrols. The answer always is "We have hit the 0.7% target for overseas aid so that is our commitment to ending poverty abroad, now we can concentrate on domestic issues." 

A new Foreign Office initiative is to send out ‘Prosperity officers’. I have a vision of an army of smartly dressed young Brits trying to enforce a Surrey-style society on Africa.

A recent speech by James Dudderidge, the Africa Minister, pointed out that aid alone will not eliminate poverty in Africa. "But the government knows it is the private sector that will grow Africa out of poverty. It has put business growth at the heart of its Africa agenda." That, in the broadest sense, is right and obvious. But it will need a lot more than that. He talked of "genuine partnership... through good times and bad…Africa is part of the fabric of the UK...central to British foreign policy objectives". It certainly did not feel like that this week. 

The Minister only spoke of the ‘free market’. That is the third pillar of the US-led post-Cold War world which is now coming to an end. Of human rights and democracy, the two other prescribed pillars, he made no mention. Is this omission an admission that they no longer matter? Evidence from Africa might suggest so. Two of the continent's economic success stories are Rwanda and Ethiopia where human rights and democracy, as understood by the rest of the world, are not upheld. These two countries are hailed as allies and models for development by Europe and America. Is this then the new British Africa policy? If you support free market economics, you don't have to hold elections and can lock up your dissidents. 

If that is the case then expect many more boatloads of people trying to get out of Africa.

Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society.