The European Council is meeting in Brussels yesterday and today to discuss migration. As is already clear, this is fundamentally an issue of domestic politics in European member states, in many of which it has become the hottest political potato in town and a decisive factor in recent elections. But we should not forget that the people being talked about - the migrants themselves - are overwhelmingly African.
It is worth noting that this argument happens as the tide of migrants recedes. According to Eurostat, the number of new asylum seekers entering the EU rose from around 431,000 in 2013 to a peak of 1,257,000 in 2015 before falling to 650,000 in 2017 and only 131,000 in the first quarter of this year. These compare to a total EU population of over 500 million.
But the shock of what happened in 2015, involving the mass migration from Syria through Greece and the Balkans as well as the continued flow across the central Mediterranean from Libya, has had a profound impact on European politics. Many seek to exploit people’s fear of strangers to stir up anti-immigrant feeling and encourage policies of exclusion.
It is a lesson of history that walls never work. From Hadrian’s Wall in Britain to the Great Wall of China, the Maginot Line and now Trump’s wall on the Rio Grande, they will never succeed in keeping people at bay if those people want and need to move. People are like water, they find the weakest point and find their own level. These problems can therefore only be dealt with at source.
This means looking at the causes and tackling them. In the case of Africa, that means talking to African countries about migration.
This is happening. In a far-sighted move, in November 2015 the EU held a joint Summit in Valletta, Malta, with the African countries most concerned – the members of the so-called Rabat and Khartoum groups. After days (and nights) of negotiation by officials, this came up with a five-pillared approach acceptable to all sides. The five components of the deal were to:
1) Tackle the root causes of irregular migration, including conflict, repression, poverty and climate change
2) Cooperate on legal migration to streamline processes
3) Reinforce the protection of migrants and asylum seekers, so they are well treated wherever they are
4) Work together to tackle the criminals who engage in migrant smuggling and people trafficking
5) Improve cooperation on return, readmission and reintegration of irregular or illegal migrants.
This remains the right combination of actions if the situation is to be tackled rather than simply exploited for political gain.
Since 2015 there has been progress. The EU has set up a number of funds to accelerate growth in north, east and west Africa worth over €3 billion; cooperation with the countries of the Sahel (the G5) has expanded, especially to support them in tackling the criminal traffickers and terrorist threat; and with help from UNHCR and International Organisation for Migration the appalling conditions for aspiring or transiting migrants in Libya is beginning to be addressed, even if the political crisis in the country remains unresolved and the people traffickers are still free to operate.
But these solutions will take time. So many Africans are still trying to make the journey. Too many die in the Sahara or the Mediterranean Sea, or find themselves robbed and destitute along the way. African governments could do more to highlight the risks. But as long as there is little hope of a job at home for too many young Africans, the risks will seem worth it in the hope of escape and a future.
This is what we should be talking about in Brussels, and in Africa. Without a dialogue, the problems will remain.
Nicholas Westcott is the Director of RAS.