By Desmond Davies
The rising tide of young people from Africa and beyond daring to make the hazardous trip across the Mediterranean in a desperate bid to enter Europe illegally has seen a corresponding rise in the number of deaths across the sea. Desmond Davies looks at why migrants are dying to make the rough journey
AFTER weeks of debate and soul-searching, the European Union (EU) and other international migration agencies have decided to make concerted efforts to end people smuggling from Libya that, at the time of writing, had left more than 5,000 drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. The delay in reaching consensus on how to deal with this human tragedy was the issue of illegal immigration to Europe. The EU wanted to curtail this and if it sent its navies to rescue people from the sea, then this would just embolden both the smugglers and migrants – encouraging them to continue to make the dangerous journey.
According to the International Office on Migration, the migrants come mainly from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and a handful of sub-Saharan African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana. Syrians are fleeing a four-year civil war; Eritreans are escaping from an autocratic country; while Somalis are running away from Al-Shabaab terrorism. In the case of Nigerians and Ghanaians, they are viewed as economic migrants looking for a better standard of living.
During a Special European Council of Heads of State and Government meeting in April, European leaders decided to put saving lives at the heart of Europe’s response to ending the high loss of lives of migrants in the Mediterranean. Calling the situation “a tragedy,” the EU said it would “mobilise all efforts at its disposal to prevent further loss of life at sea and to tackle the root causes of the human emergency. Our immediate priority is to prevent more people from dying at sea”.
According to an IOM report last year, since 2000 over 40,000 mainly young people have lost their lives as they try to illegally cross over into Europe from North African countries along the Mediterranean Sea. During the same period a further 3,000 died in the Sahara Desert and Indian Ocean. The IOM said that these victims were part of “an epidemic of crime and victimisation”
This epidemic grew following the removal from power of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi by NATO in 2011. As usual with Western interventions in the developing world, no arrangement was made for post-Gaddafi Libya, which is now in utter chaos without any recognisable central authority. This has allowed the people smugglers and Islamic State to strengthen their hold in the country – thus compounding the upheaval.
Indeed, when Gaddafi was in power, some 2.5 million went to Libya because the country provided jobs and the government fully backed the African Union (AU) project. But once Gaddafi was gone things changed dramatically.
The IOM report explained: “Nevertheless, the impression that Libya can provide good employment opportunities for sub-Saharan Africans continues to draw tens of thousands of migrants every year. Many have no intention to cross over to Europe when they first set foot from their countries of origin; however a greater share are now crossing the Mediterranean, pushed out by the harsh and ill treatment from authorities and locals in post-revolution Libya.
“Moreover, competition for low-skilled jobs has increased with the larger flow of low-skilled migrants entering the country, meaning the availability of jobs is not always as strong as those arriving may have imagined.”
In the chaotic environment in Libya today, criminals are lurking to take advantage of desperate migrants. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) noted last year: “Each year, some 55,000 migrants are thought to be smuggled from East, North and West Africa into Europe, generating about $150 million in revenue for criminals.”
The IOM report went on to explain that the smugglers were difficult to track down or stopped because “security, border control and immigration authorities may be complicit enablers of the smuggling business. Where trafficking exists, in some cases authorities have also been implicated”.
As the UNDOC points out, people smuggling from Libya is a lucrative business. So this means that the migrants who want to cross to Europe must pay a relatively huge amount for the trip – up to $5,000 in some instances. This raises the question: why would young Africans pay such a high price to smugglers to get to Europe when there was no guarantee that the trip would be successful?
The AU should provide the answer, given that its Commission has developed a Social Policy Framework (SPF). Among the 18 key issues that it focused on were youth, and migration. It was acknowledged that the high “unemployment and underemployment” of young people on the continent was a major challenge for African governments.
The document explained: “Most young people who work are employed in low paying, temporary positions, working long hours under poor conditions often with few, if any, protection. This type of work is likely to persist well into the future.
“Young people have become the street youth of Africa –– hustling to make a living through petty trading of fruit, telephone cards and other portable goods. Young people in sub-Saharan Africa are only second to South Asia in the extent to which they live in extreme poverty and hunger.”
Young Africans still feel alienated in their countries and are looking for an escape. This is contrary to the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which wants to see a “compassionate and caring society”. At the first meeting of the specialised technical committee and social development, labour and employment in Addis Ababa in April, the AU’s Commissioner for Social Affairs, Dr. Mustapha Kaloko, suggested a protocol on social protection and social security as part of Agenda 2063.
He pointed out that Africa contributed the lowest share of GDP among world regions to the four basic pillars of social protection: essential health care for all; income security for children and families; income security for women and men in working age; and income security for older persons.
The AU’s SPF: “Most young people who work are employed in low paying, temporary positions, working long hours under poor conditions often with few, if any, protection. This type of work is likely to persist well into the future.
“Young people have become the street youth of Africa –– hustling to make a living through petty trading of fruit, telephone cards and other portable goods. Young people in sub-Saharan Africa are only second to South Asia in the extent to which they live in extreme poverty and hunger.
“Despite the expansions of democratic governance on the continent, and the value attached to youth participation in policy-making, contemporary youth organisations claim it is not meaningfully realised. Young people voice concerns about how they are treated by governments –– often more as a threat than a partner. Moreover, youth structures and processes are seldom sufficiently resourced –– and young people often lack the capacity or know-how to function independently or to implement programmes envisioned by policies,” the document added.
The motivations for migration from sub-Saharan Africa are varied. For those from East Africa and the Horn of Africa, the motivation is to flee conflict in the region while those from West and Central Africa would invariably be leaving for economic reasons. So, until African governments address the serious situation of high youth unemployment, conflicts in Somalia and dictatorship in Eritrea, young people will continue to take the risk of trying to cross dangerous waters in search of what they believe will be a better life.
Indeed, the AU will have work with the EU to deal with the migration problem. As a first step, a special summit on migration will be held in Malta later this year, bringing together the EU, AU and key countries involved in the migration crisis.
“I hope that this can serve as the first step towards addressing the issue of immigration at source,” said Miriam Dalli, a Member of the European Parliament from Malta. “Only by addressing the problems in the African countries can we really start addressing the root causes of the immigration issue."
About the Author:
Desmond Davies is a journalist and commentator on African affairs for almost 40 years in the press, radio and television such as BBC World TV, Al Jazeera, Press TV and CNN and also mentors ALC Fellows