EU Makes Africa Its Deputy Sheriff

Instead of regarding migration as an opportunity, the EU has decided to focus on security policy. The result is a buildup on its borders, the outsourcing of Europe's refugee protection infrastructure, and a growing intolerance towards foreigners in member states. By Stephanie Zeiler

The EU has decided to follow a deterrence policy with respect to migration. The use of barriers, satellite surveillance, and financial incentives to set up refugee camps in African countries of origin are sure to provoke media attention for some time to come.

These measures will not, however, combat one of the main vehicles of illegal migration – people overstaying their visas and remaining in Europe. And these hastily conceived plans will hardly deter those who haven't even been granted an entrance visa.

Nevertheless, these moves have a calming effect upon EU citizens. The average EU unemployment rate of 8.5 percent has only exacerbated people's fears for their livelihood and, subsequently, raised anxieties about foreign competitors for jobs. Forecasts made in the European Commission's Green Book on migration of an increasingly elderly society, in which there will be a deficit of 20 million workplaces by 2030, and the report's recommendations for regulated migration policy have done nothing to alleviate these fears.

The EU's migration realpolitik

It suggests that whoever can present a work contract and demonstrate the economic necessity of this work should qualify for a residence visa. The Green Book lays particular emphasis on attracting highly skilled workers, although it admits this could contribute to a brain drain in poorer countries.

At the very least, this is a factor in the growing poverty of countries in Africa and Asia from where these migrants come. Some 64 million immigrants currently live in Europe and more arrive daily. They know that they can find work within a few weeks. European economies have long profited from and, in actual practice, condoned illicit work by illegal migrants in the agricultural sector, parts of the construction industry, the restaurant trade, domestic cleaning, and private nursing care.

These workers enjoy no rights and receive low wages. This is the flip side of fortress Europe. Economists estimate that migrants contribute up to 25 percent of the GDP in EU countries along the Mediterranean.

Criminalizing migration

After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the EU pushed the ideal of a free and just society to one side and instead focused on security as the main issue in its migration policy. With the Haag Program, which determines EU migration and integration policies from 2005 to 2010, the issues of migration, integration, asylum, and human smuggling are now politically linked to organized crime, the drug trade, and terrorism.

Some 17 percent of the EU Commission's recommendations fall under this category. This combination of issues clearly points to a militarization of the social problem of migration in the age of globalization.

Spain, for example, used EU funds to purchase a long-range radar system, heat-sensitive cameras, night vision devices, and a six-meter-high, infrared equipped border fence. In addition, a EU fingerprint database was introduced and the European border protection agency Frontex was set up, which, since 2005, has been entrusted with the primary task of guarding Mediterranean borders with the help of respective national security forces.

Currently, the development of a management system for the external borders of the EU is on the agenda, as well as the testing of a satellite-supported monitoring system for the Mediterranean and the employment of a so-called rapid action force, which should be able to mobilize some 250 border police, interpreters, and medics within ten days of a concentrated wave of illegal migration.

Immediate deportation

What lies behind this idea is less the protection of refugees than their earliest possible repatriation. With this goal in mind, corresponding guidelines on asylum procedures were approved in 2005, which allow refugees to be immediately deported to non-EU countries. At present, Morocco and Libya are cooperating with this policy, although neither of these countries has ratified the Geneva Convention on Refugees.

In the last five years, approximately two million Africans have illegally crossed the land border into Morocco or have taken the sea route to Spain. In 2003, Morocco passed for the first time a law that sentences those caught helping illegals with up to 20 years in prison. Last fall, the EU told the Maghreb state to tighten control of its borders, thereby elevating Morocco to the status of European deputy sheriff. This resulted in a shifting of refugee routes, which now run principally through Mauritania, and recently include Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.

This year alone, more than 27,000 refugees have reached the Canary Islands on precariously unseaworthy vessels. According to EU figures, more than 14,500 arrived in Italy and over 1600 in Malta. Countless others drowned during the journey.

No immediate interest in repatriation

At the top of the current EU agenda is the plan to integrate countries of origin and transit states in Europe's battle against illegal migration. African states, however, have shown no immediate interest in repatriating illegal migrants. Not only does migration help lower the unemployment rate in these countries, but remittances from migrants back to their home countries has long been a vital source of foreign currency. According to a UN expert report, remittances amount to three times as much as development cooperation funds.

Repatriation agreements between the EU and African countries – not only covering their own citizens, but also refugees using a country as a cross-over point to Europe – are unrealistic without a willingness on Europe's part to provide a quid pro quo.

At the recent meeting of interior ministers of the six largest EU states in late October in Stratford-upon-Avon, Germany and France proposed a solution. They want to reintroduce the category of guest worker and reward cooperation with those countries of origin willing to repatriate illegal migrants by establishing a quota system for legal migrants.

The UK, Italy, Spain, and Poland, however, support previous plans for each individual EU member state to control its own migration and employment policies. It is therefore not to be expected that many EU states will participate in the proposed immigration quota system.

Migration is a fact

Instead of combating the causes of migration, the EU prefers to systematically target refugees. In the process, European responsibility for migration out of Africa is quickly forgotten. European agricultural subsidies have destroyed markets on the African continent and its overfishing off the west coast of Africa has produced hunger and poverty.

What is new in the discussion taking place within the EU is the growing recognition that migration is a phenomenon that takes place whether one wants it or not. This awareness is nonetheless still far removed from a considered and more compassionate long-term policy, which, for example, would concentrate on promoting economic growth and democracy in Africa.

This requires, above all, a fundamentally different approach to the issue of migration. Instead of linking migration with catchwords such as terrorism, criminality, human smuggling, and parallel society, the EU must underline the positive aspects of migration as well as enact liberal asylum laws offering non-hazardous access to those seeking protection. This would foster a change in public perception of the issue and do justice to Europe's international obligations according to the Geneva Convention of Refugees.

Stephanie Zeiler

© 2006

Stephanie Zeiler is a freelance journalist in Berlin.

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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