On January 17, Italy’s parliament approved the deployment of up to 470 troops in Niger to combat “irregular migrant flows” and the trafficking of people towards Libya, and, from there, to Europe. A number of other European countries are pursuing similar policies, including France, Germany, and Spain.
These policies have been preceded, in recent years and months, by a plethora of studies and articles. Many of them were focused on measures that differentiate between distinct migratory waves, with the purpose of “divert[ing] migration rather than attempting to stop it” (pdf). Others investigated the costs and benefits of “outsourcing” migration control, the European Union’s strategy for “Sahel Security”, and the “financial” cost of the “migration crisis” for European countries.
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No less attention was given to the “lucrative business” of NGOs in relation to migratory waves, to the role of organised crime in the “smuggling of migrants” to Europe, and, last but not least, to the importance of “showing solidarity towards these desperate people”.
But none of these claims or efforts, nor the related policies carried out by European countries in the region, offer long-term solutions to, and deep understanding of, the key structural conditions at the base of the ongoing migratory waves. These short-term policies and analyses speak to the “gut” of European public opinion but fail to provide structural answers to present and future generations.
The acronym OPL 245 means little, if anything, to most people. Yet, it is the name of the deal for the acquisition of the largest oil block (over 9 billion barrels of crude) in Africa. It is situated off the coast of Nigeria, from where, historically speaking, 12 million slaves were exported to European colonies in the Americas beginning in the 15th century. It is the most populous country in the continent and the one from which the largest number of migrants have arrived by sea to Italy in 2016.
The $1.1bn invested by European oil and gas companies in the acquisition of this oil block would have covered over 80 percent of Nigeria’s entire health budget for 2015. The ordinary citizens of Nigeria did not see a penny from the deal. The acquisition, finalised through blackmail, benefitted only a very limited number of corrupt officials and money launderers.
OPL 245 is hardly an exceptional case. Indeed, the natural resources (fuel, gold, gas etc) of most, if not all, African countries and a number of the states in the Eastern Mediterranean are still being syphoned off through offshore companies that, to a large extent, are linked to European and American companies and businessmen. As the Panama Papers confirmed, anonymous companies (about 1400) and tax havens are used to exploit the natural wealth of some of the world’s poorest countries.
It is necessary to at least deconstruct the common image of a generous Europe committed to finding humanitarian solutions to 'millions of migrants', and that has to cope with the consequences of 'others' problems'.
Only by opening Europe to African products beyond raw materials – while guaranteeing an equal share of the benefits to African populations – and addressing the structural conditions that undermine the development capacity of millions of people, will the EU be able to implement a vision based on sustainable solutions.
The search for these solutions also involves the need to put pressure on rich Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait and others, to assume concrete responsibilities.
Some of these countries are among the major recipients of the almost $1.5bn in rifles, rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, mortar shells and anti-tank weapons currently exported from Europe (largely via the Balkans) to the Middle East: some of these arms are currently being in used in Syria and Yemen, contributing to the destabilisation of the region as a whole.
And “destabilisation” is indeed another key aspect to be considered when addressing the structural conditions that are fostering “migration and the trafficking of people”. It is a story as old as the world: People tend to migrate when they feel unsafe or unable to fulfil their needs. In this context, it is enough to mention that, according to data provided by the US State Department, “incidents of terrorism” increased by 6500 percent (199 attacks in 2002, 13,500 in 2014) since George W Bush started the so-called “war on terror” in 2001.
Despite the fact that 15 out of 19 hijackers who flew passenger jets into the Twin Towers were Saudi citizens, the Bush administration decided to respond to the 9/11 attacks by striking Afghanistan and Iraq. It is not by chance that these two countries are the ones that suffered half of the total number of the “incidents of terrorism” mentioned above. The destabilisation of a large part of the Middle East and North Africa and the profound influence that this has had on the stability of neighbouring regions is partially, if not mainly, a direct result of decisions taken at the time.
The future ahead: structural solutions
How will migration affect Africa and Europe in the coming decades? The answer is to a large extent bound to demographics. The total population of Africa will grow from the current 1.2 billion to 2.5 billion by 2050, while some European countries will see their populations decline or stay relatively stagnant over the same period. For example, the EU predicts Italy’s population to decline from nearly 61 million to under 59 million by 2050.
This further explains why tackling migration and the trafficking of people by deploying troops or diverting human flows is a red herring. Only structural solutions will enable the EU and other international players to turn the challenges that these numbers bring with them into opportunities. From the perspective of the EU, these structural solutions include five main policies:
1. Exposing and sanctioning the ongoing exploitation of Africa’s natural resources by private and public European companies in order to tackle some of the structural causes of migration – those hindering the development of many countries in the region.
2. Overcoming the self-serving cliche of “investing in African countries”, while opening Europe – including by involving multinational corporations – to African products and enabling local populations to sustain their economies.
3. Monitoring and stemming the flow of weapons produced in European countries and sold in African and Middle Eastern countries affected by wars (Yemen first and foremost).
4. Providing legal protection and opportunities – possibly using some of the 6bn euros ($7.5bln) allocated by the EU to strengthen Europe’s external borders – for “climate migrants”, that is those (millions of people) who flee African countries because of the effects of climate change.
5. Moving from crisis management to crisis prevention. This includes rejecting the policy of “outsourcing” migration management, a short-term “solution” that has created an economic boom in a number of centres, some located in desert areas, becoming an industry that profits off the most vulnerable.
It could be claimed that none of these policies is realistic, or fully feasible. If so, it is necessary to at least deconstruct the common image of a generous Europe committed to finding humanitarian solutions to “millions of migrants”, and that has to cope with the consequences of “others’ problems”.
Indeed, too often we tend to approach the dramatic present of many Middle Eastern and African countries as something that pertains to peoples and contexts that are largely detached from our political, historical and economic past and present.
This mindset is often part of an ongoing medievalisation of these regions, that is, the tendency to juxtapose an allegedly “medieval” Middle East and Africa with a modern, secular, normative West.
It is necessary to overcome this segregated interpretation of “our history” and “their history”, paving the way for a more humble approach towards the peoples’ region and their sufferance. This new attitude will help to reshape the paradigmatic schemes through which to look at the “European Neighbourhood” and to realise Eric Hobsbawm’s wish to rescue not only “the stockinger and the peasant, but also the nobleman and the king”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.