When Emmanuel Macron gets angry he often seems merely petulant, a thwarted princeling. Recently, however, in Abidjan, the de facto capital of Ivory Coast, the French president was more convincing, brimming with Old Testament outrage. “These days in Africa there are Africans who enslave other Africans,” he boomed.
The reference was to Libyans holding slave auctions of would-be refugees from Nigeria and Senegal. Some are sold to local farmers, others to building contractors. Deeply in debt to people-smugglers, unable and unwilling to return home, unwanted in Europe, bullied and beaten in Libya’s holding camps, they inhabit a miserable limbo. And as Macron told African leaders, this is not solely a European dilemma. It reflects a deep failure in African governance, a reluctance to co-operate with neighbours and a cynical determination to squeeze as much as possible out of Europe’s squirming discomfiture.
If the migration trek to Europe is to be properly managed, African governments have to become properly involved. Blaming the former colonial overlords is no longer sufficient. One of the great unifying features of post-colonial independence was the end of slavery imposed and encouraged by foreign empires. Now African indifference is bringing it back to the continent.
Typically migration surges are seen as a matter of pull and push. The pull was the prosperity and safety of Europe and its most extreme expression came in 2015 when Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, opened her country’s borders to a million newcomers. Ventriloquising her pastor father, she presented her decision as a duty derived from Germany’s wealth: “We can do it”.
It quickly emerged that Germany couldn’t do it, not without immense strain on its society and not without putting almost unbearable pressure on the main European entry points in Italy and Greece. That’s why she has ended up with 93 members of an anti-immigrant party in parliament, making it excruciatingly difficult to form a stable government.
And that’s why Germany has become part of the Age of Deportation. Since the Nazi days, deportation has had a toxic ring about it. So some officials prefer the word “return” or hide behind the European fudgery of “readmission agreement”. To speed the extraction of refugees, the government is offering fitted kitchens and bathrooms, a one-off cash incentive and a year’s rent in their home country if they leave Germany of their own accord.
Few EU countries are quite so desperate but the combination of carrot and stick has become the norm. Bribing people to leave is simply cheaper. Data from Frontex, the EU border agency, suggests that it can cost as much as €210,000 to deport a Nigerian from Italy, a sum that includes the air tickets of three mandatory security officers for every deportee.
It is controlling the push that will be decisive. Some dreamers still reckon that the EU can come up with a Marshall Plan for Africa that will give young people sufficient incentive to stay at home. The fact is, though, that remittances home from migrants in Europe, legal or illegal, will always outweigh grand development blueprints. There have to be joint initiatives that reward small businessmen, that create jobs and skill up young people, that bring women into the workplace. The West has to engage more with non-government organisations that can properly identify social problems and sound the alarm at government corruption.
And there has to be an understanding with African governments: take back the deported and Europe will selectively relax visas and provide a closely monitored legal migration route. That is not easy as long as African communities do not have effective civic registries providing proper documentation. Again Europe, acting together with willing African administration, can help modernise the continent. Illegal migration fuels populist parties that can push European governments towards hardline policies. It is therefore in the African interest to work more closely with Europe. That was the Macron message, and he was right.
There is a confusion of purpose that thwarts these sensible goals. Driven by the mobilisation of the far right and by anger at our over-burdened welfare systems yet handicapped by liberal guilt, we are bungling the process of deportation, begging and bribing African strongmen to have their own citizens back. Once, we were proud that Europe was a magnet for the deprived. Now we are embarrassed by the failures of multicultural societies. The result is that cash is flowing into the wrong coffers to keep the numbers down. Hellish camps are being set up not only in Libya but on Sudan’s borders. Europe’s border guards are now all too often militia gangs at all the big choke points of Africa.
The EU is paying African leaders to stop migrants and they think they are keeping their side of the bargain. What about the Calais Jungle, they could well ask? What about the overcrowded camps in Greece and Italy? They sniff European hypocrisy and act accordingly.
What should be clear, however, to all of the governments in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Horn and the Maghreb is that they too have a responsibility to their citizens, that leadership is about more than taking the money and rounding up the usual suspects. The migration crisis is their failure too.
Roger Boyes is a British journalist and autor.