Africa needs billions for development, hotspots should be in Chad and Niger, says migration expert

  • Tomáš Hošek
  • 11.12.2017 17:23

Migration into Italy has declined this year in the light of a deal between Italy and armed groups in Libya. As reports about growing slave trade, refugee exploitation, dire conditions for migrants or opacity of the EU Africa Trust fund increased, the EU, UN and the African Union agreed to create an emergency fund to curb human smuggling. The current situation with migration from Africa was the topic of our interview with Viktor Marsai, a senior researcher at the Budapest-based Migration Research Institute, at the annual HOMEAFFAIRS Internal Security Forum in Prague (organised by the European Values Think-tank and the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies).

Last year, Italy became the main entrance gate for migrants sailing to Europe; however, the migration influx was brought under control by this year’s agreement between the Italian government and Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). Could this mean that the EU is, despite all the problems, able to effectively guard the external borders of the Schengen Area?

It’s very hard to state that we’ve managed to control this whole procedure. What actually happened is that the EU, Italy and Libya managed to make some formal and informal negotiations, in order to control money and other assets - not directly, but indirectly - provided to different militias participating on the trafficking of people in Sabratha and other coastal areas. So it has definitely contributed to the decline of the numbers of people arriving to the Italian coast – that’s the first reason. The second reason is that Italy and the Libyan coastguard became more active, the coastguard gets assets from Italy and the EU, and they’ve managed to stop migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

The third issue is a wider context of negotiations between the EU and the Nigerien government in 2016, which could be considered similar to the Turkish deal - the EU provided more than €600 million to the Nigerien government and for this money, Niger provided training for border guards, officers etc. This year we can see more than 60% decline in the numbers of people crossing Niger and Libya.


The money and the latest efforts contributed to the drop of the migration numbers, but it also generated new armed conflicts in Libya


It is necessary to distinguish these different topics because the efforts in Niger have long-term effects - we see there are improving capacities which have never existed before, that is definitely a positive phenomenon. Then we have these short-term solutions, for example, the dangerous cooperation with armed militias - on one hand, they somehow managed to stop the migration flow, on the other hand, it has however generated regular clashes between the militias, when for example one militia gets money from the government, they were officially demobilised and integrated into the Libyan security forces, but this one group was attacked by another militia, because they wanted to be a part of the deal.

In short, the money and the latest efforts contributed to the drop of the migration numbers, but it also generated new armed conflicts in Libya. These short-term solutions are questionable, to say at least.

The Italy-Libya Agreement is based on similar foundations as an earlier agreement between Germany and Turkey, which contributed to decreasing of migration flow across the Aegean Sea and further through the so-called Balkan Route. Could we understand this as Europe transferring its responsibility for the migration problem to unstable and nondemocratic countries? Is such attitude sustainable in the long run?

This is a big question and there are also many critiques towards this agreement. The agreement with Libya is actually very different from the one with Turkey – the earlier deal is very transparent and we can see what is on the table. In the case of the EU-Libya and Italy-Libya agreement there are actions that are in fact behind the line - we are not talking about explicit, but rather implicit statements. As you mentioned, the biggest problem lies in Libya being a fragile (or collapsed) state, as opposed to Turkey, which is still a stable state, or a working state, to say at least. During the last two or three years, foreign actors tried to stabilise the Libyan political life and form a unity government in order to contribute to the stabilisation process in Libya. These efforts have however failed, or at least were delayed in the long run.


Nobody knows what we understand under the term “hotspots”, yet the thinking is now aimed at establishing these facilities in Chad and Niger


We have recently witnessed a summit in Paris between some of the leading EU members and the Libyan, Nigerien and Chadian government, so there are clear efforts to deal with this situation. However, most people accepted it’s not possible to bring everybody back to Libya and form these so-called hotspots. And although nobody knows what we understand under this term, the thinking is now aimed towards establishing these facilities south to Libya in Chad and Niger, because both countries have working governments, plus I have already mentioned the EU-Niger agreement. We, therefore, establish these facilities where migrants can apply for asylum and go through the whole application process, and this way we can stop them from reaching Libya and making the dangerous journey across the Sahara Desert. By the way, we already know that two or even three times more people have died in Sahara than in the Mediterranean. So my assumption is the EU is trying to build a “cordon sanitaire” land in order to protect the Schengen border, but not in Libya, which could cause humanitarian criticism, but inside Niger and Chad, because it seems much simpler.

You already mentioned hotspots which are the subject of my next question: When we talk about a stable solution to the migration crisis, could it be achieved through creating these large hotspots outside the EU’s soil, which would be funded by the member states, while they would also be able to decide how many and which migrants they would accept? Is it realistic to expect that Europe might, for example, implement something as the frequently discussed Australia’s model of immigration policy?

The problem is that nobody knows what different nations understand under the term “hotspots”. On one side we have e.g. Germany who would like to establish hotspots just as support centres for migrants, on the other side there are those centres that exist under the EU-Turkey deal, where you have to complete your application and if you avoid it, you will be sent back. But in general, I think the whole procedure is going to the direction of these hotspots working as the main entrance gates to Europe, where these applications can be run and e.g. the status of the migrants could be decided.


Member states want to stop the irregular immigration, when nobody knows who is coming and it almost seems like an automatic right to obtain the asylum status


According to the Geneva Convention, refugees legally own the right to obtain the asylum status; most of the people trying to reach Europe across this Mediterranean gate are, however, economic migrants and states are not obliged to accept them (the UN declare up to 80 % of all the migrants are economic). The exact numbers of people stuck in Libya are actually not clear, the numbers range between 800 000 and 1,5 million migrants, but among them, there is definitely only a small percentage of people with the right to get the asylum status. What I feel is that Europe is not against liberation process because if we are looking at the demographic trends of the continent, we are in a big trouble. What the EU member states want, I think, is to stop the irregular immigration. When nobody knows who is coming and it almost seems like an automatic right to come here and obtain the asylum status.

In 2015, the EU-Africa Emergency Trust Fund was created, with the aim to curb mass migration from Africa to Europe. In your opinion, where should the money from this fund be primarily directed, in order to be spent as effectively as possible?

Well, in the first place, I think this fund should win a lottery to acquire much more money. Although it’s been a great achievement for this fund to even be created (together with the German idea of a “Marshall Plan for Africa” etc.), if we are brutally honest, it is unimaginable that we would manage to reach any significant success with these €3 billion in the African continent with 1.3 billion inhabitants and take into account the living standards and the GDP per capita. Yes, the development is important and we have to emphasize that we are lucky because most people in Sub-Saharan Africa don’t want to leave the continent – that’s the good news. The bad news is that just by watching the numbers, these whole long-term procedures to stabilise the countries, to improve development aid and the use of this money are huge tasks. They could be fruitful in a decade or even later.


We have to be aware that development [of Africa] would eventually cost not tens, but hundreds or thousands of billions of dollars


The first task for Europe, besides this hefty development project, is to close the gate in Libya. These procedures in Sub-Saharan fragile states, demographics, overpopulation, and climate change obviously didn’t start three years ago but have been described and examined already in the 1980s. What is new? The gate in Libya is open and the people are coming. So first we should somehow close Libya and if not Libya, then the southern countries like Niger and Chad. Only after that we can think about this whole strategic project, but we have to be aware that it would cost not tens, but hundreds or thousands of billions of dollars.

Being a researcher in the field of migration flows in Africa, how do you perceive the pessimistic outlooks speaking about not just hundreds of thousands, but millions of Africans who could start moving further north because of, among others, the climate change? Would Europe be able to handle such a major problem?

You know, nobody knows what the exact numbers could be. There is a new report which says that up to fifty million people can leave their homes and head towards Europe, but I think it’s too apocalyptical and pessimistic. However, the reality is that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people try to reach Europe. I think the real question is how we can manage this mobility. We have to keep in mind that millions of Africans already work in Europe, whether in the middle or upper-middle class positions. So the brain drain is already apparent in Africa.

When we are speaking about migration, on one side it is the irregular migration, which is also a security threat because nobody knows who is coming, on the other side it is the brain drain, rather an economic issue. So my impression is that in order for Europe to control this we have to first recognise what is starting the migration, cut the irregular migration and put emphasis on the regular migration. On the other side is the previous statement that we need billions of dollars to improve the situation in African states, but this is just a long way ahead. There is no other simple solution.

Viktor Marsai at the HOMEAFFAIRS conference. Copyright Evropské hodnoty.

A significant part of the African migrants at the Mediterranean constitute people coming from Nigeria, which is one of the most dynamically developing African countries and a home to a large percentage of the African population. Could Nigeria be considered as some kind of a time bomb Europe should be more concerned about?

I don’t think that Nigeria is in a special position. Each country in the neighbourhood has its own specifics, so looking at the demographic trends, whether it’s Nigeria, Niger, Somalia or any other country, it is not so different and we can be too optimistic about neither of them. The biggest challenge, which is always a game-changer, is political instability. The problem is that when a state collapses, it almost immediately generates a flow of migrants. This could be a problem. In terms of population, Nigeria remains a specific issue with almost 200 million inhabitants, constituting nearly a sixth of the whole African population.

Another difficulty is bad governance: there are huge tensions between the north and southern part of the country... the corrupt governments and continuing population dynamics could thus eventually be a time bomb, but we can say this about many other countries in the region, for example the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the long term, Niger could actually become a huge challenge for us. It is located almost in the middle of southern Sahara and its fertility rate is above seven. According to the UN estimation, Niger will be among the top ten most populated countries by the end of this century despite being located at the edge of the desert. This is definitely a troubling issue.


The criminal networks are more rational, more inter-connected and they use different portfolios like other multinational companies


Last but not least, a few days ago the US CNN came up with a report from Libya concerning the current illegal business with migrants, who get sold at some sort of slave auctions. Do you think the migration crisis as we see today has contributed to the expansion of modern slavery?

Of course, it has. It is a very sensitive issue because all experts know that this labour trade has been here since the fall of the state, and in many sub-Saharan countries slavery still exists. Unfortunately, this is nothing new. The criminal networks are more rational, more inter-connected and they use different portfolios like multinational companies. There are reports from many African think-tanks about the overlapping of the arms trafficking, drug trafficking, human trafficking and sometimes the fighter trade. These organised groups thus form networks and are all about a business-driven thinking. If people can work for profit, they will. If not, they are useless - they can be killed or sold as mercenaries to militias in Libya, or self-donors, organ donors for the black market... What is really shocking about the CNN report is the prize of the slaves, about 400 dollars, and according to other reports, people are also able to buy small children for approximately 20 dollars. This is even more devastating.

Viktor Marsai, a senior researcher at the Budapest-based Migration Research Institute. His main research areas focus on the migration trends of the African continent and the security aspects of migration.


About author: Tomáš Hošek


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