Humanity’s oldest migration route leads through the deserts of Africa, along the Nile to the north, across the Sinai Peninsula to the Middle East and Turkey, then on via the Balkans to Central Europe. A few thousand Africans traveled to Europe on this route during the momentous 2015 summer of migration. Among the Syrians and Afghans who marched across the Balkans at that time, Africans were just a small minority.

Today this historic route is closed. Israel had already built a fence along the border with Egypt. After the 2016 refugee deal with the EU, Turkey closed its southern border with Syria. Earlier, Spain sealed off its two North African exclaves Ceuta and Melilla with razor wire. The two neighboring continents of Africa and Europe are now artificially separated.

Europeans are sending Africans the message: ‘You cannot get in here.’ If you try, you could die. And if you do arrive, you must live in misery. The fate that awaits you here are camps like those on the Greek islands.

To make sure that the ‘KEEP OUT’ message reaches Africans, EU states hire ambassadors like Hervé Tcheumeleu, a Cameroonian based in Germany. He receives $50,000 from the German Foreign Office to tour schoolyards in Cameroon and make young girls say sentences like ‘Illegal emigration is not good,’ and then ask for ‘Applause for this clever girl!’ His audience is supposed to believe what he says: ‘Anyone who travels without the necessary papers has no rights. And this has nothing to do with racism. That’s just the way it is.’[1]

The EU has spent billions buying African leaders as gatekeepers, including dictators and suspected war criminals. European border guards train their African counterparts to stop migrants and refugees. At the EU’s request, key transit states have passed laws against people smugglers.

The smuggling rings often bring together gangsters and corrupt state employees, who also get money from the EU to stop smuggling. So they earn double.

Migrants and refugees, on the other hand, are criminalized. Irregular border crossings are punishable offenses. People who try are hunted by well-equipped border guards in the desert, arrested, put in camps or prisons, or sent back to their state or some other country; ‘encouraged,’ voluntary – or not. And that is still the good side of the story.

The other side is murderous: thousands of people from Africa perish in this new world of fences and mobile border troops; dehydrated in the desert, drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, force-recruited by Islamist militias, enslaved, tortured, beheaded or bled to death in the razor wire.

The death toll is rising. At least 12,046 people drowned off Libya between January 2015 and February 2019 alone.[2] Some African civil wars are less deadly. However, the EU is pleased with the sinking number of arrivals: registered unauthorized border crossings fell from 204,000 to 151,000 in 2018.[3] This was 27 percent less than in the previous year and a decline for the third year in succession. ‘Regarding irregular arrivals, we’re not facing a burning crisis right now,’[4] said Frontex Director Fabrice Leggeri at the presentation of his latest risk analysis in Brussels in February 2019.

A growing number of African heads of state are publicly criticizing the EU for letting people die at its gates. Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta addressed Merkel at the G20 Africa Partnership Summit in Berlin in June 2017: ‘Every time a young African dies in the Mediterranean, we get sick – honestly, Madam Chancellor.’[5] A year later, the EU-Africa summit in Abidjan collapsed and ended with a diplomatic scandal. There was no joint final declaration. The views on migration remain too different.

Today, any person lucky enough to get from Africa to Europe must undergo a lengthy procedure to obtain asylum. Deportation is a frequent outcome: often by brute force, in handcuffs, possibly not even to the person’s country of origin. Perhaps the EU decides that a deportee is not from Sierra Leone, but from Nigeria, as in the case of Joseph Koroma. Frontex may leave deportees in a country where they know no one and no one wants them. African countries who enter such deals benefit from EU equipment and training for their security forces. From here, it is no big step towards Israel’s forced, systematic deportation of Eritreans via Rwanda to Uganda.

The EU has been negotiating with African governments since the 2015 escalation in the Balkans. Europe is trying to buy Africa’s willingness to serve European interests. By threatening to cut aid, the EU has subdued African states Niger, Sudan, Ethiopia, Senegal or Morocco – sometimes against the will of their own populations.

Negotiations often took place behind closed doors so as not to alert civil society. For example, in December 2016 Mali’s President Keïta signed a communiqué on readmissions and then denied it after protests in Bamako. Many African citizens still do not know what their governments are doing to serve the EU. This is not in line with the original aim of European development aid: to promote democracy in Africa.

The most cooperative regimes are the authoritarian or even totalitarian ones, as in Eritrea. These regimes profit most from the new EU migration policy. Europeans are now reaching out to long-isolated dictators. Like Sudan’s alleged war criminal General Hametti, they play Europe’s accomplice and then make demands on Berlin and Brussels, blackmail the EU or, like Eritrea’s dictator Isaias Afewerki, fool it with empty promises. European aid allows them to expand their power, supported by a security apparatus now professionalized with European programs.

Some other states, such as Niger, are too poor to turn down a cash injection from Brussels. Some, like the state of Cape Verde, which was the first to sign many EU agreements, are too small to refuse the EU anything. Others, like Africa’s most populous country Nigeria, are big enough that the EU has to make them large offers. By focusing on selected transit states north of the equator, European diplomats have managed to divide Africans who were striving for common positions in the African Union (AU) or in regional associations, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the East African Community (EAC).

Migration is something fundamentally human. A primary instinct once caused the earliest people to migrate north along the Nile, leaving the continent via the Sinai. There are many reasons to go elsewhere: Natural disasters, hunger, finding better arable land, work, happiness, or sometimes just curiosity or wanderlust. In African societies, people who have seen much of the world are considered wise. When they return to their village they are treated like heroes: neighbors and relatives come to hear stories of the wider world.

Earlier communities in Europe were also like this, in the days before package vacations. Traveling, let alone emigrating, was costly and terribly risky. Only in recent decades have cheap airlines and mass tourism enabled Europeans to lie around tanning half-naked by the millions on Mediterranean beaches, while thousands are drowning in the same sea.

In autumn 2015, at the peak of the Balkan crisis, the image of a drowned Syrian child on a Turkish beach horrified the European media. ‘The fall of Europe,’ wrote the Spanish newspaper El Periódico. The photo triggered compassion and benevolence. The picture also influenced how people in many European cities responded to Merkel’s saying, ‘We can do it,’ as they volunteered to help the arriving refugees. The image created solidarity, something Europe is missing right now.

The EU pushes for readmission agreements with African governments to get rid of Africans already in Europe. This is a job for Frontex, which ensures cheaper mass deportations of migrants from across the EU. Increasingly stricter laws and a pool of specially trained experts will support the border control agency.

Hardly any pictures exist of the African tragedy in the Nigerien desert. People there die unobserved by cameras. Only Frontex is watching on its flat-screen monitors. It collects information with satellites and drones to combat smugglers and human traffickers. But the more roads Europe blocks, the more modern slave traders earn. If there were more legal ways into the EU, smugglers would lose their business, which also funds terrorism.

Diplomat Vincent Cochetel is the Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean Situation at the UN refugee aid agency UNHCR. As an observer, he has witnessed many negotiations between the EU and African countries. His summary is grim: ‘If you just say that the problem has been solved because fewer people arrive in Italy, or because more people from Libya are returning home, then you’re wrong. The problem is still there.’ There are hardly any figures about the deaths in the Nigerien desert, but by the end of 2017, Cochetel is certain: ‘We now have many more people dying in the desert – probably even more than in the Central Mediterranean.’ He states that the EU should not ‘expect everything from Africa, without offering people other opportunities.’[6]

But that is precisely where the EU balks. Its promises of creating ‘legal ways for migration’ remain largely unfulfilled.

This failure to act conflicts with Europe’s historical responsibility towards Africa. Europe’s colonial period in Africa is not that far in the past. African grandparents still remember their countries’ often bloody struggles for independence. Their memories are generally better than European seniors’ recollections of World War II and the resulting refugee treks through Europe. A few centuries ago, Europeans dragged enslaved African onto boats and shipped them across the Atlantic to work on the plantations of a continent that the Europeans had just conquered in their migration frenzy. Millions of people were stolen from the African continent; Europe was one of the causes of the ‘underdevelopment’ it now tries to amend with expensive development aid.

Only a few centuries later, Europeans now want the Africans to stay home. They are no longer welcome to get on board, nor to explore a new world – and no jobs await them. Europe fears Africa’s fast population growth. In July 2017, Denmark’s development minister Ulla Tornaes demonstrated this when she announced her intention to chip in $14 million for birth control in Africa: ‘Part of the solution to reducing migratory pressures on Europe is to reduce the very high population growth in many African countries.’[7]

Yet, migration is the simplest way to compensate for the unequal distribution of global wealth. The enormous sums African migrant workers remit to their families show this. In Niger, remittances exceed tax revenue from the provinces; in Mali they make up a large part of the gross national product; in Eritrea they finance the state apparatus; in Nigeria remittances are nine times higher than the country’s development aid.[8]

Migration drives development in Africa. Similar to the EU, African states join to form regional economic communities. They eliminate customs tariffs, visas and work permits in order to facilitate the free movement of goods, services and labor on a regional basis. They value Africa’s strong population growth, as it increases the number of consumers and demand, which is good for the economy. Foreigners are welcome. At the beginning of 2019, the African Union presented its common African passport – biometric, of course – for visa-free travel throughout the continent. Whether this is realistic, and how the EU will handle it, remains to be seen.

So far, the EU has only managed to impose some of its migration demands on Africa. European deportation papers, called laissez-passers, are still not recognized by any African state. At the beginning of 2019, only Ethiopia has signed a readmission agreement with the EU as a whole, despite the billions spent to build political pressure on this issue. In return, African states want simpler access to EU visas for their citizens, but European governments reject migrant workers from Africa, with very few exceptions.

Anyone standing at the visa counter of the German consulate in an African capital today gets mixed messages: The bulletin board displays posters of blooming landscapes along the Moselle and Rhine rivers and advertisements to study medicine in Heidelberg or mechanical engineering in Munich, just next to warnings against smugglers and human traffickers who scam people with phony promises of work in the EU. Between these posters is an armored glass pane with a narrow gap for visa applications: the needle’s eye to a work permit for Europe.

Africans seeking visas or asylum must be ready to disclose their entire lives, financial status and wider family relations to the European authorities. Databases and biometric detection are making it easier for the EU to monitor migration. Not all African borders have computers and Internet access yet. Many demarcations between states are still not fortified and not all passports are biometric. However, the EU makes great efforts to ensure that African states record fingerprints from Cairo to Cape Town, from Dakar to Dar es Salaam and finally send them to the European authorities – using security technology provided by Europe.

These so-called intelligent borders offer rich profits for European security and defense companies and their suppliers, who formerly viewed the African market as irrelevant or too risky. Germany aims to facilitate its companies’ access to Africa and subsidizes exports while calling it ‘combating the root causes of migration’. These concepts are sold to Africans as ‘job initiatives’ for a young ‘continent of opportunity’. As German Chancellor Merkel put it during her G20 presidency at the Berlin Partnership Conference with Africa: fewer migrants from Africa also mean ‘more security for us’.[9]

Many recent EU attempts to control migration within Europe were not new in content, but in scope. Brussels has redirected billions from development aid to migration prevention. Domestic policy concerns drive these strategies. Virtually all elections in the EU today depend on the question of immigration and border control. Rising right-wing populists have successfully dictated their agenda to everyone else.

One could think the common fight against migration was bringing Europe closer together. Yet the opposite is true; the discord could not be greater. The new Common European Asylum System, which has been in planning for years, is deadlocked. This shows the EU’s profound crisis. It is not a refugee crisis, but a crisis of internal solidarity. Unable to agree on the necessary distribution of refugees, the EU is drifting further apart. The EU’s only consensus on migration is that refugees should be stopped within Africa. This lowest denominator offers a miserable image of a Union that has always claimed to want to grow closer.

In Europe, Africa is not a foreign policy issue, but a domestic one. The vast African continent, which often appears chaotic and threatening to Europeans, serves as a projection target for all their fears, as it has since colonial times. In June 2017, Development Minister Müller spoke of ‘100 million Africans’ coming to Europe.[10] That is how Europeans play up their own fear of a Black planet.

With increasing economic development, more and more people from the ‘continent of opportunity’ will be looking for work beyond their home countries. The population will continue to grow, but not as fast as currently feared. The expanding African middle class tends to have fewer children – usually only two or three, because they fit into a car. Europe experienced a similar pattern: birth rates declined with increasing industrialization and urbanization. In many African countries, where education is expensive, the middle class considers how much school tuition they can afford to ensure education for all of their children.

Meanwhile, Europe’s free trade agreements are threatening the livelihoods of African small farmers, while global warming will destroy the arable land of millions. The EU bears a great deal of responsibility for this.

The EU should work towards a rational, development-friendly joint foreign and security policy to bring the world’s conflicts under control, instead of hiring dictators as gatekeepers to its fortress.

There are reasons why people radicalize or flee. Authoritarian and corrupt regimes, some of which the EU is now courting, are partly to blame for people leaving their homes. Many are also fleeing from European weapons.

In today’s world, security, just like wealth, is distributed more unequally than ever before. Migration would be one of the easier fixes to global inequality. Europe’s fight against migration is a massive, costly effort to uphold global inequality and defend Europe’s prosperity. One African border guard commander, whose unit’s training was funded by the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), put it like this: Donating a high-tech fence to a country where people starve to death and children are chronically underfed and do not go to school is like handing a cap to a freezing naked child.[11]

This raises the risk for young Africans to join jihadists. Terrorist attacks like the one in Berlin prove only that there will always be loopholes to get to Europe.

The EU is drafting generous Marshall plans and granting loans that benefit Europe’s depositors and pension funds and draw German companies to Africa. These programs are supposed to create jobs and keep young job seekers at home. African states and regional organizations are invited to join free trade deals – played by Europe’s rules. These agreements force Africans to open their markets to European products, which destroys jobs. Then development aid comes in to recreate these jobs elsewhere. This is what happens when migration is treated as a crisis.

The EU dreams of protected borders and open markets. Africa dreams of protected markets and open borders. Until this dilemma is resolved, there will be no real partnership.

  1. Frenzel, Veronika (2019) ‘Europa hat dichtgemacht’, SZ-Magazin, issue 7/2019, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 14 February |
  2. International Organization for Migration (IOM), Missing Migrants Project (accessed 28 March 2019) |
  3. Frontex (2019) ‘Frontex publishes Risk Analysis for 2019’, Frontex news release, 20 February |
  4. Jakob, Christian (2019) ‘Flüchtlingskrise ist nicht’, tageszeitung, Berlin, 20 February |
  5. Authors’ notes from the ‘G20 Africa Partnership – investing in a common future’ conference, Berlin, 12 June 2017
  6. Interview with Vincent Cochetel, Director of the Bureau for Europe at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Geneva, 16 February 2018
  7. BBC (2017) ‘Denmark’s contraception aid to Africa “to limit migration”’, 12 July |
  8. Adegbesan, Elizabeth (2018) ‘Nigeria tops remittances to Sub-Saharan Africa with 22bn- World Bank’, Vanguard Media Nigeria, 24 April | | and OECD (2018) ‘Aid at a glance charts’ (accessed 28 March 2019)|
  9. Speech by German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G20 Africa Partnership Conference, Berlin, 12 July 2017
  10. Die Welt (2017) ‘Entwicklungsminister warnt vor riesiger Fluchtbewegung aus Afrika’, 18 June |
  11. Press briefing with border force commander in East Congo whose troops were trained by the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) border management program, Goma, 14 February 2017


Dictators as Gatekeepers for Europe Copyright © 2019 by Christoph Links Verlag GmbH. All Rights Reserved.

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