Friday 23 September 2011

The African invasion that did not happen. Why and how?

Do you remember? Back in February and March of this year, European politicians and the media were sowing fear that Europe was about to face a deluge of African migrants in response to the Arab Spring. Particularly the violence in Libya was predicted to push up to 1.5 million sub-Saharan migrant workers to migrate to Europe. Others believed Gaddafi's threats that he could unleash a migrant invasion. Images of Tunisian boat migrants arriving on Lampedusa confirmed this image of a looming migration crisis.

None of that has happened. The vast majority of people fleeing the violence in Libya has returned home or temporarily settled in neigbouring countries - such as Libyans in Tunisia. Eventually, only a few thousands turned up in Europe. Although immigration of Tunisians - which had nothing to do with this violence - somehow increased, it never came near to "biblical" proportions predicted by Italian interior minister Maroni.

The sad thing is that we knew that this mass migration was not going to happen, and me (on this blog) and other migration researchers have been arguing this several times. However, such insights have been systematically ignored by politicians and media, because it served them well to deflect the attention away from their internal problems and because apocalyptic stories about miserable and desperate Africans invading Europe draw large audiences.

These stories ignored a number of basic facts.
  • the vast majority of migrants in Libya and North Africa were not on their way to Europe but were there to work;
  • the majority therefore opted to go home instead of going to Europe;
  • the idea that Gaddafi could single-handedly unleash a "Black" migration invasion was as megalomaniac as his belief that all Libyans dearly loved the Guide of the Revolution of that he was the leader of all African; 
  • every year several tens of thousands of North Africans cross the Mediterranean illegally in search of work (which exists, by the way) ever since south European countries introduced visa requirements for North Africans;
  • numbers and routes fluctuate annually in response to job availability in Europe and which borders are best controlled, but this year's immigration from Tunisia is certainly not "unprecedented" compared to flows in previous years;
  • these numbers of "several tends of thousands" are significant but dwindle in comparison to total EU immigration of about 1.5M annually. 
Back in the sixteenth century, Nicolò Machiavelli already argued that to stay in power, rulers should create external enemy in order to sow fear, create a common cause, defect the attention away from your own failings, and rally your people behind you. In recent decades, and particularly since the fall of the Berlin wall and the "Communist threat", European politicians have effectively used the imagined threat of uncontrolled mass immigration to stay in power.

This seems to be their prime motivation to use every "migration crisis" to blow out of proportion the real magnitude of the phenomenon. It has served them very well, but with the harmful consequence that many Europeans now genuinely believe and fear that they are "under threat" by a looming migrant invasion. However, the funny thing is that such migration waves always keep on "looming" at the horizon, but never actually arrive!

What has been the European response to the Arab Spring in terms of migration policy? Shameful. After having supported North African dictators for many decades, North African citizen spontaneously started to revolt against those leaders, European governments created panic about a few thousands of migrants landing on their shores and basically turned their back. While the Tunisian government has generously assisted hundreds and hosted tens of thousands of migrants and Libyans fleeing the violence and greatly facilitated the  work by UNHCR and IOM, wealthy European countries were arguing and haggling about sharing the "burden" of a few thousands of asylum seekers and refugees.

One of the first things the Italian government did after recognizing the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Libya is to guarantee that the TNC will respect the migration agreements they concluded with ... Gaddafi! Do the realise that these agreements have sanctioned abuses against the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers, as is extensively documented by human rights organizations and researchers? If the NTC is serious about democracy and human rights, it will not be able and should actually refuse to implement those agreements. The violence and abuses sub-Saharan migrants in Libya are currently experiencing, do therefore not necessarily bod well for the democratic credentials of the current NTC government.

So, European governments continue to actively pushing North African governments to violate rights of migrants and asylum seekers. Do they realise democracy also implies attributing rights to foreigners and migrants? After all, fundamental human rights do not only extend to citizens, but to all human beings.

In North Africa, human rights organizations have been assisting migrants and refugees and have been fighting for their rights of foreigners living on North African soil as part of a broader struggle to build more equal, just and democratic societies. They deserve the support of European governments, an certainly no encouragements to their leaders to continue abusing human rights of foreigners and, ultimately, also of their own citizens.


  1. A good posting Hein, lets hope it gets some publicity. You're right to be so angry, but are you that surprised? This is completely in line with policy from European states going back over a number of years. Facts don't need to influence the new 'evidence-based policy-making' too much. So from the perspective of European politicians if you are going to lie you might as well tell a big lie and keep telling it. The Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels knew the big lie technique as "when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it" and that "if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it".

  2. Thanks for this clear analysis. And, as you've argued elsewhere, Frontex have a material interest in ramping up the "invasion" myth. I note that in September 2011 they received an extra €24 million from the EU to “manage migration and refugee flows started by events in the southern Mediterranean".

    Since I drew on your analysis in writng about the NTC Libyan Government and migration, you might want to see the finished result at

    I share your doubt about whether the NTC will
    be any less repressive towards migrants than the Gaddafi era was.

  3. Overall, I share your thoughts on migration flows from North Africa and into Europe. However, you write that a few thousand migrants have made it to Europe. The total 2011 number of migrants arriving to Lampedusa alone is so far 51.489 and 31.000 in 2008. In between IOM hasn't registered migrants from Africa due to the agreement between Libya and Italy. My point is "a few thousand" may not be as misleading as 1,5 million, but it is still an estimate far from the real picture. .


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