Tuesday 15 November 2011

The only way to reduce immigration is to wreck the economy

There is increasing evidence that migration from Mexico to the United States is declining fast, and that, in fact, quite some migrants are returning. Politicians are usually quick to claim that such decreases are the result of border controls, the erection of fences and walls, and tough immigration rules. Yet the real cause of such decline is the protracted economic crisis in the US and soaring unemployment, which has particularly hit the construction sector, where many migrants tend to find employment.

This shows once again that immigration is primarily driven by economic conditions. Fluctuations in both legal and illegal immigration are closely associated to the business cycle in receiving countries. If the demand for migrant labour does not meet supply in the form of regular migration channels, migration will not stop, but migrants will come illegally. Only sustained economic recessions tend to significantly curb immigration.

To put it differently, the only way to really reduce immigration is to wreck the economy.

But the recent decline in Mexican immigration cannot be solely explained by the economic crisis in the US. Another important factors include shrinking families and expanded opportunities in Mexico, explaining why more and more young people prefer to stay at home instead of migrating to the crisis-ridden and increasingly immigrant-hostile United States. Mexico itself is also becoming a migration destination for poorer Latin American countries,

A similar, and probably even more convincing story can be told about Turkey. In recent years, migration from Turkey to the European Union has rapidly decreased. This is only partly related to declining opportunities in the European Union, as this decline already started before the onset of the economic crisis.

The main reason for this change has been extraordinary high growth Turkey has witnessed over the past decade following fundamental political and economic reforms. Why bother going abroad, if your own country offers so many new opportunities? This has made Turkey into a new migration destination - which means that more people migrate to Turkey than Turks move abroad. Also other emerging economies, such as Brazil and China, are attracting increasing numbers of migrants.

This shows how fast the world is changing. European and American debates on migration are still based on the self-centered notion that the whole world wants to come to the Western lands of milk and honey.

However, seen from Africa, Asia and Latin America, they increasingly appear like regions in crisis. So, people may either prefer to stay home or to simply go elsewhere. For instance, more and more sub-Saharan Africans migrate to Asia, North Africa, Turkey or even Latin America.

If and when economic growth resumes in the US and the EU, migration is likely to increase again, but with increasing global competition for migrant labour, governments and societies cannot afford the luxury to just take for granted that migrants will keep on coming - with this attitude, they may be shooting themselves in their own feet.

In many ways, in the future, the question will no longer be how to prevent migrants from coming, but how to attract them.

Although politicians and opinion makers may celebrate declining immigration, in their shortsightedness they do not see that this is in fact a sign of crisis.

Rising nations attract migrants, declining powers try to keep them out.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Africa Paradise

Imagine a world in which young Europeans try to desperately reach Africa. An interesting article in Slate Africa speculated on this scenario. It referred to the film Africa Paradise by the Beninese film maker Sylvestre Amoussou. It is a movie about a French couple which, in 2033, tries to leave a Europe plagued by unemployment and violence to enter the prosperous United Nations of Africa. However, African border guards stop them, and this is where their troubles start....

It may sounds a phantasm to most but is a future increase in European migration to Africa really that unrealistic?

In fact, it is already happening. More and more Europeans are settling in the Maghreb, West Africa and elsewhere on the continent to work, to do business or to retire. But why are they usually not seen as migrants, but as expatriates?

Why would they not be migrants? Because they are not considered as "poor" or "desperate"? (At least, this is the way Western media portray African immigrants, even though we know that most of them are neither poor nor desperate). Or because they are neither Black nor Muslim? In any case, "migrant" has increasingly become a term to describe the (undesirable) other.

This reveals the double standards Europeans apply when it comes to migration. While most Europeans find it normal that Africans and other foreigners are denied entry and live in situations of illegality, they find it equally normal that Europeans have the privilege to go and settle almost anywhere in the world. My students find it perfectly normal to spend their summer holidays in Morocco, Egypt or South Africa to discover the world and/or themselves, but often fail to realize that young Africans may have similar desires and dreams.

This is why films like Africa Paradise are important. It compels Europeans viewers to look themselves into the mirror and to imagine how it would be to be on the other side. But it also compels African viewers to consider racism and xenophobia in their own society.

The movie opens up the imagination by portraying a future in which the world looks totally different. And even if the scenario of Africa Paradise will not play out, this is an important message. Because it is very likely that the future of global migration will look fundamentally different from now.

And why would people not go to Africa?

Increasingly, Europe seems to become a continent marked by ageing, economic stagnation and social sclerosis. Particularly in southern Europe but also in Ireland, faced with mass unemployment and a general lack of perspective, young people have started to migrate again. And in the future, why would they not increasingly opt for Africa? 

While income differences between Europe and most African countries are still huge, many African economies have been growing fast and offer many social and economic opportunities for young, aspiring people. While countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa attract increasing number of migrants from within Africa, they also attract increasing number of migrants from outside. And these are not only Europeans. According to some estimates about one million Chinese already live in Africa.

Thinking about Africa as a migration paradise does not only help to correct stereotypes about Africa, but can also help Europeans to look themselves into the mirror. What if?

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.

Saturday 28 May 2011

Development leads to more migration

It is often said that the only way to reduce migration to Europe, North America and other wealthy countries is to stimulate development in poor countries.

This sounds very logical. But it is a myth. In reality, social and economic development in poor countries leads to more migration. If you don't believe it, please look at this graph:

(c) Hein de Haas
This graph (from this recent study) ranks all countries in the world according to the level of human development. This is an index used by the United Nations Development Programme to measure the level of development of countries, and is calculated on the basis of three indicators: life expectancy at birth, years of schooling and income (GNI) per head of the population. It is a rough indicator of the quality of life and living standards in countries.

I divided all countries of the world countries in five, equally large groups ranging from very low to very high levels of human development. The blue and red bars indicate the number of emigrants (citizens living abroad) and immigrants (people born abroad) as a percentage of the total population (using 2000 data). It shows a striking pattern
  • Immigration goes steadily up with the levels of development. More developed countries are more attractive. This makes sense. It also indicates that highly developed countries are inevitably high immigration societies.
  • The surprise is in the blue bars: emigration initially goes up with levels of development, and only goes down once countries move into high development categories. It indicates that if poor countries become wealthier, emigration will increase.
This comes as a surprise to many, and is often met with disbelief. However, the explanation is simple: Development increases people's capabilities and  aspirations to migrate. International migration is often a costly and risky affair. Many people in poor countries simply do not have enough money and other resources to migrate over long distances. When societies become wealthier, more people will be able to migrate. And more people will have diplomas and qualifications which will allow them to get visas.

It is therefore no coincidence that the most important emigration countries in the world, such as Mexico, Morocco, Turkey and the Philippines are not the poorest countries in the world.

But it's not only money that matters. Also education and access to modern media such as satellite television and Internet plays explain why development initially leads to more migration. If people go to school, they increase their life aspirations, become more aware of opportunities elsewhere. Together with schooling, also access to modern media lead to people aspire better opportunities and different lifestyles.

When I lived in a Moroccan oasis for my research, my young friends, who were all peasants' sons and had gone to school, simply could not imagine a future on the farm anymore. Again, this was not only related to the lack of jobs on the countryside; they found life on the countryside simply "boring". They wanted to go and live in Casablanca or Marrakesh, or to go to Europe.

These processes are universal. It reminded me of my own mother, who also could not image a life on the farm anymore in the far north of the Netherlands, and went to Amsterdam. My parents moved back to Frisia in the north when they founded a family, until it was my turn to get bored and so I moved "back" to Amsterdam at the age of 18.

It is an illusion that you can stop this. Most young people, particularly when they are educated, want to explore the world and discover new horizons. European and American students find it perfectly normal to take a "gap year" to travel around the world, but are surprised when young Africans or Asians show the same sense of adventure and want to discover the world. The tendency is to portray them as "desperate" and "poor" whereas the majority of migrants from developing countries are better off than those who are forced to stay behind.

Several studies about past migration have shown the same pattern. For instance, in the 19th century, most immigrants in the United States came from Britain and other North Sea countries, while migration from poorer, less developed countries in southern and eastern Europe, which were lagging behind in industrial development and urbanization, took off much later.

What can we conclude from this? If countries such as Morocco and Mexico will experience rapid growth and economic development, we can experience a decline in emigration from those countries and an increase in immigration. In recent decades, such 'migration transitions" have also happened with countries such as Spain, Italy, Greece, Ireland, South Korea, Taiwan; and Turkey seems in the middle of such a transition.

But development in the least developed countries, many of which are located in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, will almost inevitably lead to take-off emigration from those countries.

Therefore, future immigrants in Europe might increasingly come from sub-Saharan African instead of North African countries.

The graph and the study on which it is based also show something more fundamental: the need to see migration as an intrinsic - and therefore inevitable - part of human development rather than a problem to be solved.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Europe’s tiny refugee burden: Putting the Libyan migration crisis into perspective

Anybody believing that the Libyan crisis would create a “biblical exodus” towards Europe or the fear-mongering by Frontex and European politicians that up to 1.5 million migrants may soon arrive on European shores, should take a look at the chart below. 

And please have a look at this website – It is a beautiful collection of pictures showing the human face of the Libyan crisis and the faces of the many poor people who kept the wheels of the Libyan economy turning over the past years - Most want to go home. How dare European politicians insinuate that these people will massively "invade" Europe? 

Just some basic facts:

  • So far, only about 2,800 out of a total of 500,000 people fleeing the violence in Libya have arrived in Europe. This is less than 0.6 percent of all cross-border movements.
  • Egypt and Tunisia bear the real refugee burden – if that term is appropriate in the first place: about 88 percent of all people fleeing Libya arrive on their land borders.
  • The overwhelming majority are migrant workers from Egypt, Tunisia, sub-Saharan Africa, Bangladesh and elsewhere who want to go home – shattering the myth that the millions of foreigners in Libya would all be “transit migrants” on their way to Euro
  • The movement out of Libya is unrelated to the arrivals of some 20,000 mainly Tunisians on Lampedusa, which is part of the “normal” boat migration by mainly North African young men in search of work. 
  • A combination of favourable weather, decreased police controls and high unemployment among young Tunisian men as a consequence of the decrease in tourist arrivals parly explain the new departures from the Tunisian coast.  See also this article in the Tunisian newspaper Le Temps. 
  • This illegal boat migration has existed since the EU countries introduced visas for North Africans in the early 1990s, which interrupted seasonal and circular migration flows of Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian workers. This forced them to migrate illegally and pushed them into permanent settlement. A clear example of how immigration restrictions can have counter-productive effects.
  •  This cross-Mediterranean migration happens every year, particularly in springtime. Total numbers amount to several tens of thousands per year, or about 2 percent of the annual of 1.5 - 1.8 million non-Europeans migrating to EU countries.
  • Only routes continuously change in response to shifts in border controls in a kind of cat and mouse game. A drop in one place generally leads to an increase at other crossing points, and the other way around.
In sum: there is no indication that there is a major increase in migration from Africa to Europe in response to the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Libyan crisis, let alone that Europe would be invaded by hordes of desperate African migrants.  

·         This was a myth from the start, and the evidence only proves this. It is only sad to see the media and politicians perpetuate this “myth of invasion”.

Friday 1 April 2011

Lampedusa and the construction of a "human tsunami"

In my previous blogpost, I argued how Gaddafi, European politicians and agencies like Frontex have "invented" the illusionary threat of an imminent immigrant invasion from Africa to serve their own cynical, xenophobic political agendas.
For more insights into how Berlusconi's government creates an immigration emergency to deflect the attention away from his various scandals and domestic failures, I warmly recommend Nando Sigona's excellent blog, and his particularly his latest posts on "Lampedusa and the spectacle of the invasion".

He argues how the Berlusconi government needs a tiny island like Lampedusa, “small enough to appear overcrowded even with a few thousand people” –  this is the only way the “grand narrative of the emergency and invasion” constructed by the Italian government and happily swallowed by sensationalist mass media can be kept alive.  

Nando Sigona also rightly critizised the total lack of sensitivity for the victims of real tsunamis shown by Berlusconi when he compared the arrival of migrants and refugees from North Africa as a ‘human tsunami’.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

The 1.5 million migrants lie: How Gaddafi, Europe and Frontex invented the migration invasion

In previous posts I have tried debunk the popular myth that Europe should brace itself for a migration invasion or "Biblical exodus" following the popular uprising and violence in Libya.

The idea is that up to 1.5 million African migrants are waiting in Libya for the first occasion to migrate to Europe. This idea is based on a number of common misunderstandings about North African and Libyan migration.

The most fundamental and persistent misunderstanding is that Libya is a so-called "transit country" - or the assumption that most or all migrants in Libya would be "on their way" to Europe. This totally ignores the basic fact that over the past 40 years, Libya has been as destination country in its own right. For more information on the historical roots of trans-Saharan migratoin to Libya, I can recommend a recently published paper by French migration researchers Sylvie Bredeloup and Libya-specialist Olivier Pliez.

Like other oil states in the region, since the 1970s oil boom, sparsely populated Libya lacked the labour and skills needed to run the oil industry, expand road and urban infrastructure, construct houses, to run restaurants, clean the houses, to run farms, so on. Over the past decades, the Libyan economy has become totally dependent on migrant labour, particularly in the private sectors. Most Libyans work for the government, and many shy away from doing arduous, manual jobs.

While most migrants initially came from North African countries, from the 1990s Gaddafi started welcoming people from sub-Saharan African countries to migrate to Libya. Although reliable statistics do not exist, over a million, perhaps 1.5 sub-Saharan migrants are often believed to live in Libya, apart from many Egyptian, Tunisian, Asian and European migrant workers.

Although they were an easily exploitable, cheap workforce, they increasingly became target of racist attacks, and in 2000 dozens of sub-Saharan African migrant workers were killed during street riots. This was the beginning of a period of mounting racism, and African workers got increasingly blamed for all sorts of social ills such as crime, disease and unemployment. Gaddafi encouraged this as blaming "Black" African migrants distracted the attention from the real causes of Libya's economic decline and social discontent. 

Although the racist attacks and the deteriorating situation in Libya prompted some sub-Saharan migrants to move to other Maghreb countries or to Europe, the large majority came to Libya to work. As European, Egyptian, Tunisian and Asian migrant workers in Libya, various press reports confirm that the large majority wants to go home. The real tragedy is that many sub-Saharan African are stuck in Libya, and fear violence by pro- and anti-Gaddafi groups, also because they risk to be mistaken as supposed "black mercenaries".

About 400,000 migrant workers and Libyans have left Libya so far over the Egyptian-Libyan and Tunisian-Libyan land borders, and nearly all are returning home. This has nothing to do with the thousands of Tunisians arriving at the Italian island of Lampedusa, who are mainly would-be migrant workers and part of the yearly springtime increase in cross-Mediterranean migration. 

According to media sources, less than 1000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Malta and Lampedusa from Libya so far. More may surely follow the longer the conflict persists, but this has nothing to do with a biblical exodus.

"How come" that many belief that all these supposedly 1.5 million migrants are on their way to Europe, and are now waiting for the first occasion to jump on the boat to Europe?

There is evidence that this is not "just" a misunderstanding, but a lie consciously brought into the world by Gaddafi, Italian and other European governments as well as Frontex, the EU border agency. They all have a political and financial interest in creating panic and fear about a looming immigrant invasion. Rebranding the 1.5 million resident migrant workers in Libya as "transit migrants" was the perfect recipe. 

For populist politicians in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, fearmongering about an impending African immigration invasion was a successful electoral strategy to rally people behind a common cause and to blame migrants. It also gave EU politicians the perfect excuse to lift the arms embargo on Libya in 2004, with the excuse that Libya needed those arms to "fight illegal migration". This opened the door for the Italian, French, British and German arms industry to sell weapons to Gaddafi that he is now deploying against his own citizens.  

In many ways, a problem of the looming African invasion was "invented"so that we had an excuse to "combat" what was basically an invented problem - and so the "combating" will always be a success. Eager as Gaddafi was in those days to regain international respectability, he was also happy to cynically exploit the "myth of invasion" by signing migration deals with European countries. Gaddafi's migration pact with Berlusconi also resulted in Libya taking back sub-Saharan migrants from Italy and deporting  them over Libyan territory to their origin countries, where several of them faced persecution. This was a clear breach of refugees rights, but few European politicians really cared.

As early as June 2003 (!), the Italian interior minister claimed that 1.5 to 2 millions of Africans would be waiting in Libya to illegally cross to Europe. In the wake of the Libyan crisis, similar insinuations have been made by Italian ministers Frattini and Moroni ("Biblical Exodus") as well as French, Dutch, Swiss, and other European politicians. Italian interior minister Moroni warned of a "biblical exodus"and "an invasion of one million, 1.5 million that would bring any country to its knees."

The invasion imaging fits perfectly into the strategy of a new generation of European politicians who, since the end of the Cold War, have defined immigration as the central problem of our time. They also skillfully amalgamate fear of immigration and Islam. Populist politicians who aim to links most social and economic problems to “mass immigration” have therefore an interest in a strong magnification of the actual migration phenomenon. It is also an apt means to distract attention from domestic problems.

Politicians are aided by sensationalist media which copy politicians discourses and interpret the sight of each fishing boat overloaded with migrants as a harbinger of the looming African exodus. All this together creates the image of a threat, the "black danger”, or even "a potential tsunami of up to 1.5 million migrants and refugees". This has been a consistent pattern over the past decades: every arrival of migrant boats are consistently interpreted as the harbingers of a migration exodus that will crash upon the shores of Europe.
But what about Frontex, Europe's border agency? Also Frontex joint the chorus of liars by recently stating that "as many as 1.5 million migrants are ready to risk anything to set foot on European soil". According to another press report, Frontex stated that between 750,000 and 1.5 million would-be economic migrants from Africa would be "holed up" in Libya.
Why would they be lying? 

Frontex is supposed to guard Europe's lengthy external borders. The effectiveness of its actions can be seriously questioned in view of the near-impossibility to guard several 10,000s kilometers of Mediterranean coastline. 

The main effect of increasing border controls has been a diversion of migration flows to other sea crossing points - a cat-and-mouse-game with no end.

The budget of Frontex has literally exploded from 6.2 million Euro in 2005 to no less than 87.9 million Euro in 2010 - an astonishing fourteen-fold (!) increase in just 6 years.

Obviously, it is also in their interest to represent migration asa danger in order to make themselves more relevant. Creating a "state of emergency" is an effective way to divert the attention away from a more rational debate about the efficiency of their actions and the monstrous dimensions of their budget.

So, the 1.5 million lie serves them well, too.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Will Gaddafi be able to unleash a migration invasion?

In the wake of the unexpected UN Security Council resolution and subsequent attacks by French, British and US forces against Libyan military goals, Gaddafi has today announced that he stops cooperation with the EU in stemming illegal migration from Libya. In the past few weeks, Gaddafi has already repeatedly threatened to open the migration floodgates if European governments would keep on supporting protesters against his regime.
But how realistic is it that Gaddafi could unleash a migration invasion to Europe? Although the crisis and falling away of controls might well lead to a certain increase in migration, it seems a delusion that Gaddafi can unleash a massive wave of migrants.
Gaddafi has consistently used the mass migration threat as a tool to blackmail his European negotiation partners. Besides oil, the migration issue was one of the main negotiations chips he used to forge partnerships with EU countries, and Italy in particular, to regain international respectability over the past decade.
It therefore served him well that there occurred a certain increase in illegal boat migration from North African and, increasingly, sub-Saharan migrants from the Libyan coast to Italy and Malta in the early 2000s. This increase was mainly the result of increasing controls on other parts of the Mediterranean coast (such as the Strait of Gibraltar) and was part of the usual cat-and-mouse-game between border controls on the hand and migrants and smugglers on the other. It was also a partial reaction to an increase in racist violence in Libya against sub-Saharan migrant workers.
However, it is important to remind that this regular cross-Mediterranean boat migration has never exceeded several tens of thousands per years, or about 2 percent of total EU immigration, even if it disproportionally affects particular islands and countries like Lampedusa in Italy and Malta. This illegal boat migration has been taking place since the early nineties, when most European countries introduced visa requirements for North Africans which stopped seasonal and largely circular migration and forced them to migrate illegally. In recent years, more sub-Saharan African workers have joined these flows.

However, in terms of numbers, this migration nothing to do with an invasion or a “biblical exodus” recently presaged by Italian interior minister Moroni.
Both Gaddafi and European and, particularly, Italian governments have had an interest in casting illegal migration across the Mediterranean as an existential threat to Europe by hugely exaggerating the true scale of this migration.
This allowed them to position themselves as important "frontline" countries in countering the perceived migration siege of "Fortress Europe". The consistent use of belligerent terms such as “fighting illegal migration” by governments and migration agencies like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Frontex, the EU’s border agency, are less innocent than they seem, as they have served to cast migration as a threat.

Politicians and migration agencies have an interest in migration being "problematised". The more migration is seen as a threat, the bigger the financial and electoral support for governments and agencies which are seen as capable of stopping migrants from coming or sending them back.
And this is what has exactly happened over the past few years. In 2004, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Gaddafi signed a pact to curb irregular migration to Italy, with Libya agreeing to deport sub-Saharan migrants over Libyan territory to their origin countries. Refugees have been deported back to countries like Eritrea and Sudan where they faced persecution, which was a clear violation of human rights and refugee law.  Italy has also drawn criticism for handing over to Libya migrants it intercepts at sea, without screening first whether they might seek asylum.
Ironically, it served Italy well that Gaddafi was a systematic human rights violator. This made him the perfect partner to prevent migrants from leaving and to deport migrants or imprison them in desert camps under inhumane conditions. After all, police states are better able to control migration exactly because they violate basic human rights. This is another dimension of the problematic and perverse nature of “dealing with dictators”.
From the European side, fear-mongering about a looming migration invasion seems part of a deliberate, electoral strategy.  The invasion imaging fits perfectly into the strategy of a new generation of European politicians who, since the end of the Cold War, have defined (mass) immigration as the central problem of our time. They also skillfully amalgamate fear of immigration and Islam. Populist politicians who link most social and economic problems to “mass immigration” have therefore an interest in a strong magnification of the actual migration phenomenon.
In their efforts, such politicians are aided by sensationalist media, who unfortunately tend interpret the sight of each fishing boat overloaded with migrants as a harbinger of the coming African exodus. All this together creates the image of a threat, the "black danger”, or even literally an “immigration tsunami.
This casting migration as a “threat”, a tidal wave (that only Libya and Italy) can stem – is deeply problematic. First, it dehumanizes migrants and refugees and undermines the protection they deserve. Second, it exaggerates the de facto limited scale of trans-Mediterranean boat migration. Third, it ignores that this migration is largely driven by demand for cheap migrant labour in Europe.
Fourth, it is based on the false assumption that all sub-Saharan migrants in North Africa are in transit to Europe and waiting for the first occasion to jump on the boat. For instance, Frontex recently stated that as many as 1.5 million migrants are ready to risk anything to set foot on European soil (watch this video). Over the past decade, Gaddafi and European politicians have repeatedly used this apocalyptic imagery to raise alarm on migration. Gaddafi did not shy away from outright mass migration blackmailing. On a visit to Italy in August 2010, Gaddafi said that the EU should pay Libya at least 5bn euros a year to stop illegal African immigration and avoid a “black Europe”.
This is pure misleading manipulation, as it totally ignores that, first and foremost, Libya is an immigration country in its own right. Most migrants have come there to work. Many of them are from sub-Saharan countries. This was proven by the large majority of the over 300,000 migrants who have crossed the Libyan-Egyptian and Libyan-Tunisian borders want to go home. The hundreds of thousands (perhaps more than a million) of migrants still staying in Libya either do not wish to go back or are impoverished sub-Saharan migrants that lack the means to go back or fear to become the victim of racist attacks as they risk to be mistaken as “mercenaries”.
Most observers and the media think that most African migrants use Libya as a transit country on their way to Europe. Gaddafi has shrewdly exploited this fear of an African invasion to position himself as a partner in the so-called ‘fight against illegal immigration’ – which has earned him billions of dollars in bilateral deals. But it has little to do with reality. It is difficult to predict what will happen in the coming weeks and months, and much will obviously depend on the continuation and severity of violence affecting Libya. But one thing seems sure: It is a delusion that most African migrants in Libya would be willing or have the means to massively jump on fishing boats to Europe. Most are trying to get home, and the real drama is that many are trapped in the conflict and cannot get away.
Surely, the falling away of controls is likely to lead to an increase of cross-Mediterranean migration of North Africans as well as sub-Saharans. And there may also be an increasing number of Libyans amongst these migrants and refugees. There have also been allegations that Gaddafi is planning to willingly launch boats loaded with African migrants from the Libyan coast to substantiate his recent threats. This would be a grave violation of human rights he would probably not shy away from if he is still able to put this idea in practice.
There is reason to believe that, if the Libyan conflict persists, this may increasingly become a migration of refugees rather than of potential workers. The longer the violence continues, the greater the risks of a real refugee crisis, including the necessity that an increasing number of Libyans and migrant workers trapped in Libya will seek protection and asylum in Europe. Over the pas week, there has indeed been a striking increase in the number of Libyans fleeing the country.
However, this has nothing to do with a “biblical exodus” or an immigrant invasion. In that sense, Gaddafi’s threats are largely void. The idea that Gaddafi alone can swamp Europe with African migrants is a delusion, illustrating his megalomaniac character rather than anything else.
The “myth of invasion” has been willingly created by Gaddafi and European politicians to serve their own geo-political, electoral and financial interests. This has only reinforced the idea that (African and Muslim) migrants are an existential threat to European societies. This undermines the support for the protection of rights of migrants and refugees, as has already happened under the European migration deals with Gaddafi. Politicians, media and migration agencies have a moral duty to stop fear mongering about an impending migration invasion and to base their statements on evidence rather than unfounded fears.
For European politicians, the embarrassing “Gaddafi experience” will hopefully stop them to forge perverse migration deals with human rights violating dictators.

Some background readings

Paoletti, Emanuela  and Ferruccio Pastore (2011) Sharing the dirty job on the southern front? Italian–Libyan relations on migration and their impact on the European Union. Working Paper, International Migration Institute (IMI), University of Oxford.
Bredeloup, Sylvie and Olivier Pliez (2011) The Libyan Migration Corridor. Florence, European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.
de Haas, Hein (2006) Trans-Saharan Migration to North Africa and the EU: Historical Roots and Current Trends. Migration Information Source, November 2006.  
de Haas, Hein (2008) The myth of invasion: The inconvenient realities of migration from Africa to the European Union. Third World Quarterly, 29 (7): 1305-1322

Monday 7 March 2011

The real refugee crisis: African migrants trapped in Libya

Where are the hundreds of thousands of refugees that were predicted to arrive on European shores as a result of the Libyan revolt? They have not come. Most migrants simply want to go home.
While most attention is given to the situation of the migrants fleeing Libya’s land borders, the real migration crisis is unfolding within Libya. Hundreds of thousands of migrants are believed to be trapped and face potentially life-threatening danger.
Let’s remind ourselves that just a week ago the media were abuzz with predictions of a “biblical exodus” towards Europe. Italian and other European politicians stated that Europe should brace itself for the mass arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees on European shores.
As usual, developments on the ground have proven the doomsayers wrong. The large majority of migrants fleeing the violence in Libya are returning to Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, the Philippines, China, Bangladesh and various European and African countries.
There have been some boats carrying some 6,000 migrants arriving on the Italian island of Lampedusa, but what few realise is that this is part of the ‘normal’ springtime boat migration of prospective migrant workers from the Tunisian coast. This should not be confused with the much more large-scale overland cross-border movement of migrants out of Libya who wish to return home. 
The whole idea of an “immigrant invasion” was flawed from the start. It was based on the misunderstanding that most migrants in Libya are in transit to Europe, while it was already widely known that most migrants had come to Libya to work, and now want to return home.
Although apocalyptic headlines about an upcoming immigrant invasion guarantee massive media attention and might serve domestic political goals, such fearmongering unfortunately diverts the attention away from the much-needed protection of migrants and refugees within North Africa.
Thanks to the efforts by the Tunisian government, local volunteers and agencies like the UNHCR and IOM, and through support by the international community, over the past week increasing efforts have been undertaken to assist migrants arriving at Libya’s borders.
However, those who make it to the border seem to be fortunate compared with those who are stuck in Libya. Of the approximately 2 to 2.5 million migrants allegedly living in Libya (reliable figures are lacking), only 200,000 or so have left.  Hundreds of thousands, perhaps over a million, mainly African migrants remain trapped in Libya.
Although there is still a lack of verifiable information, an increasing number of reports suggest that African migrants inside Libya have fallen victim to violence, robbery, imprisonment and, allegedly, murder. Although migrants of many origins have fallen victim to violence and abuse, sub-Saharan migrants run much higher risks. 
First of all, sub-Saharan Africans are among the poorest migrants in Libya. The long journey back home involves significant costs and risks of crossing the Sahara desert.  What makes them particularly vulnerable is that they run the risk of violent attacks by angry mobs because they are erroneously perceived as “African mercenaries” hired by Gaddafi. There is also evidence of violence and theft by Gaddafi loyalists and border guards.
So, sub-Saharan migrants have now become a potential target of violence from either side of the conflict. This is part of an established pattern of racist violence and discrimination against sub-Saharan migrants in Libya since they started arriving in increasingly large numbers since the 1990s. However, in the current situation of total lawlessness and violent conflict, these risks are higher than ever.
Many are not able to go home, because they lack the money and because they fear violence if they go out on the streets. At the same time, their governments are either not able or perhaps not interested in helping them.
UNHCR sources have confirmed that very few of the African workers in Libya have shown up at the borders. African workers trapped in Libya are the most vulnerable of the foreigners trying to flee the country. Over last weekend, the flow of people crossing into Tunisia dwindled to a trickle due to a massive police and military presence on the Libyan side of the border.
Although there is a lack of reliable statistics, one thing seems certain: large numbers of sub-Saharan migrants are trapped in Libya and they are extremely vulnerable to arbitrary violence.  Nobody knows exactly what is happening  inside Gaddafi-controlled territory. But knowing how youngsters from neighbouring countries such as Chad have apparently been recruited as ‘mercenaries’  through deceit and force, there is also a potential risk of forced conscription of sub-Saharan migrants for pro-Gaddafi militia.
It is impossible to predict what will happen exactly, and much depends on the future course of the conflict, but the lives of thousands of sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya are clearly at risk. The paradox is that those who came to Libya as migrant workers have now become refugees because they cannot leave their so-called “host” country.
The Gaddafi regime should be clearly held accountable for the tragedy unfolding in Libya. However, the international community in general and European governments in particular have a moral obligation to do everything in their power to end this conflict and to assist Libyan civilians and migrants in distress, instead of creating unjustified and opportunistic panic around a delusionary myth of invasion.
The longer the international community tolerates the systematic use of violence against Libyan civilians and the longer it neglects the plight of migrants in Libya, the larger the risks that a huge refugee crisis will emerge.

Friday 25 February 2011

Speculations on a ‘biblical exodus’ from Libya are wrong and dangerous

In the face of continuing violence in Libya, it is striking to see how the attention of some European governments is already shifting from the unprecedented suffering of people in Libya to selfish panic about immigration issues. This panic has particularly revolved around predictions that massive numbers of migrants and asylum seekers will start moving from Libya to Italy in the wake of the collapse of the Gaddafi regime.
The Italian government even warned of a ‘biblical exodus’ to Europe.  The media have also started to use such apocalyptic images. However, there are many reasons to believe that such predictions are wrong as they vastly exaggerate the true, much more limited scale of migration. They are also dangerous because unrealistic fears of mass immigration may fuel racism and effectively undermine refugee protection. 
Over the past decade or so, European politicians have become increasingly obsessed by immigration questions in an attempt to respond to mounting racism and popular anti-immigration feelings. They have also actively played into and further reinforced such fears by employing rhetoric which portrays immigration as an external threat to security, the sovereignty of the state and social cohesion and cultural integrity.  
Politicians desire to give an impression of controlling immigration by using tough and belligerent language such as the need to ‘fight’ and ‘combat’ illegal migration.  Yet this obscures the fact that European governments have little genuine economic interest in stopping migration. The anti-immigration rhetoric about immigration fears also conceals the fact that African migration to Europe is fuelled by a structural demand for cheap migrant labour and that democratic states have limited means to effectively stop migration as long as this demand persists.
So, the main issue for politicians is to give the appearance to their constituencies that they are fully in control of borders and are successfully fulfilling their ‘security imperative’.  This manipulation of the migration issues reveals a well-tried pattern of politicians who willingly reinforce or invent external threats to create a common cause. As already argued by Nando Sigona for the case of the recent arrivals of Tunisians on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the creation of ‘emergency discourses’ on migration can be a highly effective means for politicians to divert attention away from domestic political problems, as in the case of Berlusconi’s scandals.
Not only politicians, but also the media play an important role in creating apocalyptic images about African-European migration. Media outlets are often eager to use sensational terms to maintain momentum and galvanize people’s emotions. To some, this may perhaps sound quite extreme. Yet, at the risk of generalization, this is what is clearly happening in the mainstream coverage of Libya. The lack of verifiable information is not helping, either. Journalists and commentators are relying on scattered and often unreliable information.
So, in the midst of this ‘controlled’ information maelstrom, wild and totally unfounded speculations by politicians about hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers about to migrate to Europe can easily become self-referring and presented as ‘facts’. This is not only inaccurate, but is also harmful, as speculations about ‘massive immigration’ serve to portray immigration and immigrants as a threat.
While it has been amply documented that there are between 1.5 and 2 million regular and irregular migrants in Libya, and while we may expect certain increases in emigration from Libya as a response to instability and violence, it seems rather absurd to assume that the large majority of immigrants currently living in Libya would collectively migrate to Europe.
Politicians, journalists and researchers should therefore refrain from manipulating people’s fears by projecting images of millions of people arriving on European shores, because there is simply no evidence, and because it is dangerous. To start with, it ignores what is happening on the ground and the true scale of migrant and refugee flows. Since the onset of the Libyan revolt, significant numbers of migrant workers are fleeing out of Libya. It has been estimated that over the last few days over  5,000 people have arrived at the Tunisian border and some 15,000 at the Egyptian border. Other migrants have moved south, towards Niger. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the total number of arrivals in Egypt, Tunisia and Niger so far would be about 40,000 to 50,000. These are significant numbers, but they also do not have the proportions of a ‘biblical exodus’, and they certainly question the prevailing, and false, wisdom according to which most people in Libya would move to Europe.
So far, the unanticipated political turmoil across North Africa has had significant but certainly not alarmist impact on migration within the region and across the Mediterranean.  A few weeks ago, boats carrying a few thousand Tunisians arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in the wake of the fall of the Ben Ali regime. The Italian government was swift to declare this a national emergency issue, whereas the total numbers were actually tiny in comparison to overall regular and irregular immigration to Italy. This shows how politicians often blow the scale of migration out of proportion, and that they would do so on purpose.
More in general, ideas of a looming ‘invasion’ to Europe of a large number of African migrants have long proven to be entirely fictitious. It is of course impossible to predict the exact impact of the current – let alone future – turmoil on regional migration flows. However, based on experiences with previous crises we can get some sense of the possible scale and direction of migration. While refugee flows can be rather big,  most refugees tend to migrate within regions. Even in the worst case scenario of a full-scale humanitarian crisis and protracted conflict, we cannot just assume that all migrants currently in Libya would simply turn up in Europe, because most migrants will prefer to go their home countries and many of those who would wish to go to Europe will not have the resources to do so.
The unwarranted portrayal of future African–European migration as an emergency issue is particularly dangerous because it diverts the attention away from more important and urgent issues. This particularly applies to the precarious position of people – Libyans and migrants – inside Libya. First, there is evidence that African migrants and asylum seekers in Libya have been the target of racist violence because some citizens of sub-Saharan African countries they have been suspected of being mercenaries. In fact videos suggest that alleged mercenaries have been captured and lynched by Libyan protestors. Somalis in Tripoli, for example, have been hunted and are frightened to go out. According to the Italian representative for the UNHCR, Libya is witnessing a ‘hunt for the African foreigner. Second, most refugee movements are concentrated within the North African and Sahelian region. Instead of inventing a false immigration threat to European security and losing time and energy in European conflicts about ‘burden sharing’, the priority should be protecting the lives of migrants and refugees in Libya and North Africa as well as Libyans themselves under threat by the regime.
Politicians and the media should therefore refrain from fomenting alarmist feelings about a ‘biblical exodus’ based on latent racist fears rather than a real understanding of what is going on on the ground. At the same time, the international community should take a more forceful and proactive stance towards the state terror and violence occurring in Libya. As Lisa Anderson recently argued, this crisis may be a good test of the United Nations and the international community to discharge its ‘responsibility to protect’ citizens from predatory governments.  Such a truly humanitarian approach requires that we eschew uninformed, Eurocentric and highly deceptive portrayals of African people, and migrants in general, as the frightening ‘other’ who are about to invade Europe.

Monday 21 February 2011

African migrants become easy target for racist violence in Libya

Who cares about African migrants in Libya? Now that Gaddafi is killing and bombing his own people, Western countries and companies are trying to get their citizens out of Libya. Also Egypt and Turkey are facilitating the return of the thousands of migrants living in Libya by chartering flights and opening land borders. Look here for a report from Al Jazeera about returning Egyptians.
But why is nobody concerned about the plight of sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya? As victims of racism and ruthless exploitation, they are Libya’s most vulnerable immigrant population, and their home country governments do not give them any support.
Since the news had surfaced that Gaddafi has allegedly hired ‘black’ mercenaries to kill people, their situation has become outright dangerous. There is a huge danger that there will soon be a day of reckoning for African migrants, and the arbitrary violence has possibly started already (see this video for instance).
As one commentator mentioned "Where is the proof that this people are mercenaries and not just normal Black people?" Are Black Libyans or Black immigrants in Libya safe from wrong accusations? The answer is "no". Sadly, innocent African migrants living in Libya have become an easy target for angry mobs.
That scapegoating migrants is also part of official strategies became clear during Sunday’s speech by Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al Islam, on national Libyan television. As is common for threatened dictators, Saif’s speech was full of conspiracy theory – blaming usual suspects such as imperialists, the BBC and Al Jazeera (!) – but also immigrants. He mentioned that he and his daddy will fight until the last bullet. An ominous sign, showing how mad Gaddafi is – and that he might not refrain from further mass killings to take revenge on the people who have dared to challenge his rule – ‘After me, the deluge’.
What makes the situation particularly dangerous are Gaddafi’s insinuations that foreigners are to blame for the violence and mass killings. This put the tens or hundreds of thousands of Egyptian and sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya at great risk.
Most people as well as the media seem to think that most African migrants use Libya as a transit country on their way to Europe. Gaddafi has shrewdly exploited largely unfounded European fears of an African invasion to position himself as a partner in the so-called ‘fight against illegal immigration’ – which has earned him billions of dollars in bilateral deals, and helped him to regain respectability.
Gaddafi has repeatedly threatened to open the migration floodgates if he does not get more support, and a few days ago he also warned European governments that they will be flooded with migrants if they keep on supporting protesters. European governments seem to be afraid of the immigration consequences of North African instability, and this is also one of the factors that seems to have driven their staunch support for North African despots over the past decades.
In fact, politicians and the media hugely exaggerate the scale of illegal migration from Africa to Europe. According to the best available estimates, only a few tens of thousands of migrants cross the Mediterranean illegally by boat each year, representing only 1 to 2 percent of total immigration to Europe.
Leaving aside the fact that fear of an African ‘invasion’ is entirely unfounded, what Gaddafi has been much more keen to hide is that Libya is an important migration destination in its own right, and that his guestworker policies are the main explanation behind a massive increase in the number of African workers in Libya. Most African migrants have come from countries such as Niger, Chad and elsewhere in West Africa to work as low-paid labourers in the oil industry, construction, agriculture and service sectors. African workers tend to do the most dangerous and dirty jobs.
Not many people know that most African migrants do not use Libya as a passage to Europe, but that they have come to Libya as part of Gaddafi’s guestworker schemes or as illegal labour migrants. According to several estimates, Libya hosts 2 to 2.5 million immigrants, representing 25 to 30 percent of its total population. This includes about half a million Egyptians; several tens of thousands of Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians; and 1 to 1.5 million sub-Saharan Africans (for further information see ‘The Myth of Invasion’).
Since the 1990s, Gaddafi has actively stimulated immigration from sub-Saharan countries such as Chad and Niger as part of his ‘pan-African’ policies. These immigrants from extremely poor countries were easier to exploit than Arab workers. From 2000 onwards, violent clashes between Libyans and African workers led to the street killings of dozens of sub-Saharan migrants, who were routinely blamed for rising crime, disease and social tensions.
In an apparent attempt to respond to growing domestic racism, the Libyan regime hardened its policies towards African immigrants. Measures included lengthy and arbitrary detention of immigrants in poor conditions in prisons and camps, physical abuse, and the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of immigrants. Gaddafi has been happy to conclude agreements with Italy and other European states to violently crack down on immigration in exchange for lucrative trade and arms deals. This has led to blatant violation of international refugee law. In many ways, it has served European countries well that Libya has not signed the Geneva refugee convention and is not concerned about human rights at all.
Of course this repression has not stopped migration, but mainly facilitated exploitation of African migrants in Libya, whose position became even more vulnerable. While the Gaddafi regime has tried to put the blame on immigrants for all sorts of social problems, their cheap labour force has served Libya very well economically. 
According to several sources, Gaddafi has now hired thousands of mercenaries from Chad and other poor sub-Saharan countries to do the actual killings. This is a truly diabolic move – as the Gaddafi clan now tries to blame the killings on the ‘foreign element’ who were hired by him in the first place. This might fuel racist violence and further destabilisation of the country.
It is not clear to what extent these mercenaries have been recruited among migrants or directly in the origin countries. However, irrespective of their background, the apparent presence of black African mercenaries has certainly only fuelled already present racist feelings towards African immigrants.
African immigrants are now linked to state-orchestrated violence and mass killings, and we may therefore fear the worst about the violent backlash that may follow particularly after Gaddafi is ousted – they will be an easy target for mass lynching that may follow. And in the unlikely case Gaddafi manages to cling on to power, African migrants are equally likely to be scapegoated and massacred.
Let’s hope that Gaddafi’s devilish tactics to put the blame on foreigners and immigrants won’t work – and that Libyans will hold Gaddafi entirely responsible for these mass killings. However, there is a huge danger that the violence might increasingly turn against the hundreds of thousands of innocent and hard-working African immigrants living in Libya.
European governments, which have been so keen to support Gaddafi and have turned a blind eye to the massive human rights abuses in return for economic benefits, have no right to abuse unjustified fears concerning an immigrant invasion - which are fueled by their own anti-immigrant rhetoric - to deny refugees inside and from Libya their rights to protection from violence and death.