African migrants are not Europe’s problem alone. The AU should try to limit illegal migration and make Africa more appealing to its people
Thousands of migrants, many of them Africans, have died trying to get into Europe this year alone. News stories of drownings and shipwrecks during hazardous sea journeys on the Mediterranean have become depressingly familiar.
What can be done to prevent such tragedies? So far, one could get the impression that the problem is considered solely Europe’s to deal with; after all, it is the EU’s borders that are being besieged. But that would mean absolving the African Union of any responsibility for its own borders and citizens, letting it off the hook far too easily.
African societies pride themselves on their regard for culture, family life and community in general. The actions of individuals are considered reflective of their families and the communities they come from. If a son turns out to be a thief, this is deemed shameful not just to his parents but also to the community he comes from. His family is expected to accept full responsibility for his actions and to undertake to do something about the situation. Similarly, we are also fond of emphasising our sense of brotherhood and solidarity with our fellow African citizens.
However, it is difficult to reconcile all this with the seemingly indifferent AU response to the migrant crisis. What exactly is it doing to secure its borders and prevent smugglers from transporting thousands out of the continent, often to their deaths? What is it doing to encourage those Africans who feel forced to leave their countries, or who are displaced, to choose African destinations rather than European ones? Not much, is the answer.
It is true that many African countries have problems of their own to deal with, but which nation does not? Illegal migration to Europe strains the recipient nations’ patience and resources, greatly decreasing the probability that even the African migrants who do manage to survive the journey will be treated well on arrival. This should be a concern for African leaders.
A more proactive approach to stemming these people-smuggling operations is required on the part of the AU. It needs to do more to make refuge in Africa appealing to Africans and to work closely with the EU in addressing the issue of illegal migration. The “spirit of African solidarity and international cooperation” in its 1969 refugee convention should be seen, and not just declared.
The AU declared a day of mourning after the Lampedusa tragedy in October 2013. It said the incident should serve as a wake-up call for all Africans “to reflect on appropriate actions to be taken with a view to finding a lasting solution to this persistent problem that leads to the loss of young Africans without whom the continent cannot build a prosperous and peaceful future”. The AU should pay more attention to its own statements. But, beyond words, it should strive to create the conditions necessary for Africans to see their own continent as a safe haven.
It cannot be denied that as long as Europe remains an inviting lure to Africans seeking a better life, a dangerous, illegal voyage will still be considered well worth the price. But the ideal cannot be the enemy of the good. It might be unrealistic to imagine illegal migration being eradicated, but the AU has a responsibility to do more to drastically limit the phenomenon and the tragic deaths that come with it.
The fact that African migrants tend to seek refuge in countries that have well-developed human rights systems only accentuates the AU’s failure. Increasing Europe’s border security should not be solely the EU’s headache. Africa’s leaders have a responsibility to work towards solving a problem they helped create in the first place.
Seda Alonge The Guardian