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Worlds apart? The complex dynamics of Africa-EU migration

Worlds apart? The complex dynamics of Africa-EU migration
A Libyan coast guardsman stands on a boat during the rescue of 147 illegal immigrants attempting to reach Europe off the coastal town of Zawiyah, 45km west of the capital Tripoli, on 27 June, 2017. (Photo: Taha Jawashi / AFP)

The anti-migration sentiments promoted by right-wing political parties and integrated into the policy space of several countries in Europe have further worsened the conditions of undocumented migrants and exposed them to institutional discrimination.

Between January and March this year, about 441 African migrants died in the Mediterranean Sea while attempting to cross into Europe. Around the same period in 2017, 750 migrants lost their lives in similar incidents. Since 2014, more than 20,700 Africans have either died or gone missing in their bid to make it to Europe.

Despite the “efforts” of both African and European actors to address the push factors of migration, thousands of Africans continue to flee the continent for several reasons, including to escape from violent conflict. Many risk their lives while trying to flee through illegal routes.

The Sahel region has become a theatre of violence, insurgency and terrorism. The current Sudanese conflict, driven by two antagonistic and power-hungry army generals, has led to the deaths of 528 people, with 4,500 wounded. Thousands of people have been displaced.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram’s reign of terror and the farmers-herders conflict have displaced more than 3.1 million people as of June 2022.

In Libya, many migrants have accepted so-called assisted returns to their countries of origin – not voluntarily, but by compulsion – due to dehumanising detention conditions, including threats of torture, extortion and sexual violence. Others are commonly at the mercy of sex and labour traffickers.

Hardship and uncertainty

They are confronted with hardships in African transit countries and uncertainties about what awaits them in Europe.

Those who make it to Europe have testified to further ill-treatment. Anti-migration sentiments (promoted by right-wing political parties) are being integrated into the policy space of several countries in Europe, further worsening the conditions of undocumented migrants and exposing them to institutional discrimination.

Since the 2015 European migration crisis, migration has been a dominant theme in domestic politics in most European countries. While the European Union (EU) and Africa celebrate their close relations, policymakers from both continents have divergent perspectives on the issue of migration.

While African actors see migration as natural, developmental and mutually beneficial, EU policymakers conceive it from the standpoints of politicking, security and control.

A lively discussion took place at the recent launch of the edited volume titled, Worlds Apart? Perspectives of Africa-EU Migration, by this writer and Jesper Bjarnesen.

As the Swedish EU Presidency winds up next month, the Swedish Ministry of Justice and Ministry for Foreign Affairs invited policymakers on migration from the 27 EU member states to the launch of the book in Brussels, Belgium, on 2 May, at the offices of the Swedish Permanent Representation to the EU.

Both Swedish departments are co-chairing a working group of the European Council, the “Working Party on External Aspects of Asylum and Migration”, in charge of deliberations on external aspects of EU migration policy.

The launch was co-hosted by the Swedish government and the Sweden-based Nordic Africa Institute (NAI), in collaboration with the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. The meeting was chaired by the Director of NAI, Therese Sjömander Magnusson. Both editors of the book, Anna Knoll and Amanda Bisong of the European Centre for Development Policy Management in Maastricht, the Netherlands, were speakers.


As highlighted in the book, the meeting contended with some of the myths about Africa-EU migration. Indeed, more Africans travel through legal channels than illegal routes such as the Mediterranean Sea, and intra-African migration exceeds Africa’s movement to other regions.

Data released by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and Africa-Europe Foundation revealed that intra-African migrations since 2010 have increased by around 43.6% compared with 26% for Africa-Europe migrations.

The speakers engaged the notion that African and European perspectives on migration governance are “worlds apart”, as reflected in the title of the book. Clearly, discourse on Africa-EU migration is dominated by EU narratives and driven by the asymmetrical power relations between Africa and Europe.

As reinforced during the meeting, migration is the means to achieve a goal. Panelists interrogated the weakness of the European emphasis on addressing the root causes of African migration and interrogated the EU’s attempt to drastically reduce irregular migration through the EU’s investments in African socioeconomic development and peacebuilding.

Many of these interventions do not reduce migration, but enhance movements. People migrate for several reasons. Migration, which is sometimes forced in Africa, is a significant characteristic of changes in population. It is natural and has nothing to do with social and economic status.

Discussions reflected on the role and perspectives of European civil society and noted that European debates about immigration are increasingly state-centric, critical and sometimes racial. 

The meeting reinforced the reasons why African migrants continue to move to Europe through illegal routes, such as the central Mediterranean Sea, and argued for the expansion of legal pathways to provide more opportunities for people on the move to use legal routes.

Remittance, migration and development

Remittances, which have dominated the conversation on international migration, were located in proper contexts. Remittances sent from the EU accounted for 11% of the total flows received by low and middle-income countries and benefited about 105 million people in the origin countries. 

Remittance is the most obvious link between migration and development. It enhances Africa’s quest for economic development and should also be seen as an urgent save-our-soul intervention from the African diaspora.

Remittances should not be conflated with capital flight, but are funds that are earned through hard labour. Migrants have supported their societies and home governments by constructing schools, hospitals and stadiums. 

African migrants send remittances, not from a standpoint of affluence, but mostly through pain and resilience; thus, a further downward review of charges on money transfers and removal of several gridlocks that impede remittances are desirable.

It is also imperative for Africa to explore the use of remittances not only for family consumption, but for the creation of productive opportunities for national and regional economic development.

The meeting offered a platform for rethinking migration governance in Europe and argued for the depoliticisation and desecuritisation of migration, and the implementation of sustainable policy templates that would address the voices of African migrants.

Realistically, border policing does not necessarily reduce migration. 

It is important to humanise migration policy and partner to build a more developed Africa through support in human capacity-building and other needs as determined by Africans.

The meeting advocated for the establishment of an Africa-EU taskforce to implement and promote a mutually beneficial Africa-EU migration governance. DM

Dr Adeoye O Akinola is Head of Research and Teaching at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversations at the University of Johannesburg.


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