African migrants going to Europe: Taking their chances

The Economist

A new report looks into the ever more busy migration routes from Africa to Europe

20140517_map513FOLLOWING the recent sweep of revolutions in North Africa, the corpses of migrants have washed up with increasing regularity on the region’s shores. This month alone 58 perished, with another 54 missing, following shipwrecks off the coasts of Libya and Greece. Weakened states are less able to police borders, allowing thousands to reach the European mainland. In April, Italian vessels rescued over 4,000 migrants in two days, prompting beleaguered authorities to declare a humanitarian emergency. By some estimates, more than 600,000 people from Africa and the Middle East are currently waiting on north Africa’s shores to embark for a better life.

A new report documents the routes taken by this human wave, as well as the migrants’ origins and means of transport, and the role played by traffickers, terrorists and corrupt government officials in the booming industry. In doing so it casts light on the murky politics in the vast, unpoliceable stretches of the Sahara and the belt of arid scrub than runs beneath it, the Sahel. The authors argue that instead of tackling the problem in overcrowded asylum centres in Europe, efforts to deal with it must also focus here.

The example of Agadez, a smuggling entrepot in northern Niger, helps explain why. According to the report, at least half of all West African migrants who arrive in Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost entry point, first pass through this warren of adobe houses and dirt streets. With the ethnic Tabu smugglers who dominate the trade charging migrants between $200 – $300 for passage to southern Libya, or asking them to carry drugs in lieu of payment, smuggling is the town’s economic mainstay. When 92 people died near Agadez last September after their vehicle broke down, Nigerien authorities promised to stamp out large-scale migrant smuggling. But with perhaps $1 million a week at stake, official connivance is inevitable. Even when raids do take place, smugglers simply switch routes and tactics.

“Dismantling the networks of intermediaries, drivers, guides, migrant ‘welcome centres’, and clandestine migration consultants would place the regional economy of Agadez under significant stress,” a diplomat quoted in the report notes. The towns of Gao in Mali and Tamanrasset in southern Algeria share a similar profile, with traffickers, chieftans, corrupt officials, jobless desperadoes and jihadists all rubbing along to claim a share of the profits. Anyone trying to tackle people-smuggling needs to grasp the scale, the resilience and the daily importance in many people’s lives of these networks.

Nor are the poverty and persecution that encourage migrants to risk the journey north likely to diminish. Desertification and population growth are outstripping agricultural productivity in much of the Sahel, while conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria have displaced millions. A gun-battle between government troops and Tuareg rebels on May 17 has sent Mali teetering back towards civil war. Refugee camps in Mauritania and Burkina Faso are still overflowing from the previous round of combat.

The factors that spawn such violence, such as rampant corruption and a state’s inability to control its territory or borders, makes migration both easier and more attractive. As a despairing aid worker quoted in the report notes of Burkina Faso, a major transit state that has just 300 officials  policing its 3,200km border, “in a country that is not able to secure its frontiers anything is possible.” Immigration officials in Lampedusa will no doubt testify that such matters are fast becoming Europe’s problems, too.

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