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13 November 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:26pm

Migration from Africa: a forgotten crisis

Migrants are still dying. 

By Marta Foresti

So the Valletta Summit came and went, and it will soon be forgotten. The one thing it has achieved was putting migration from Africa back in the news for a day or two: while the Syria refugee crisis matters and needs urgent attention, the patterns of migration from Africa are not going to change anytime soon: according to Frontex in 2014 arrivals by sea from Africa accounted for up to 60 per cent of total border admission across Europe. It would be a mistake to think that this is no longer an issue just because right now people are not dying off the coasts of Lampedusa: people are dying in the Sahara in what is probably the most dangerous journey of all. Yet this is a ‘forgotten’ crisis, at least until next spring – and the Action Plan agreed at the Summit is a spectacular failure to do anything about this.   

The most tangible outcome is a not so new – and not so big – EU aid package for Africa: €1.8bn in exchange for easier deportation of economic migrants back to Africa. With remittances to Africa dwarfing aid  by a ratio of nearly three to one and €3bn recently agreed by the EU to support Turkey alone in its response to the refugee crisis, all things considered this deal is not worth much for African leaders, who left Valletta unimpressed and underwhelmed.

What the officials that struck the deal have also overlooked is that even when and if aid ‘works’, to reduce poverty and foster development, it is likely to lead to more, not less migration – at least from the very poorest countries.

Aid – or any form of charity for that matter- also misses a fundamental point of what drives migration.  People move not only to escape war and poverty, but also to fulfil their aspirations to a better life for themselves and for their families. For this reason alone, an action plan grounded in strategy of containment and hand outs is doomed to fail.

Unsurprisingly, much of the language in the plan is weak: the document is peppered with vague and meaningless words like mainstreaming, enhancing and supporting.  The commitments are generic, and where they are specific, they are spectacularly unambitious – charges to remittances to Africa will be cut down to three per cent, but only by 2030. 

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And yet, the claims around fighting root causes of migration, from poverty to conflict and human rights abuses, as well as the promise of job creation and economic opportunities all across Africa are dangerously unrealistic and misleading. Addressing these challenges requires political action, not summits or emergency aid. Yet political engagement was not on the cards in Valletta, whether bilaterally between European and Africa countries or through the much anticipated, but currently vacuous ‘European response’ to the migration crisis. 

The limited financial resources and political capital that Europe can offer on migration from Africa would be better spent on more specific and realistic initiatives – such as enhancing legal migration where politically feasible through visas for a variety of migrants, not just students and entrepreneurs, temporary humanitarian visas for refugees fleeing wars and conflict and better, more reliable data, analysis and information especially on the economic benefits of migration.

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Well intentioned as it may be, the Valletta Summit was a waste and the EU leaders who called for it have missed an important opportunity to take any meaningful action.

Marta Foresti is Director of Governance, Security and Livelihoods at the Overseas Development Institute.