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11 October 2016

In defence of Africa’s economic migrants

Decreasing prospects are exacerbating the struggle of those in search of a better life who have been stigmatised as the refugee crisis intensifies.

By Emmanuel Akinwotu

The refugee crisis, while starkly highlighting the failures of the international community, has had another side effect. It has left the ordinary and profoundly human instincts of the “economic migrant” with greater stigma.

If refugees are seen as a liability to Western countries reluctant to take them, economic migrants – now overwhelmingly from Africa – have become an additional, unnecessary problem in the eyes of the world.

More and more, the newly ramped-up populist anti-immigration rhetoric depicts these noble instincts – of leaving in search of greater life chances – as somehow immoral or resistible, even though the majority of us share them.

The murky deal between the EU and Turkey has helped ensure that fewer “illegal” migrants and those with failed asylum applications reach Europe. The success of that deal has prompted European politicians to use it against African migrants, many of whom cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe.

The underlying suspicion is that, while many may have valid asylum requests, others are “merely” coming to Europe in search of a better life. In September, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the deal recently struck with Turkey should be replicated with African countries like Egypt and Libya. The concern being that the flow of migrants from Africa must be slowed down.

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Africa’s population is set to double by 2050 to become by far the most populous continent in the world according to the UN. Nigeria, already Africa’s most populous nation, is projected to grow from 170 million to 400 million. Nigerian politicians often wrongly interpret these alarming statistics as an achievement. Population growth is eclipsing the pace of development and infrastructure growth. The collapse in the price of oil and global commodities has set Africa’s biggest nations back further, with the continent projected by the World Bank to grow at its slowest rate for over 20 years.

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Africa’s challenges are also stark for Europe – its wary neighbour. Twenty per cent of African migrants who leave their home countries travel outside of the continent. As Africa’s population grows, so does the fear of African migration to Europe.

It’s fair for European politicians to be concerned about the growing number of migrants arriving in Europe. African population growth over the next few decades, and by virtue of that, migration from Africa, is a significant policy challenge for the international community. But the reaction and commentary that these fears often legitimise are not acceptable.

The former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed that Europe was facing a “peaceful invasion of economic migrants”. Czech President, Miloš Zeman, recently stated that all economic migrants should be deported to a Greek island or “an empty part of Africa”.

Following Theresa May’s push for greater controls on economic migrants at the UNGA in New York, her government announced controversial plans to force companies to state the number of foreigners they employ. They have since quickly ditched the policy but not the sentiments underpinning it.

Politicians across ideological divides have always displayed concern at the number of low-skilled economic migrants, far more comfortable to advocate taking in the “best and brightest” migrants who were welcome. However, even the most highly-skilled migrants, like doctors working in the NHS or experts at the LSE, have decreasing job security. The sense of accommodation for even the most prized foreign workers is shrinking.

The language of immigration too readily accommodates the wild narrative of an immigrant “invasion”, bringing “pressure” on public services and communities, at odds with the facts that show their significant economic contribution.

A report by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics stated: “There is still no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on jobs, wages, housing or the crowding out of public services. Any negative impacts on wages of less skilled groups are small. One of the largest impacts of immigration seems to be on public perceptions.”

If a greater control of immigration is a new normal across the West, then it should not need to stigmatise the very instincts that millions of citizens across the world act on each year. Instincts that are understandably heightened by the pressures of living in a continent that is growing at a quicker pace than it is developing.