Fortresses in our midst

2015-11-27

The statement made by African Union (AU) Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in Valletta, Malta, on 11 November should not have gone unnoticed by the millions of migrants and would-be migrants in Africa.

Speaking at the Euro-African summit on migration, Dlamini-Zuma said that Europe is partly to blame for the current migration crisis ‘because some countries in Europe have taken a fortress approach’. Migration in search of safety or a better life is as old as humanity itself, so ‘there is no part of the world that can be a fortress,’ she said. ‘We should be open to legal migration.’

Dlamini-Zuma emphasised Europe’s responsibility towards migrants by recalling the history between Africa and Europe. ‘Africa too has been a recipient of European migration, even before colonisation. During and after the Second World War, European refugees, asylum seekers, entrepreneurs and adventurers flocked as far down as the southern tip of Africa for commercial or settlement purposes. They were welcomed, and at the time, there was no crisis of European migrants in Africa.’

The Valletta summit was organised in response to the huge increase in migrants, mainly Africans, who were dying while trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, more than 3 500 people have lost their lives in the Mediterranean this year.

The AU says less than 25% of migrants caught up in the current crisis are African. Attention has now shifted to the millions of migrants travelling through the Balkans from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Repressive responses will only drive migrants underground

Eritreans make up the fourth-largest refugee population in Europe today. Many of them are escaping from the compulsory national service in their country, which has been compared to forced labour and arbitrary detention.

Migrants and migration specialists would agree with Dlamini-Zuma that increasing barriers to stop Africans from moving to Europe only plays into the hands of criminal networks and human traffickers.

At a migration workshop that took place as part of the Dakar International Forum on Peace and Security in November, participants repeatedly made this point. ‘Repressive responses will only drive migrants underground,’ said Petra Hueck, Head of the International Catholic Migration Commission office in Europe.

Experts at the workshop also pleaded for a broader definition of refugees. Even if they are not fleeing outright war, many Africans flee because famine, terror and the effects of climate change are threatening their lives. ‘We still need to define what is [considered] legal and illegal migration,’ said Cristina Barrios, a senior analyst of the European Union Institute for Security Studies. The current pressure on European countries to take in Syrian refugees will make it even more difficult for Africans to be accepted as legitimate migrants in Europe.

While there is general agreement with Dlamini-Zuma and the AU that Europe should not shut its doors to Africans, her message in Valletta is especially relevant in the context of her home country – South Africa. For years, migrants from elsewhere on the continent have been battling desperately to enter ‘fortress South Africa’. And when they do make it across the borders, whether illegally or not, a tough life often lies ahead amid continuous discrimination and xenophobia.

Many Africans flee because famine, terror and the effects of climate change threaten their lives

Dlamini-Zuma is widely believed to have presidential aspirations in South Africa.

Does this mean things could improve if she goes home after her first term at the AU expires? Will the former South African minister encourage legal migration if she gets the top job in her country?

This is far from certain, given that the crisis of intolerance, discrimination and violence against African migrants in South Africa dates back to the mid-1990s.

The first wave of serious xenophobic attacks in South Africa took place in 2008, but not much was done about it. Dlamini-Zuma was the foreign minister at the time, and a year later she became minister of home affairs – a portfolio directly responsible for immigration issues.

Commenting on Dlamini-Zuma’s Valletta statement, Marc Gbaffou, Chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum in South Africa, says that while South African authorities accuse Europe and its stringent policies of exacerbating the wave of migration, they should examine their own policies rather than continue to play the blame game.

‘Europe and colonialism are always blamed for causing African migrants to come to South Africa,’ Gbaffou says. As a minimum, he says, the free flow of people should be implemented inside the Southern African Development Community. Citizens from Zimbabwe and Lesotho, for example, are still strictly controlled and struggle to get proper working permits for South Africa. The Economic Community of West African States instituted free movement for citizens among its 15 member states three decades ago.

Gbaffou says it is clear, though, that if Europe threw open its borders to Africans, many of them would leave South Africa. ‘Many migrants are here just waiting to go to Europe or the United States. They don’t want to stay because they’re suffering a lot,’ he says.

As with migration worldwide, there is major debate regarding the number of foreigners who live in South Africa. In a statement to Parliament’s portfolio committee earlier this month, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said that there are ‘five to six million migrants in South Africa’. Gbaffou, however, says this is highly contestable.

The free flow of people should be implemented inside SADC, as in ECOWAS

‘Throwing around these figures is dangerous. We are not sure of the exact number of foreigners. South Africa counts the ones coming in, but not those going out,’ he says. Recent studies show that there might be as few as 1.2 million foreign nationals among South Africa’s working population of 33 million people aged between 16 and 64.

At the 25th AU summit that took place in Johannesburg in June, AU leaders discussed the issues of migration and xenophobia.

These discussions came just months after the latest wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa in April.

President Jacob Zuma addressed his peers on xenophobia, saying the government condemned the violence, but that it is the actions of just a handful of criminal elements.

‘We do not believe that the actions of a few out of more than 50 million citizens justify the label of xenophobia,’ Zuma said. He said a ‘comprehensive approach’ was needed to combat poverty and inequality in South Africa, which would lessen the ‘frustrations’ of South Africans towards African nationals in the country.

At the Valletta summit, European leaders decided to set up an emergency trust fund of €1.8 billion to tackle ‘the root causes of migration’. The fund allocation is focused on the Sahel, the Lake Chad area, the Horn of Africa and North Africa. A five-point plan to tackle the migration crisis was also adopted at the summit. Many of these plans are long-term projects, to say the least. They include, for example, reducing poverty; creating jobs in Africa, particularly for women; preventing conflict and rooting out terrorism.

Still, Europe does commit itself to ‘promote regular channels of migration’ such as ‘promoting the mobility of students, researchers and entrepreneurs.’ Plans are also afoot to reduce taxes on remittances – a major source of income for some African countries and especially marginalised rural areas.

If these schemes come to fruition, it will be great news for the millions of Africans who simply want the mobility granted to other citizens in a globalised world. However, it might be difficult to implement within the current massive influx of migrants through the Balkans.

Dlamini-Zuma concluded her speech in Valletta by telling Europeans: ‘Africa’s population will continue to grow, and remain youthful… So, it is important to understand that this situation cannot be resolved with quick fixes. It will need short-, medium- and long-term sustainable solutions’. She added that ‘our fate is closely interlinked. We believe that migration, and legal migration, can be an enabling factor for stronger partnership’. This is also true for relations between South Africa and the rest of Africa.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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