Time to get real about migrant deaths

Curbing human smuggling should be on the list of Africa's priorities for 2016. A new ISS report explains why.

In Africa, Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere, migration became a major theme last year as an unprecedented number of migrants and refugees fled to Europe. Indications are that this will continue in 2016.

Migration is a social, political and economic issue that has turned into a critical talking point in the most-affected regions. Exact figures are difficult to obtain, but according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, over one million migrants and refugees fled to Europe via the Mediterranean crossing in 2015. That is almost double the number of migrants who are estimated to have reached Europe between 2010 and 2014.

This surge has not abated. In fact, it is forecast that – should things remain constant – Europe can expect to receive three million migrants by the end of 2016.

But what drives people to risk their lives to get to Europe? Migrants cite a wide range of reasons for choosing to leave their home countries. The spike in numbers can primarily be linked to ongoing conflicts, violent terrorism, poor governance, escalating poverty and inequality.

Europe could receive up to 3 million migrants by the end of 2016

In 2015, approximately 5 350 migrants and refugees died on their journeys, with about 3 800 having perished while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea via North Africa. This topped the 2014 death toll, which was already alarmingly high. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 2015 was the deadliest year yet for migrants, with IOM Director General William Lacy Swing calling these record numbers ‘shocking and inexcusable.’

It should be noted that not all migrants rely on smugglers to make their way to Europe. However, it is important to understand and address smuggling – together with related illicit activity – particularly given its negative consequences. For African migrants across the Mediterranean, this cannot be understated.

Thousands of Africans die in dinghies and other flimsy vessels that are dangerous to travel in, especially when overloaded by smugglers seeking to maximise profits. It has been argued that if there weren’t so many barriers to entry, fewer people would choose illegal channels to cross borders.

Africans account for less than a quarter of migrants, yet form the largest number of casualties

For Africa, this is a huge concern. According to the African Union (AU), African migrants account for less than a quarter of international migrants, yet they form the largest percentage of casualties. The AU continues to highlight that smuggling is on the increase due to the difficulty in accessing Europe legally. The challenge now is how smuggling could be addressed effectively. It remains to be seen how the AU, together with the European Union (EU) will do this – both jointly and separately.

On 18 December last year, the EU signed off on the first project under its €1.8 billion emergency trust fund for Africa, aimed at managing migration and addressing the root causes. Focusing on Ethiopia, this will be the first of 10 projects geared towards tackling irregular migration and forced displacement in the Horn of Africa. These programmes will complement similar efforts in the Sahel and the Lake Chad region, which were agreed on by African and European leaders in Valletta, Malta last year.

Some of the EU’s (and AU’s) resources will have to be directed towards search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean now that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have ended their rescue missions. Echoing the AU’s stance, MSF called on the EU and its member states to find safe and legal ways for people to reach Europe so as to reduce the numbers of those relying on smugglers. This cannot be the EU’s responsibility alone, however.

For their part, the AU and African countries should also work to ensure safe and legal passage. Doing this will require improved understanding of the issues, including the scope of the smuggling problem.

Income generated through smuggling can become a source of threat financing

In 2015, the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (Global Initiative), in partnership with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), produced a report detailing the smuggling component of the current rise in migration. The report, which is being launched today in Addis Ababa, outlines the scope of the smuggling problem and calls for well-informed and effective responses from all affected countries.

The launch of the report, ahead of the AU Summit, will take place at a high-level conference themed ‘Trails of Insecurity: Illicit migration as a source of threat financing and criminal resourcing in Africa,’ hosted jointly by the two organisations in partnership with the Hanns Seidel Foundation. 

Among other issues, the conference will focus on how income generated through smuggling can become a source of threat financing and fund criminal groups in Africa.

At the same time, the AU has already put migration on their agenda for 2016. ‘Movement’ is one of the six key issues for the AU’s African Year of Human Rights, and will likely be discussed at the 26th AU Summit next week. Already, one of the objectives of the 8th AU Gender Pre-summit, which is currently underway, is to explore recent developments on migration and discuss best ways to manage it.

This is commendable. However, in 2016, Africa should move beyond talking about managing migration and do something effective about it.

Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, Senior Researcher, Office of the Executive Director, ISS Pretoria

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