Since the collapse of Moammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya, the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea has soared, as people have taken advantage of a vacuum of authority to set sail from the country's northern coast. A network of human smugglers who facilitate the traffic has expanded from the tip of North Africa down to countries such as Niger and Sudan. Contacts for smugglers circulate on Facebook and WhatsApp in major cities across Africa. Since 2014, more than 400,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy.
“In many ways, the height of the Syrian migration exodus is behind us, but when you look at the youth bulge and demographic vitality of Africa, you say, 'Oh damn,'” said Demetrios Papademetriou, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based research organization.
Europe was able to reduce the flow of Syrian refugees by making a deal with Turkey, a major jumping-off point for many of those fleeing the war in the Middle East. The agreement allowed Greece to return migrants to Turkey, while the Europeans boosted financial support for Turkey's refugee population and provided greater visa liberalization for Turks. No such solution has emerged to handle the African influx. as European nations face a complicated mission to curb the flow of migrants and refugees.
Much of that quest involves money. The E.U. is rolling out a $1.9 billion plan to “address the root causes of migration” in what many see a quid pro quo for African nations to improve border security and accept deportees.
Mali, for example, was offered $150 million in a deal that would “enable the return from Europe of Malian migrants,” according to an E.U. statement. But when the agreement became public in Bamako, the capital, there was a public uproar, prompting a motion of censure from parliament. The Malian government eventually pulled out of the deal in December.
Like many African countries, Mali receives millions of dollars in remittances from workers abroad, a lifeline for many families.
“The Malian leadership miscalculated the outcry,” Papademetriou said.
During previous surges in migration, European leaders have discussed what it calls a “Marshall Plan for Africa” — a development package so big that it would create jobs at home for would-be migrants, making them less likely to leave. Such a project never happened. This time around, African leaders are skeptical of such ideas.
“The needs of the continent are enormous, and unfortunately 1 or 2 billion euros will not change the situation,” Hissein Brahim Taha, Chad’s foreign minister, said in an interview published this week in Jeune Afrique, a French-language magazine.
Many cities along Africa’s main migrant routes also have benefited financially from the flow of people to Europe. In countries such as Niger, the organizations theoretically responsible for policing migration have grown accustomed to accepting bribes from smugglers. In Libya, militias often hold migrants hostage until they receive ransom payments from their families.
Europe has committed to training and empowering the key border security agencies in Africa, including those in Libya, but that has raised alarm about whether they will inadvertently support forces linked to human rights abuses. In Sudan, some watchdog groups have expressed concern that border security funds could end up in the hands of the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group associated with the Janjaweed, known for mass killings in Sudan’s Darfur region.
“Funding that should be used for development and security is instead used for migration control,” said Catherine Woollard, secretary general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a network of advocacy groups.
In past months, French President Emmanuel Macron has discussed setting up “hot spots” in places such as Chad and Niger where vulnerable refugees could apply for asylum without risking a dangerous sea crossing. Some of the countries that would host such hot spots have bristled at the idea, arguing that the areas could draw even more migrants to their countries. Chad, for example, already hosts about a half-million refugees, many of whom are from Darfur.
“We were against the establishment of screening centers in our country,” Taha told Jeune Afrique, referring to the hot spots. “This would have contributed to creating a migration vortex, which would soon become uncontrollable for Chad.”
Macron and other European leaders are now speaking about resettling a small number of refugees already in Chad and Niger. Many experts say that proposal is far from a comprehensive solution.
“If France, Germany, Italy and Spain want to show genuine leadership, they should act to create and expand other safe and legal ways for people to reach Europe, like granting humanitarian visas and facilitating family reunification,” said Judith Sunderland, associate director for the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch.
Unlike Syrians, most of whom have viable claims to refugee status because of the war in their country, a large portion of Africans moving to Europe are economic migrants seeking better jobs. Even under an improved system for screening refugees, tens of thousands of people who probably wouldn't qualify for asylum might continue the journey through the Sahara desert and then across the Mediterranean Sea.
That leaves one other European proposal on the table: using the Libyan coast guard and militias to crack down on the flow of migrants. There are some signs that this approach — the most controversial one — appears to be working.
Since mid-July, about 4,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean, about an 80 percent drop compared with the same period last year. Italy has taken a number of steps to discourage the migration, including deploying naval ships to help Libyan officials intercept migrant boats off the coast.
Quoting Libyan militia and security officials, the Associated Press recently reported that the Italian government was also working with Libyan authorities to pay militias to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. (The Italian government denied reaching such an agreement).
Some see a repeat of Italy’s 2008 deal in which then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged to provide Libya with $200 million a year in investments over 25 years as reparations for his nation's colonial abuses in the country. In return, Gaddafi cracked down on migration.
At the time, Human Rights Watch said the deal “resulted in joint naval patrols that run roughshod over refugee and migrant rights.”
Stanley-Becker reported from Berlin.