Stopping the migrant-smuggler ships from leaving Libya and other parts of Africa for islands in the Mediterranean Sea may arrest the waves of sub-Saharan Africans, Syrians and Iraqis fleeing war-torn and economically harsh lands for freedom and opportunity in Europe.
But these new desperate measures, and physical barricades in Hungary and Bulgaria to slow the tide of refugees trying to access the continent, don’t address the deeper sources of this intense migratory movement. Only by turning off the spigot at the source can Europe reduce the tide of men and women trying to reach the continent.
Migrants from the Middle East, Eritrea and Gambia are being pushed out of their homelands by violence and repression. But the majority of migrants, especially from much of Africa, are being pulled toward Europe by the possibility of a better life. The first group needs succour and shelter outside the war zones; the second, improved opportunities in their own towns and villages.
Ten of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenis are fleeing the killing fields for sanctuary in Europe. The EU wants to parcel them out across the continent, with each country taking a set number of migrants. But Britain and other countries are refusing to accede to a quota system, without offering alternatives or providing humanitarian options. The real answer to the Middle Eastern flight (especially given the rise of anti-immigrant political parties in some countries) is conflict resolution and peace in the combat zones.
Europe is doing far too little to help Iraq battle the Islamic State or to assist anti-Assad forces in Syria. It is hardly pressuring Turkey to close its borders to new recruits for the Islamic State, or to the contraband export and import trafficking that supports the Islamic State. Bolstering European defences will do less than major efforts to reduce the lack of security at home, the supply side.
An even larger surge of would-be immigrants stems from countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Niger, Mali, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. These are the desperate lands where millions toil for less than $1 a day and think that by surviving a dangerous journey across the Sahara and through Libya, they will strike it comparatively rich somewhere in northern Europe.
With populations in the sending countries swelling, jobs scarce (40-per-cent unemployment rates are typical) and corruption rampant, thousands are tempted by the allure of Europe every day. The imagined betterment in Europe is too great for the mass movement of African economic refugees to be halted by naval actions off the Libyan coast. If there were a reasonable government in post-Gadhafi Libya, police action could curtail human smuggling and compel those who traffic in migrants to move elsewhere.
Instead, Europe’s best hope of stemming the African exodus is to help build the economies and strengthen good governance in the places supplying most of the migrants. The usual foreign assistance for economic development in poor countries has been shown to work too slowly, if at all, to uplift the poor legions of Africa. National gross domestic products grow glacially even when overseas aid is well targeted and well deployed by recipients. Slowing corruption, under the best of circumstances, is also a gradual process.
The EU and its members need to accelerate short-term crash programs to give real work opportunities to millions of jobless Africans. A burst of funds for roads, railways, bridges, schools and other infrastructure could put droves of people to work.
Together with injections of ample cash for specific construction and similar employment-generating options, European countries could redouble efforts to help Africans govern themselves well. In too many African countries, ordinary people feel estranged from their ruling regimes. They feel beaten down rather than ennobled by their governments.
Stepped-up naval patrols and the pursuit and detention of smugglers will have less a long-term salutary impact on African prospects and illegal immigration to Europe than will damping the supply side. If Europe wants to receive fewer Africans and Arabs, it needs to make it more genuinely possible for desperate people to remain at home.
This post first appeared under the same title in the Globe and Mail, June 26, 2015