African migrants: Payback time?

Carlos Lopes Correspondent
The extraordinary and still amazing bravery of the European explorers, facing unknown seas and geography with just scarce scientific tools for orientation and survival, has been celebrated. It is an extraordinary demonstration of human determination. That same bravery is displayed by today’s migrants to Europe.Since the beginning of this year, a relentless flow of images from the Italian island of Lampedusa, the city of Calais where the Eurotunnel starts, Bodrum in Turkey, the eastern islands of Greece, or the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Morocco, are invading television screens and media outlets.

They portray massive scale attempts by desperate souls trying to reach European countries. The EU Commissioner in charge of migration declared this month this is the worst migrant crisis since World War II. Is it? Maybe for Western Europe it is perceived as such, but it is not. Understanding why is important, because more is coming.

Migration is part of the human journey since the sophisticated apes started moving out of the Rift Valley in Africa. The history of humanity is so rich and complex that we have difficulties relating to a very remote common origin, except for historical assessments and philosophical statements. It is easier for all to link to a more recent past, the one that through events and social interaction, shaped our identities.

Human beings have a selective reading of history. For most, compensation will be justified for a wrong done to some, but not the other. Apologies will be fine with some, but not the other. Peace offers will be morally acceptable to some, but not the other. This is after all mimicking individual behaviour at a larger, societal level.

Most Italians forget they created entire nations such as Argentina and Uruguay. The British do not necessarily relate Australia, New Zealand or the Spanish and Portuguese most of South America to their making through migration. When referring to Indochina the Chinese must have only a vague idea why that region carries their name. Americans will find it in bad taste to mention part of the current US was bought from Mexico. The list is vast.

Still one continent in recent history has never been associated with migration to colonise or profit from other regions’ richness: Africa! If anything Africa is rather known for suffering from slavery, plundering of its natural resources and unfair international treatment. Africa has struggled more than most to find a way out of poverty. It has been doing better of late, since the turn of the century in fact, posting growth rates above the world’s and developing countries’ averages.

Yet the narrative about the continent seems to be fixated on migration and negative assessments of its performance. It is, therefore, important, first to understand why Africa is perceived to be generating more migrants today than ever before. African countries receive a lot more migrants than the continent exports abroad.

In fact, the bulk of Africans looking for opportunities outside their countries go to another African country. Less than two million seek a destination abroad every year, which is a tiny number in relation to migrant stocks, particularly in Europe. Of the quarter of a million that have tried the Mediterranean route this year the largest contingent are Syrians, with about 50 000, a fraction of those settled in, say, Lebanon, with over 1.5 million. Afghans, Yemenis, Pakistanis and other non-Africans use the route too.

Europe’s pull factor is to be understood by a variety of developments, from information access (6 billion cellphones in the world), human rights proclamations, a call for universal moral values all the way to unfair distribution of income and inequality across the globe. Terrorism and religious extremism have played a card as well.

It looks like the strong European rights advocacy has worked to its detriment. Pockets of war such as Libya and its surrounding deserts, the Great Lakes and its neighbourhood, and the long embattled Somalia are generating political asylum seekers and massive number of refugees as well. The shyness African leaders show when migration is a theme, including for other fellow Africans, is disturbing. But, still this does not give us the full story.

In every moment of history growth has generated outward migrants from the same location. It is indeed happening with Chinese and Indians right now as it is in Africa.