By Maggie Fick, James Politi and Duncan Robinson
Some are sceptical of Europe’s efforts to tackle the causes behind migrants leaving their homelands.
For the past seven years, Mohamed, a 32-year-old Nigerian truck driver, has loaded migrants into his Toyota Hilux pick-up, taken them across the Sahara desert and dropped them off in Libya. From there, they have embarked on a treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
As he fiddles with his smartphone and drinks a Coke in Kano, his home city in northern Nigeriaand a starting point for some west African migrants, Mohamed who has recently married says he is about to switch careers. He wants to use his savings to open a grain-trading operation, amid fears of a looming crackdown on people-smuggling in neighbouring Niger.
“It’s a good development in a way, because people have been travelling to their deaths,” Mohamed says. “They have heard stories of greener pastures and they have this obsession with getting to Europe at all costs. But they have been deceived.”
Mohamed’s change of heart will be reassuring to European policymakers, who have ramped up efforts to tackle the migration crisis unfolding on their southern shores. Over the past three years, nearly half a million people, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, have arrived in Italy after being rescued from ramshackle boats off the Libyan coast, including nearly 160,000 this year.
Though fewer people are crossing the sea to Europe this year than last, the number who havedied trying is already higher, according to the UN. More than 200 migrants drowned in two separate shipwrecks in the Mediterranean last week, bringing the total deaths this year to nearly 4,000, compared with 3,700 in 2015.
The flow of migrants from Africa to Italy was overshadowed last year by the movement of nearly 1m mostly Middle Eastern refugees through Turkey and to central Europe — mainly Germany — along the so-called Balkans route. The flow along that path slowed after the EU mobilised €6bn to secure a controversial deal with the Turkish government. But the central Mediterranean route has once again become the principal migration route to Europe, mainly from people fleeing poverty rather than war. Arrivals in Italy have outstripped last year’s total.
Under pressure from Italy, which is shouldering the burden of rescuing and caring for the migrants, and Matteo Renzi, its centre-left prime minister, the EU is moving to negotiate similar agreements with African nations that are the sources of immigration. Nigeria is a top priority since it is by far the main country of origin for people arriving in Italy, with nearly 34,000 having made the journey this year. Talks between Brussels and Abuja began last week.
“After years of debate about migration, we are finally going beyond the tip of the iceberg, which is the emergency of rescuing people in the sea, and we are looking at its deep roots, such as underdevelopment and economic disparity,” says Paolo Magri at the Institute for the Study of International Politics in Milan.
The basis of the talks is simple: Brussels will increase aid and investment in exchange for co-operation from African nations on border control and readmitting deported citizens. The hope is that fewer people will leave, those who try will be stopped and those who arrive in Europe will be successfully returned.
“There is a recognition of collective responsibility. It is not just an EU problem, or an African problem,” says Lotte Knudsen, a managing director at the EEAS, the EU’s diplomatic service, which is overseeing the deals. “We cannot do it by region, or nationally.”
At a summit in Malta last year, the EU agreed to set up an Africa Trust Fund with an initial €1.9bn in direct assistance to African countries to help them deal with migration-related costs. This year that sum was increased by a further €500m, though so far, member states have added just over €82m to the fund.
In addition, the European Commission has dangled a pot of €3.4bn in guarantees for private investments backed by a further €3.4bn from member states for countries willing to partner with it on immigration. That amount of money could rise as high as €88bn based on optimistic assumptions of how the funds could be leveraged.
But if those ambitions do not pan out, many countries could be left with paltry funds to meet their needs and a pittance compared with what Turkey obtained.
European diplomats insist that the African initiatives are not only about money but putting co-operation on migration at the heart of diplomatic relations. “The sense of this is to take the discussion to a political level and to show that we are aware that there is a mutual interest and we are ready to intervene,” says Benedetto della Vedova, an Italian undersecretary of foreign affairs. “Otherwise their only interest will be for people to leave”.
But the approach is viewed with mistrust in many African countries and among some aid agencies. Some say the payments are thinly disguised bribery, and there is criticism of how migrants are treated once they arrive on the continent. At the Maltese summit, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union commission, railed against “de facto detention centres” being set up in Italy to process and identify arrivals, saying they violate human rights and “re-victimise migrants”.
Denis Tull, a scholar of African politics at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, says: “We should not pretend there is a common interest here. What is being called ‘co-operation’ by the EU is seen very differently by Africa. We saw that at Malta.”
Moreover, many Africans — if not their governments — see emigration as positive, since it relieves social pressure by reducing the number of young people looking for work at home and delivers significant benefits through remittances. Some countries have become reliant on income from migrant trafficking business. Accepting deported citizens is seen as humiliating.
But European officials are making it clear that African nations cannot afford to avoid the issue. “It has to be clear that only through the control of migration flows can we imagine a partnership between Europe and Africa,” says a senior Italian official. “It’s not an option, it’s a necessity, an absolute priority.”
Europe’s focus on securing migration deals with African governments came after Turkey reached its arrangement with the EU. In exchange for stemming the flow of people crossing the Aegean, which peaked at 10,000 a day in October 2015, Turkey was offered everything from €6bn in aid to a promise of visa-free travel in Europe for its citizens.
Such rewards will not be on offer for African governments, but they have certainly taken notice and raised the price for their co-operation, even calling for a “Marshall plan for Africa”. Niger said in May that it would take €1bn, roughly one-eighth of its gross domestic product, for it to tackle illegal immigration — the mooted crackdown which caused Mohamed the truck driver to switch jobs. “We need massive support for our country,” said Mahamadou Issoufou, president of Niger, last month.
As Libya is the departure point for most migrants crossing to Italy, ideally Rome would have been able to negotiate a deal with Tripoli to stem migrant flows, as happened during the days of Muammer Gaddafi’s rule. Silvio Berlusconi, former Italian prime minister, in 2008 signed an agreement whereby Italy agreed to pay €5bn over 25 years in compensation for its colonial rule of the North African country in the early 20th century, partly in exchange for a crackdown on migrant smuggling.
But since Gaddafi was ousted from power in 2011, the country has been ravaged by civil war, creating a political and security vacuum that allowed human traffickers to thrive. The fighting has subsided and a government of national unity has been formed but people smugglers remain in control of key parts of the Libyan coastline.
This means that the EU is left to negotiate with more than a dozen counterparts: some are democracies, while others, namely Eritrea, are authoritarian regimes. Some are transit countries for migrants, while others are sources of migration. And some have effective central governments, while others are fragmented and incapable of implementing the most basic border controls.
Nevertheless, Brussels is prioritising agreements with five key countries: Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Senegal and Ethiopia. “They are a combination of the strategically important and the low-hanging fruit,” says Elizabeth Collett, director of Migration Policy Institute Europe.
Angela Merkel, German chancellor, visited Niger, Mali and Ethiopia last month to emphasise the economic opportunity that was at their fingertips if they accepted the EU’s offer.
“We should try to aim for a kind of balance, such that the first thing for young Africans, when they get a smartphone in their hands, isn’t ‘I have to go where I see a better world’, but rather that they live in a country in which things are at least getting better step by step,” she said on the eve of the trip.
Geoffrey Onyeama, the Nigerian foreign minister, emphasised that it is his government’s responsibility — not Europe’s — to “obviate the need for our citizens to make such a perilous journey”. The country is focused on “training non-graduates and young people to enable them to integrate economically” instead of seeking work abroad, he says. But Mr Onyeama is pleased “the Europeans are looking in the same direction”, adding that Abuja “welcomes as much investment as possible”.
In a further sign the EU is trying to make good on its pledge, the bloc is hosting an investor forum this week in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital.
But one European diplomat in Nigeria warns that “the appetite for the moment is not there” in terms of large-scale private European investment in the country, at least not until all the guarantees are in place.
And ISPI’s Mr Magri worries that the amount of money envisioned in the EU-Africa talks may fail to live up to expectations. Even if a deal is reached, he says, it may not remove incentives for would-be migrants.
At the Sicilian port of Trapani last week, Mary Pullen, a 20-year-old aspiring doctor had just arrived after a two-month journey from Lagos. She has a simple explanation for why so many of her compatriots make the journey — and how far the EU may be from its goal of limiting migration. “There’s so much suffering, there’s no work,” she says.
As for Mohamed, he says everyone in Kano knows how to get to Europe. Go to the Kofar Ruwa bus park, hop on a shared minivan to the Niger border, cross with a national ID card or passport and disappear northward on a sturdy lorry bound for the Saharan city of Agadez — where there are scores of options for reaching Libya, like the Toyota Hilux truck offered by him and his colleagues for 50,000 naira ($158).
Mohamed believes that, once he leaves the trade, he will easily be able to sell his truck to another smuggler. Ominously for the EU’s hopes that the Africa migration talks will succeed, he says demand is bound to remain high from people disappointed by a lack of opportunity at home.
“I see it in their faces,” he says. “They are determined.”
Italy’s struggle to welcome new arrivals
Gorino, a tiny clam-fishing village in the delta of the Po river about 60 miles south of Venice, has rarely, if ever, been in Italy’s national spotlight, writes James Politi. But that all changed on October 24 when the government sent 12 female migrants, including one pregnant lady, to the town of 400, to be housed in a local hostel.
A group of residents, organised by the xenophobic Northern League political party, reacted by barricading three access roads to the town with wooden planks, leading to a stand-off with the police and forcing the migrants to be resettled elsewhere in the area.
The episode drew condemnation from the centre-left government, and from the Catholic Church, which has championed refugee rights under Pope Francis, but it reflects rising hostility to migrants in Italy as the country feels the strain of thousands of arrivals each month.
“This does not honour our country,” said Angelino Alfano, the interior minister. “Everything can be handled better, we can find all the excuses we want, but that is not Italy,” he added.
A similar scene looked like it might unfold in Milan, where Casa Pound, a far-right group, called for a rebellion against the arrival of more than 80 migrants in a district of Italy’s second-largest city.
But that effort was stymied when a group of residents organised a block party, including a pasta meal and a brass band, to make the arrivals feel at home.
“I feel happy,” Zakaria Abdellahi, an Ethiopian immigrant who arrived in Italy this year, told the Associated Press. “I feel like I am famous. Everywhere I look, they are taking pictures. I think I am Obama.”