Europe’s migrant crisis could be the make-or-break issue for the EU, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned last month, ahead of an emergency summit called by European leaders in Brussels. Subsequent talks stretched on for an unprecedented ten hours overnight as officials struggled to come to a deal on one of the most contentious issues of the decade, that has seen public opinion divided amid growing intolerance.
The final status seemed shaky. With plans for EU nations to deport migrants back to the first country they arrived in, France and Italy have already protested that the proposal should not apply to them. Proposals to build centres in North Africa to prevent migrants from journeying north have already been rejected by Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
Europe’s migrant crisis shows little sign of improving. Migration numbers have fallen somewhat from their peak 2015 figures; less than 172,000 people crossed the Mediterranean last year, with some 728,470 applications for international protection in the EU, compared to over 300,000 crossings in 2016 and over one million applications for asylum. Death rates have also fallen, but not by enough; some 3,118 people died in marine crossings last year. Even if the sea spares them, those that make the treacherous journey take an immeasurable risk, being forced to pay extortionate amounts to smugglers, hand over their passports and avoid being discovered by European authorities.
Before even reaching the Mediterranean, migrants face a gruelling journey to North Africa, attempting to evade scores of human traffickers, smuggling rings, slaver traders and horrific abuse, as well as trying to evade detection and deportation. Those that manage to secure a place onto a boat are considered the lucky ones, while the others face a fate still largely unknown.
Last month, an investigation by the Associated Press revealed that Algeria has abandoned more than 13,000 migrants in the Sahara Desert over the past 14 months, including pregnant women and children. Expelled at gunpoint, thousands of people have been forced to walk miles in temperatures of up to 48 degrees, as they head towards neighbouring Niger or Mali.
Untold numbers go missing in the desert, but the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has estimated that for every person known to have died crossing the Mediterranean, as many as two people are lost in the Sahara, amounting to a horrifying 30,000 people since 2014.
Algeria’s mass expulsions have increased since last October due to renewed pressure on North African countries from the EU to prevent migrants and refugees travelling north to Europe either by crossing the Mediterranean or through barriers with Spain. Beholden to the continent’s demands in return for much needed economic and diplomatic support, Algeria has buckled and in turn used migrants as a scapegoat for the country’s economic and social challenges, resorting to systematic abandonment to rid itselves of the pressure to provide for them.
And the EU has given tacit approval to Algiers’ actions, with a spokesman confessing that the union was aware of what Algeria was doing, but that “sovereign countries” can expel migrants and refugees as long as they comply with international law.
The global response to the migrant crisis frequently laments such experiences, but the underlying causes of this mass exodus are often skirted over. This crisis, the largest mass movement of people since the Second World War, is not the result of solely one disaster or national conflict. With migrants from over 15 different countries from Asia, Africa and the Middle East making the treacherous journey north, this migration is the result of a modern history that has failed the global south, with centuries of political and economic interference culminating in the overcrowded boats of the Mediterranean.
Whilst military conflict can be traced back to Western political involvement, either indirectly, in the case of conflicts such as Syria, or directly in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, the legacies of colonialism in African states are rarely acknowledged in creating the economic fragility that induces so many of its citizens to leave.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants are believed to have journeyed from Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan in recent years; countries that endured the systematic extraction of resources under colonialism, and since independence have been tied to global financial institutions in an unending cycle of poverty.
The straight lines that make up the unnatural borders of Algeria, Libya, Niger, South Sudan and others cannot be ignored as having ensconced the region in decades worth of conflict, preventing holistic focus on development. When considering the imposition of the nation state model, enforcement of arbitrary borders and unfinished systems of governance left by the colonisers as recently as the 1960s, some of these states have performed remarkably well in avoiding further catastrophe. Yet improvement remains elusive, as autocratic and corrupt government continue to be tolerated by Western powers for the sake of business, with appalling human rights records regularly ignored in favour of money on the table.
Few European countries have apologised for the crimes committed by their respective empires, some less than 100 years ago. Conversely, some continue to glorify their past legacies, including French President Emmanuel Macron who recently urged the young people of Africa to forget the legacies of colonialism, given the majority of the population have now not directly lived under it. To add insult to injury, the continent now refuses to open its doors to those fleeing persecution, washing its hands of conflicts, the roots of which were entrenched during their rule.
Europe’s history of decadence and progress has largely been built on the backs of its nations’ respective colonial empires. They have created societies with successful economies, ensured political freedom for their citizens and deemed themselves centres of art and culture. It is little wonder that that the people of the countries they formerly ruled would also seek a better life in such nations, not as the far-right claim, to live off the generosity of the state, but to work and live in safety and dignity.
The challenge of accommodating hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees seeking to cross into Europe remains critical. However, the EU would do well to recognise that aiding these people should not just be a token act of generosity or humanity, or indeed a way to tackle their own labour shortages; but as some form of compensation for a world order still biased against them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.