Current efforts to draft the global compacts on refugees and migrants offer a unique opportunity for Africa to raise its concerns. The continent will make the most of it, predicts Mehari Taddele Maru.
Dr Mehari Taddele Maru is a Robert Schuman Fellow, Migration Policy Centre, European University Institute, specializing in migration and humanitarian issues, law and governance, and peace and security,. He has worked extensively with the United Nations, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, and the African Union, many of whose key policy documents on migration he drafted. He currently serves as the IGAD lead migration expert and was a member of the AU’s High-Level Advisory Group on Humanitarian Affairs. He recently published a book about Africa’s landmark convention on internally displaced people.
Should we soon expect to see the establishment of free movement of persons in Africa, or an “African” passport?
These are all gradual processes; the only thing one can realistically expect is that they will be very progressive and that they will be developed at a quite relatively fast pace. But, no, it will still take some time. For example, concerning the free movement of persons, we have an AU protocol that has been presented, but even the ratification process of this protocol will take a long time.
Is this going to be modelled on the European Union?
Yes, all of this is modelled on the European Union. That’s why when there’s a problem in the European Union it’s creates some hesitancy at AU level too.
If AU was successful in creating open borders and a universal passport in Africa, what impact do you think it would have on migration generally? Not just in terms of South-to-South movement but also South-to-North movement?
For some countries it won’t necessarily make a lot of difference but with other countries it will have significant impact and we expect to see a lot of Africans looking for different and better opportunities in neighbouring countries and elsewhere within the continent. As you’ve said, the South-to-South movement is considerable in Africa and it doesn’t take place without good reason: people find they can indeed establish better opportunities in other parts of Africa. Take for example Ethiopians. You do not see all of them trying to get to Libya in order to cross the Mediterranean to Europe; many of them are finding opportunities in Sudan itself. This is to say that not everyone is thinking about Europe as the only destination.
To what extent do African countries see the migration crisis as defined by Europeans as an opportunity for leverage in terms of their strategic relationship with the European Union?
They do, but only in rare cases. I mean, countries that have borders close to Europe as Col. Gaddafi did in Libya – he used that as leverage against the Europeans. You have to understand that most African countries don’t have a well-considered policy direction on migration at all, let alone to be able to use it as a leverage against the European Union. Of course, some countries can see that the European Union is a bit desperate, and they may ask for money in return for dealing with it, but this is not necessarily the result of a well-considered or well calculated strategy for dealing with migration issues.
“ Not everyone in Africa is thinking about Europe as the only destination.”
Do you think that the African Union will face similar problems to the European Union if and when it comes to developing a united agreement around migration issues?
Yes, I think the African Union is currently facing similar problems when trying to get consensus among member states on migration issues, but the challenges are a bit different. In the African Union coming to an agreement is easier, partly because [member] states know that the oversight on implementation of the agreement is not very strict. In the European Union case it’s the other way around: they find it difficult to find consensus around policy itself but, once the policy is decided, the implementation is followed through very well and the policies are binding for all. In the AU we don’t have a problem with policy-making, we have a problem with policy implementation.
“In the AU we don’t have a problem with policy-making, we have a problem with policy implementation.”
But how about the global compacts? It seems that states parties are coming to an agreement around the text of the compacts rather fast, which makes one wonder to what extent they will be implemented, considering that they are non-binding.
In the history of international politics and the UN, non-binding agreement often run the risk of being toothless, but that doesn’t mean that they are useless. What we have seen is that even non-binding agreements are very useful in creating norms that then later become a standard. Often you have to start with setting a precedent, which then later may be turned into binding principles agreed between nations. For Africa, the compacts process is a good opportunity to air its concerns but it’s Europe now that is finding it difficult to discuss these issues properly. These concerns around refugees and migrants have been on the table for a long time but it was Europe that wouldn’t discuss them previously. It was the countries of destination that were not willing to discuss migration, not countries of origin. African countries have been more concerned about displacement, especially internal displacement, as the responsibility for the internally displaced falls on their own shoulders. In my opinion the compacts process is a good opportunity, a unique opportunity, for Africa. Africans will use it to raise their concerns about migration and especially the handling of migrants in destination countries.
Why are there so few voices, so few public speakers from Africa on this critical debate?
I agree, but it’s not the lack of African researchers on the ground. Many researchers are involved in research on internal migration as well as international migration, but the problem is they’re not given platforms. This is for various reasons, including their inability to disseminate their findings as they lack the platform and resources and access to publishing their research. Many of them also lack the access to meetings and the kind of conferences that I’m often invited to, so it’s really a resource and access issue.
“ Because Europe is a different kind of democracy from those on the African continent, some African countries don’t really feel the pressure to respond to request for deportation.”
Why are some African states not cooperating with returns and deportation of irregular migrants and failed asylum seekers?
It’s true, but let me give you an example of a particular situation. In Ethiopia in 2015 we received around 179,000 Ethiopians forcibly returned from Saudi Arabia. This is a huge number but in the case of Europe, even though their democratic systems are threatened by populist right-wing politicians these days, the overall political climate is one of liberal democracy. In Saudi Arabia deportations of this size are taking place without due process, and this would never occur in the case of return of Ethiopians from Europe. In Saudi Arabia there were a lot of abuses including torture, detention, rape etc. Now, because Europe is a different kind of democracy from those on the African continent, some African countries don’t really feel the pressure to respond to request for deportation. In addition to that, many African migrants in Europe refuse to give or to confirm their genuine nationality and many African countries are not going to accept people that they cannot prove to be their own citizens. Of course, there is one more reason: when in the past some African countries cooperated with returns from Europe, especially from Scandinavian countries, they got a very bad public image at home so in some cases African countries cannot really see the benefit of accepting returnees or those that have been deported.
Considering demographics and the rise in population in sub-Saharan Africa, the continuing poor governance in many countries of the region, along with other factors, do you expect to see more movements in the coming decades?
I would say that it depends most importantly on the transformation that might take place in Africa. If there is sufficient transformation, I think that both for Africans themselves and for countries elsewhere in the world like in Asia, China, India, Europe and the Americas, Africa will be soon “the place to be”. It is happening already, we see this in various research I have been involved in on future scenario-building, and research on mega-trends in Africa, that already indicate these trends. So basically, transformation will come not just because of Africa’s own efforts, but also thanks to those that want to invest in Africa. This will push for faster development in the continent, and the indication and hope is that this transformation will outpace any crisis. But of course, if this doesn’t take place, and crisis in the continent outpaces transformation then migration out of Africa will become a greater problem or dominant characteristic in the future.
It is evident that certain state officials collude closely with migrant smugglers and human traffickers, especially in transit countries throughout Africa. At the same time, their governments are currently making policy with the European Union. Can you comment on this apparent contradiction?
I think this is why we are saying that policy-making should come first, and legislation and criminalisation should follow. By having appropriate migration policies in place, it will be much easier to ensure that all aspects of migration can be developed, and the officials can begin to respect the rights of migrants travelling in their country. Without that, if you just concentrate on legislation and criminalisation, you actually give more power to prosecution, enforcement and border officials who exploit the system and you open lots of avenues for corruption and abuse, because the challenge is that you’re using the same officials without changing their attitudes and changing their behaviour.
“The social anxiety that Europe is feeling due to the large influx of migrants from other countries is not the same in Africa. People do not feel that level of threat.”
In Africa, where significant migration occurs, do Africans feel the same anxieties that are expressed by Europeans?
The social anxiety that Europe is feeling due to the large influx of migrants from other cultures – I mean the social and cultural threats they are feeling – is not the same in Africa. People do not feel that level of threat from migrants from other countries unless there is economic competition, as we have seen in the xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Only then they will respond and resist migrants, but otherwise they don’t see them as a threat in the same way as Europe.
“some people – not people in government of course – but individuals, are saying ‘now this is our turn for colonization!’”
Do you think there’s some kind of relish as Africa watches Europe struggling ethically, politically, and even financially to know how to deal with the issue of migration? Is there some sense of historical justice or even economic justice as African leaders watch the impact in Europe of the migration and refugee “crisis”?
Yes, well, some people – not people in government of course – but individuals, are saying “now this is our turn for colonization!” You do hear that from time to time, that discussion exists, but these are just individuals and it’s not necessarily a well-formed opinion. So you have a vernacular opinion of people wondering why are the Europeans bothering us with this issue. After all, they bothered us so much in the past by coming to Africa! But more seriously, when you see the suffering and the death, this makes us very uncomfortable. When you see the suffering, and especially the girls and the sexual violence they face. To many girls, getting anti-pregnancy pills before they travel is more important than wondering where they will get water during the journey. Why? Because they know they will get raped. I think in Africa there isn’t a full appreciation, or care, even, of the kind of suffering that migrants go through. For example, recently there was a drowning of 49 Ethiopians and it didn’t appear at all on the news in Ethiopia. This shows that migration itself and the impact on our people is still in a marginal place in the public discourse.