The myth of mass African migration to Europe

African refugees being rescued in Europe. If you believed all written about them, you’d think every African were ready to give up their kidney to live in a ghetto in Marseille, says the writer. Picture: Santi Palacios/AP

African refugees being rescued in Europe. If you believed all written about them, you’d think every African were ready to give up their kidney to live in a ghetto in Marseille, says the writer. Picture: Santi Palacios/AP

Published Jul 11, 2018


Another day, another slight from Emmanuel Macron. This time the French president told Nigerians, during an official trip to Lagos at the end of last week, that Africa’s youth needed to get over colonialism. He said the problem of African migration to Europe was due to the unplanned population growth on the continent.

When it comes to infantilising Africa, Macron is a serial offender. Exactly a year ago, he said Africa’s problems were civilisational.

Despite the quiver in my fingertips to go after Macron, the column is not about him. He suffers from a Napoleon complex: scrawny, relatively short and wants to make France relevant again.

Another rant is not going to dislodge his supremacist views.

Instead, I want to address the mythical views that Macron’s ilk continue to infer and the ways in which they continue to bewitch so many of us.

Europeans have a remarkable way of coming off as the victims even if their actions of bombing, stealing and exploiting the continent sent “this wave” of poor Africans escaping war, environmental disaster or hunger.

To turn Africans dangling on rubber dinghy boats into a demographic threat is an extraordinary feat.

If you choose to believe everything written or said about African refugees and asylum seekers, or migrants escaping poverty in the Gambia, conflict in the Sahel, or malgovernance or conflict in any other part of the continent, you would think every African on the continent was ready to give up their kidney to live in a ghetto in northern Marseille.

Here are some of the facts that are seemingly left out each time the phrase “influx of Africans” is used.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), six out of the world’s

10 most neglected conflicts are in Africa. A neglected conflict means funding shortfalls for aid and coupled with poor media attention, civilian populations, especially the most vulnerable, are hit the hardest. Education, medical facilities and early childhood nutrition are among the first to suffer.

NRC spokesperson Tiril Skarstein was quoted as saying western nations were good “at turning a blind eye when there is little geopolitical interest for us”.

“The countries on the list are often considered less strategically important, and that’s why there’s no international interest in finding a solution,” she said.

In other words, if Africans are fleeing, there is a pretty good reason for doing so.

But this brings in another remarkable stat. Even when Africans were fleeing

their homes that were hit by turmoil, just 5.6% of refugees have sought refuge outside the continent.

In other words, the vast majority of displaced people in Africa are either internally displaced or refugees in one of their neighbouring countries.

According to the latest statistics, at least 14 million people are internally displaced on the continent, with about 4.5 million in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone.

Uganda is host to 1.4 million refugees, with about 500000 entering the country last

year. Sudan has around 770000 refugees from South Sudan.

This begs the question: how many African refugees have left for Europe? According to the NRC, around 180 000 made their way into Europe last year. Another 3 900 died trying.

These are not small numbers by any account. But neither are they statistics - reduced to that by the myopic European fear - that suggest a coming apocalypse, a blackocalypse, which the European governments keep visualising.

Beyond the wilful neglect to include numbers, there is an unsettling, almost concerted effort to dehumanise those who try their hardest to make a life elsewhere.

This is surely not limited to Europe; surviving xenophobia is a rite of passage for certain migrants or refugees in South Africa.

It does appear that our amnesia runs deep; people seem to forget that no one chooses to pack a few key belongings, throw their life savings at a smuggler and drag their terrified children to an unfriendly sea. These are extraordinary feats and acts of courage in the face of imminent danger. 

No one arrives in Europe by boat with the intention of lapping up social security. That our neo-liberal economies are making us inherently inward looking and selfish is seemingly lost on us.

How nations, governments treat the marginalised, despite the logic of the market, speaks volumes. No one is denying that the decision to help refugees is often strategic and not always born out of the service of others.

That Europe would be so basic in its approach to African refugees, given its record of environmental degradation, economic exploitation, land theft and systemic exclusion and marginalisation of African nations from the global economy, is pathetic to say the least.

And to think, Mr Macron, that among the wretched of the Earth, a majority of these stowaways find reprieve on the dark continent - either within their own countries, or in neighbouring nations - trying their best to amend and fix the misgivings of your legacy.

* Azad Essa is a journalist based in New York City. He is also the author of Zuma’s Bastard (Two Dogs Books)

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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