They ask him, “Have you forgotten something?” and the emigrant responds “I wish!” in the shortest tale in the world. This phrase suffices to express the spirit of migration, a global phenomenon that, according to headlines tinged with red, has cost the lives of at least 18,500 people over the past three years. At the close of 2016, statistics from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported a total of 7,495 victims that year. In other words, 40.5% of the deaths which have occurred over the past three years took place last year, marked from its beginning by migratory waves from, among other places, Africa.
A report by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) indicated that the total number of migrants arriving in Europe by two main sea routes (Eastern Mediterranean route, and across the Western Balkans) in 2016 fell by nearly two-thirds compared to 2015, when more than one million migrants entered the European Union (EU). Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis accounted for the largest share of migrants arriving on the Greek islands; a favored route due to its geographical proximity to the Middle East.
However, the number of migrants arriving via the Central Mediterranean route rose by nearly one-fifth to 181,000, the highest number ever recorded, reflecting a steadily increasing number from the African continent.
The decline in the first two routes, with a total of 364,000 migrant arrivals in 2016, reflects the intensification of border controls, as well as intercontinental agreements to prevent the entry of migrants. Meanwhile, the necessary cooperation among affected nations and international organizations, to directly tackle the causes of what has also become an increasing problem for the recipient countries, is lacking.
The question should be how to address the adverse situations present in the emitting African countries, which are translated into increasing migration, and not how to contain international migratory rates, as the latter almost always results in retrograde measures such as the announcement from the United States of the possible construction of an anti-immigrant wall. A similar measure was adopted by the Hungarian government, which last October announced the building of a high-tech fence along its southern border to attempt to curb irregular migration. This will certainly control one symptom of the phenomenon, but not its multiple causes.
While this absurd wall so far remains in the realm of dangerous utopias, the reality is that many who have obtained refugee status are currently dying from the cold in Greece and other European countries, due to the influx of a polar air mass that almost killed 19 migrants in Bavaria. In these cases, a refugee's status can become that of a corpse. According to the IOM report, most of the deaths and disappearances of the past year took place in the Mediterranean Sea, a route used daily by thousands of people trying to reach Europe to escape violence and poverty in the Middle East, North Africa, and areas of Asia. North Africa was described as the most affected region, considering the use of Libya’s coasts as an important departure point toward Italy and Greece, the main entry points for migrants and refugees to Europe.
While the figures are worrying, the real alarm is triggered at the thought of the bodies that are not counted, disappeared in foreign lands and waters. Numbers aside, basic human logic suggests that migrating is a personal decision that entails rights and duties. International laws and policies, on the other hand, increasingly tilt the balance toward the criminalization of this right, exercised in different ways and for diverse causes.
In the face of these setbacks, IOM Director General William Lacy Swing – an agency integrated with the United Nations system – is advocating measures to ensure safe and legal migration for all, stating, “We are past the time for counting. We must act,” as reported by Prensa Latina on January 6. Likewise, according to the PL report, “the UN insists on the urgency of adopting comprehensive responses to the phenomenon, based on human rights and attention to root causes.”
However, this discourse has been repeated so often, that it has lost its credibility and not resulted in the desired effect, instead forming part of a vicious circle in which it tends to serve only as superficial justification of the migratory phenomenon. Merely stating the fact that economic and political crises, wars, famines, natural disasters, and underdevelopment in general provoke the movement of citizens outside their national borders, is insufficient to addressing the issue. What lies behind all these general causes is the contemporary geopolitical configuration, which has deep roots in the spoils of colonialism and neo-colonialism.
Today the European powers, the former “mother countries” of the African nations, close their doors to those from their former colonies, as if these almost suicidal attempts to “enter” were not to a large extent due to the plundering of this continent, resulting in dysfunctional economies, abysmally unequal resource distribution, or what is the same: the existence of increasingly rich political elites that propel the mounting impoverishment of the rest of the population.
Although this appears another constantly repeated line, specialist studies continue to point to the fact that nothing will stop migration as long as there is underdevelopment and poverty, as long as neoliberal economic policies continue to be imposed on the countries of the South, and not until the current international economic order is transformed.
However, if one digs deeper into the African migratory flow, contrary to common prejudices, certain myths are dismantled: despite the high migration rates to the North, South-South migration has proliferated in recent years, which in the case of Africa employs routes to the Americas. Equally significant is the fact that most African migrants do not opt for a destination outside of the continent, but rather seek solutions in more developed countries of the region itself, such as Angola and South Africa. On the other hand, according to the book África en movimiento. Migraciones internas y externas (Africa in motion: Internal and External Migration), by selected authors including Mbuyi Kabunda and Godwin O. Ikwuytum, “it has been demonstrated that it is not the poorest who emigrate, but the most fortunate.”
This paradox leads us to question the use of aid by international organizations in the stigmatized continent, when this is not a source of economic growth, with the corresponding effective distribution of resources as, ultimately, the wealth goes abroad. It is not a matter of directly and exclusively associating migration with underdevelopment, but of analyzing the underdevelopment-development relationship and its impact on the movement of thousands of people beyond their homes.