From the Editor’s Keyboard

Europe, The “Promised Land”.

9 January 2007 at 02:19 | 546 views

The last summer has seen a surge in immigration to mainland Europe from some African countries. While European leaders are attempting to stop the wave, Tope Akinwande points to the hypocrisy of massive farm subsidies received by European farmers and the trade policies that make it impossible for African agriculture sectors to survive.

By Tope Akinwande, Guest Writer.

Like their other fellow members of the human race, Africans have migrated since the dawn of history. They have moved in response to demographic, economic, political and related factors. In recent times, there has been a spotlight on African immigration to European countries. As the legal requirements for entry into Europe become stricter and more cumbersome and as opportunities of a decent livelihood shrinks in sub-Saharan Africa, its people have resorted to desperate means in order to gain access to what is generally considered to be the “Promised Land” for many Africans outside Europe. This has been ever more apparent in west Africa, where young people travel through deserts, stow away in ships, and employ all sorts of means in order to reach Europe.

How did this situation arise? In the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, Africa’s future looked bright. It was the post-independence “self-determination” era laden with all sorts of opportunities; almost all of the agricultural-based African economies could meet the needs of its people. An average African had no cause to risk their life by travelling in a desperate fashion to Europe when their basic needs could be met in their country of origin.

Africans who ventured to Europe for further studies were in a hurry to return to their countries of origin as prestigious and lucrative jobs with all the accompanying benefits awaited them. Afterwards, they only travelled to the western world for business and leisure. The few African students who stayed back in Europe were considered as failures who could not find their feet back home.

However, things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Africans and especially west Africans - probably because of the coastal closeness to Europe - are the new “Boat People” fleeing abject poverty occasioned by lack of opportunities in their countries of origin. They are constantly in the international spotlight either being rescued by European coast guards, attended to by tourists or having their bloated bodies occasionally washed to the shores.

In the summer of 2006 - summer is said to be the preferred travel time as the sea is supposedly calmer - it was almost a daily occurrence to see demeaning images of tired and hopelessly-looking African men and women rescued by European coast guards after risking their lives to get to the Spanish Canary Islands. They used make-shift boats to negotiate the treacherous waves of the Mediterranean Sea with the aim of escaping poverty back home.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and the United Nations Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, over 27,000 illegal immigrants have turned up in 2006 on the Spanish Canary Island off the west African coast.

While the rescued sojourners are considered to be “fortunate” to have stepped onto the shores of Europe despite the excruciating difficulties awaiting them, many Africans are not lucky enough to be intercepted mid-sea by coast guards. They perish with their desperate dreams. So far in 2006, the Spanish coast guard has accounted for 500 bodies found in the ocean around the Canaries.

Origin of the problem

Compared to the 1960s and early 1970s, Africa’s growth performance in the 80s and 90s has been very bad. The 1980s have been described as a “lost decade”, while the children of that era and the 1990s have been famously tagged the “wasted generation” by the Nigerian Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka.

Despite the strong belief held by many Africa analysts that the economic woes of Africa are rooted in its “largely documented history” of colonialism which culminated in a faade called “independence” and the Cold War which institutionalised despotism, kleptocracy, and big-man politics, the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), have made it impossible for African countries to meet the basic needs of their people.

Introduced in the 1970s to galvanise the economies of African countries, following the decline in the prices of agricultural products, SAP came with tough conditionalities such as privatisation, wage freezes, privatisation, elimination of price controls and lifting of trade barriers.

Instead of encouraging economic development, SAPs created a new phenomenon of Heavily Indebted Poor Countries who could not meet the basic needs of their people.

In its 22 June 2006 edition, The Economist in its characteristic sanctimonious manner posited that “rich countries have been generous lately, with extra aid and debt relief, giving many struggling economies a breath of air. By the end of last year, 29 countries, 25 of them in Africa, had had their debt burden eased...” The magazine goes on to wonder if “...Africa, often dubbed the hopeless continent, (is) finally taking off?”. For once, a magazine that has carelessly dubbed Africa as a “Hopeless Continent” conceded that “Africa itself deserves the credit for the upswing “of its economy in the past year”.

Like most of its counterparts in the international media, what “The Economist” failed to acknowledge is that the dividends of the so-called debt relief are easily drowned by one phenomenon - the international trade policies of the “generous” industrial nations it was talking about. The debt relief issue is like giving something out with the left hand and taking it back with the right hand.

In March 2005, the British government, who has been in the forefront of the Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPCI), published a detailed report of the 1.7bn it gave to agricultural companies as subsidies. At the same time, the US -though planning to reduce its subsidies to American farmers by 5 percent - gave about $9bn [6].

How on earth would African farmers compete with their European and American counterparts on the world food market? Would African governments whose national budgets are sometimes smaller than the subsidies western farmers receive be able to subsidise their farmers to “even the scores”? They will have to face incessant unrest at home while the rest of their citizens “hit the road” or set off for European coasts.

Oumar Hamadoun Dicko, Foreign Affairs Minister of Mali, could not have been more precise on the causes of the recent wave of immigration of west Africans: “Immigration is going to continue unless we address fundamental issues like the unequal terms of trade,” he says. “African farmers can’t compete and are out of world markets,” he concludes in a recent interview with United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs [7]. He surely knows what he is talking about since Mali’s cotton farmers have been greatly affected by the subsidies enjoyed by their western counterparts.

According to the Malian Foreign Affairs Ministry, 4 million, or over a third of Mali’s 11.7 million people are currently out of the country [8]. It is noteworthy that the majority of these Malian emigrants are from Kayes, the main cotton-producing area of the country. They have had to leave their cotton farms to try their luck in Europe.

Monies remitted by this large Malian Diaspora have been vital in meeting the needs that the government has been unable to meet. Many Malians in the Diaspora are building schools, dispensaries, and other amenities in their regions. The Malian Ministry of Foreign Affairs concedes that annual Malian Diaspora remittance exceeds 200 million US Dollars, which is more than half of the country’s export earnings.

While a lot of talks have been going on about agricultural subsidies as the main international trade policies that have hampered trade and development in Africa, it is interesting to know that there are many other types of subsidies such as “fishing subsidies” that have not made life easier for developing countries.

Recently, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) accused Japan of paying the highest subsidies to its national fishing industry at $US2-billion dollars. The report also indicated that the 15-member European Union, China, and the United States are leading underwriters [9]. These governments give their farmers and fishing companies subsidies in the form of grants, loans and loan guarantees, equity infusions, tax preferences, and price or income support.

Thiaroye-Sur-Mer is a fishing town a few kilometres from Dakar, the capital of Senegal. A few years ago and up till the end of 2005, one could see hundreds of fishermen - both young and old - selling fish to locals and large-scale buyers from Dakar and elsewhere. Today, Thiaroye-Sur-Mer has almost become a ghost town as almost all the younger fishermen have all taken to the seas; this time not to fish but to try their luck in Spain’s Canary Islands. They sold their means of livelihood (boats, fishing nets, etc) and bought a one-way ticket on a boat to a supposed better future in Europe.

Like many sub-Saharan African countries, Senegal has been going through an excruciating SAP that has completely destroyed its economy. Its main source of income - groundnut - is no longer well-priced on the international market as many substitutes have been derived. Senegal’s fishing industry is losing its momentum as the country has been inundated with subsidised food, including fish from Europe and Asia, making it impossible for local fishermen to sell their wares at a decent rate and meet the basic needs of their families. The only way for these young Senegalese fishermen to survive and meet the needs of their families is by trying their luck in Europe. This has become a way of life in a country where monies remitted by the Senegalese Diaspora sometimes accounts for 90 percent of income in many households.

Which way forward?

With the recent wave of immigration to the Spanish Canary Island, European governments, led by Spain, have been trying to curb the immigration of Africans who are willing to risk their lives to reach Europe at all costs.

The incidents of September and October 2005 where Spanish coast guards opened fire on ill-equipped boats full of African immigrants led to the adoption of the “Rabat Declaration” on 11 July 2006 by 57 European and African countries. The Declaration enjoined the 57 signatory countries to set up an action plan that will get to the core of the problem.

In September 2006, the European Union promised to provide Mali with US$542 million over five years to control the emigration of its citizens. Mali is expected to use the money to start various projects aimed at discouraging young people from emigrating.

International NGOs are also trying to encourage young Africans to stay back in their countries. For example, the Spanish Red Cross has embarked on an awareness campaign in Senegal to demystify the notion of success attached to emigration. They are emphasizing the harsh realities.

African celebrities have also thrown themselves into the fray. One of the most successful African singers, Senegalese Youssou N’Dour is lending his notoriety and voice to the anti-emigration campaign. In collaboration with IOM and other well-known Senegalese musicians, he has recorded a single titled “Emigration” where he enjoined the youth not to abandon their country. One thing missing in this beautiful and groovy record is that Youssou N’Dour forgot to suggest alternatives to Senegalese and African youth.

Can these initiatives work? Since all the aforementioned initiatives, there have been cases of African boat people arriving in Spain and as recent as September 2006 in Malta, thus exasperating the government of the tiny country that has just joined the European Union.

As one route is being blocked, Africans perfect their “travelling techniques”.On 20 November 2006 Europa Press Agency reported how 1,293 west Africans, braving a very harsh winter, arrived in Spain’ s Canary island with many of them using well-built fishing vessels. They also travelled with enough provisions (food, winter clothing, etc. ) to see them through their journey of death. Interestingly, some immigrants devise or go back to the old routes, probably thinking that immigration authorities’ would have shifted focus away from them.


As I had indicated earlier on, there are a lot of initiatives to curb illegal immigration with the latest one being the first Ministerial Conference on Migration and Development between EU and the entire African continent slated for 22 and 23 November 2006. One of the expected outcomes of the Conference was the establishment of a framework for a joint collaboration between Europe and Africa to curb illegal immigration. The framework will consider major causes of immigration such as economic integration and development.

When one considers the impact of the remittances made by African immigrants - both legal and illegal - to their national economies and how it is being sadly flaunted and praised as an alternative to foreign earnings, it is not foolhardy to wonder if African politicians are really sincere and keen on curbing the flow of their citizens to the west. Why should they bother when the emigration of their citizens “relieves” them of the headache of sourcing funds to embark on development projects such as building of schools, hospitals, roads, etc. ? If they genuinely work towards stopping them from emigrating, what alternatives do they have for farmers who cannot sell their produce? Have they got any alternatives for young graduates and school leavers they are churned out in millions into joblessness and despair?

It is noteworthy that while African politicians are silently grateful for the “subsidies” they get from their citizens in the Diaspora, western politicians are not keen on stopping the subsidies they give to their citizens as their national interest and particularly political survival in their respective countries depends on keeping their farmers and citizens happy.

As long as this political deadlock is not broken, the west and Europe in particular, should be prepared to receive more and more people.

Tope Akinwande is a Desk Officer at the West Africa Department of TEARFUND, a leading UK relief and development NGO working in partnership with Christian agencies and churches in over 70 countries to tackle the causes and effects of poverty.

Source: Pambazuka News.