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Migration in Europe: "It Is Time to Break with This Vicious Circle"

Analyses - 25 June 2018

By Institut Montaigne

After a week marked by the refusal of the Italian Minister of the Interior to welcome the Aquarius ship carrying migrants who try to reach Europe - a decision strongly criticized by the French President - Giuseppe Conte, the new President of the Italian Council, came to visit Emmanuel Macron on 15 June. Despite the tense context in which this meeting occurred, the two leaders agreed on the need for a common European response to the migration issue. As the Senate began examining the "asylum and immigration" bill on Tuesday 19 June, Michaël Cheylan, contributor on African issues for Institut Montaigne and native of the High Alps, shares his analysis of the current debate around migration and the relations between the African and European continents.

How has the migration crisis evolved recently?

The peak of the so-called migration crisis is behind us. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), on 1 June 2018, 32,080 migrants crossed the Mediterranean, compared to 186,768 in 2017 and 390,432 in 2016. The increase in recent years of migratory flows from Africa to Europe can be explained by a combination of different factors. These include the collapse of the Libyan state for instance, which has fostered the development of increasingly well-organized smuggling networks. The decrease in the flow we observe today is due in particular to a series of more or less formal agreements, negotiated between former Italian Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti and militia leaders in Libya.  
Today, we are witnessing another phenomenon: the passing of migrants from a European country, such as Germany or Italy, to another, such as France or England. Take the case of the High Alps and the "unaccompanied minors" who cross the Italian border via the Montgenèvre mountain pass or the Col de Échelle mountain pass. In 2016, 28 arrivals were registered, compared to 1,253 in 2017 and 821 on 11 May 2018. In reaction to these growing figures, reinforcements were sent by the Ministry of the Interior at the end of April. After Génération identitaire’s campaign on 21 April at the Col de Échelle and the violence committed the following day in Briançon during a protest led by extreme-left activists, the Ministry of the Interior sent reinforcements to the border. To this day, we still do not know whether or not the system it has implemented is helping to better control migratory flows.

What is your view on the current debate around these issues?

The current debate on immigration is often hysterical because it is very ideological. It is fuelled by many clichés that perpetuate confusion, sometimes deliberately. This situation can be illustrated by the three following examples.

  • First of all, some believe immigration from Africa to Europe is both predictable and irreversible. The main argument of those who support this thesis relies on the demographic and economic growth differential between the two continents. First, it is quite difficult to predict the long-term future with social sciences. Second, mass immigration is not inevitable. Yet it is often presented that way, "as a natural or climatic phenomenon", observes Pierre Vermeren, Professor of Contemporary History. In a recent interview in Le Figaro, he recalls that "there were over a billion of poor Chinese people, but they never ended up in Japan, because this country decided otherwise". Indeed, if demographic and economic variables do cause the aspiration to immigration, the effectiveness of migratory movements depends on another crucial parameter: the political willingness (reflected in the legal system) of host countries. This is what explains the decrease in the number of arrivals of migrants on the Italian coasts, the Visegrád group’s refusal to host asylum seekers in Hungary or the end of illegal immigration in Australia. When it comes to immigration, there is no ‘fait accompli’: it’s all a matter of political voluntarism.
  • Secondly, it is said that "Africa" is emigrating. This is an overgeneralization. First, most of the migratory flows concerning this continent are intra-African. Then, there are 54 countries in Africa and 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet only the nationals of a handful of countries migrate from Africa to Europe. If we put aside the specific problems of the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Somalia, etc.), South Sudan and the Southern region of Sudan, which partly host conflict areas, the majority of migratory flows come from a few countries in West Africa. In the case of the High Alps, almost all migrants come from Côte d'Ivoire, the economic leader of French-speaking Africa, and Guinea-Conakry, which experienced its first democratic alternation in 2010. Thus, saying that migrants come from "Africa" in an indiscriminate way - often evoking the UN forecasts (2.5 billion inhabitants in 2050 and 4 billion in 2100) to strike minds - is already a biased way to approach the debate.
  • Finally, the indiscriminate use of the terms ‘refugees’, ‘migrants’, ‘exiles’ and so on, is confusing. In the High Alps, only 2% of migrants are reported to be refugees, which is consistent with the geographical origin of the persons concerned. In Italy, it has been estimated that there are currently 670,000 illegal immigrants, only a tiny minority of whom could claim the refugee status. Confusion on the terms we use (migrants, exiles, refugees...) does not contribute to a peaceful and healthy debate. Worse, it ultimately threatens the right to asylum, as Institut Montaigne and Terra Nova rightly point out in their note: “The latter [European asylum policies] should allow for a prompt assessment of asylum applications, based on harmonized criteria, the effective support of those who are accepted, and the organization of the effective return to their country of origin for people who will neither be able to benefit from asylum, nor from the right to legal immigration. The right to asylum policy will have lost all meaning if those who are not allowed to stay on the  territory end up doing so anyway.

What place should migrations occupy in the relationship between Africa and Europe?

An important place, certainly, but not an exclusive one, because Africa and Europe share both numerous and diverse common challenges. Today, however, the public debate on the relationship between Africa and Europe seems to focus only on immigration issues, which tarnishes the image of the African continent and reduces its attractiveness.
Nevertheless, it is true that the current situation is a negative-sum game for both continents. On the one hand, in Europe, the portrayed lack of control over the migration phenomenon feeds anxieties that benefit the so-called "anti-system" or "populist" parties, and threatens to make the European Union implode. On the other hand, to think that Africa's salvation depends on immigration is simply inaccurate. Not to mention that the current system destabilizes the African states concerned, because it feeds the mafia business of smugglers who push migrants to take senseless risks by advertising for a European Eldorado.
This is particularly the case for young people, who are highly represented among migrants. This can be explained by the "cost-benefit" calculation carried out by their surroundings. The latter join forces to finance the journey - the costs range from €2,000 to €3,000 for a departure from West Africa - of someone within their inner circles. The place their bets on the one who can physically best withstand such an ordeal and who is most likely, once in Europe, not to be deported and to be taken in charge. This explains, for example, the high proportion of unaccompanied minors among those rescued by the Aquarius ship (123 out of a total of 629). Once arrived and settled, the young migrant will have to transfer up to 75% of his or her income to repay the cash advance needed for the journey and help his or her family back home, which inevitably complexifies the integration process in the host country.

In the end, the current system is very perverse, and even leads to crime.

  • It makes minors or young adults in particular take senseless risks without having an impact on the development process in the countries of departure concerned.
  • It is extremely costly for host countries. In France, a 2017 Senate report estimated the annual cost of care for an unaccompanied minor at €50,000 per year. In the High Alps, for example, the budget dedicated to the care of unaccompanied minors in the department went from €60 000 in 2016 to €2.5 million in 2017 (of which €1.5 million is yet to be paid by the department). This amount could significantly increase again in 2018.
  • Finally, it strengthens the mafia networks. For smugglers, every arrival of migrants in Europe, even under inhumane conditions, is a form of advertisement for their fateful trade, because it encourages other candidates to take inconceivable risks to reach the European coasts.

It is therefore high time we broke with this vicious circle. To do so, the migration issue should of course be settled. Yet, beyond that, the relations between the European Union and African countries (some of them in particular) should also be overhauled, according to a shared vision of prosperity.


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