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Melilla migrant tragedy: Europe opts for harsher control

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Picture: Reuters – Irregular African migration to the world has existed for decades, dating back to the aftermath of World War II. Since the early 1990s, the issue has increased for reasons such as security threats varying from wars to military coups, or the search for better economic opportunities, the writer says.

By Divine Yamulamba

On June 24, “between 1,300 and 2,000 African migrants, most of them from Sudan and South Sudan attempted to cross the Moroccan-Spain border, by climbing the chain-link fences that separate Morocco from the Spanish territory of Melilla. Of the massive group, 23 African migrants were reported dead.

Irregular African migration to the world has existed for decades, dating back to the aftermath of World War II. Since the early 1990s, the issue has increased for reasons such as security threats varying from wars to military coups, or the search for better economic opportunities.

The effects of irregular migration differ from country to country. For example, in the UK, low-paying jobs and non-permanent work contracts, are usually the most targeted forms of employment by irregular migrants. Although this helps to fill the huge skills gap in the informal sector of the economy, on a more negative note, exploitation in the form of smuggling illegal substances or forced labour often falls into part of this category of work.

In response to the growing number of irregular migrants in European countries, governments have mostly leaned towards developing policies that promote the severe control of external borders. Additionally, EU governments have also implemented internal procedures such as increased police surveillance, brutal imprisonment, and exclusion of migrants from social services. The consequences of these policies have unfortunately manifested more violations against migrants’ rights, in an enforced attempt to keep them out of EU destination countries.

Such has been the case with recent international media reports about the death of more than a dozen African migrants at the Morocco-Spain border. The incident has reinforced the concern of anti-immigrant prejudices and racial discrimination against Black African migrants.

Responses towards the Moroccan-Spain border incident, especially on the side of European countries, have not only lacked in terms of finding sustainable solutions but have primarily prioritized conversations about reducing the flow of migration, rather than protecting the human rights of these African migrants.

For instance, while official video footage clearly exposes Moroccan security forces beating an injured migrant, the remarks of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez have failed to acknowledge Morocco’s abuse, and instead placed more importance on preventing unauthorised “mafias” into Spanish territory. Singing the same tune as that of the Prime Minister was EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson, Spain’s Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, and Morocco’s Interior Minister Abdelouafi Lafti, who after their discussion early this July not only praised Morocco for reducing the irregular departures of 26,000 migrants but also concluded that they would join forces in “fighting smugglers”.

This response comes as no surprise as the EU’s approach to irregular migration is known to have changed drastically since the so-called 2015 migration crisis. For example, although several EU countries have tried to ease border control and grant temporary residence to refugees fleeing from the Russia-Ukraine crisis of February 2022, sources reveal that there are far too many double standards as to who the “deserving refugee” is between “white” Ukrainians and “black” Africans. Stories of Black Africans being refused to board buses and trains escaping from the Russia-Ukraine conflict bring to question this anti-migrant rhetoric.

Similarly, Africa’s position vis-à-vis irregular migration has also suffered an upsetting level of contradiction over the years. For instance, in 2018 the AU advocated for the free movement of persons through what they called RFM regimes. However, “a significant number of African states (such as Niger and Togo) continue to treat RFM as a security and economic risk” because they are afraid that not siding with the EU’s interests in discouraging irregular migration will scar their ability to access EU funds and maintain diplomacy.

To address the Africa/EU irregular migration, all African Union members need to, first, present themselves as a consolidated unit in Africa-EU policy dialogues (such as the EU-Africa Migration and Mobility Dialogue). African governments will not be able to denounce the excessive use of force (which has resulted in horrific deaths, casualties and racial discrimination against black Africans. They will not be able to successfully play a proactive role in addressing irregular migration if their response to the EU widely differs with some countries showing “full collaboration on one side, others manifesting partial collaboration and the rest, outright disregard”.

Secondly, African Union policymakers need to establish an effective and decolonised definition for the term “irregular migrant”, to avoid instances where the word is taken out of context by EU member states. There is a possibility to limit its use to a particular race or use it interchangeably with words such as ‘traffickers’, ‘mafias’ or ‘criminals’.

Thirdly, the continental body needs to partner with the EU destination countries, in providing access to safe migration channels and ensuring that during migration processes, legislation against racial discrimination and/or xenophobia, to combat violence within host communities has already been reinforced.

In cases like the Morocco/Spain incident, such legislation would not only serve to expose crimes of violence at a particular border but would also protect surviving victims of such violence, by providing them with compensation to support their recovery and punishing the perpetrators with jail terms. This would compel the EU to hold its member countries accountable for what happens at their borders.

Yamulamba is a Research Intern at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

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