Xenophobia Watch

The growing global challenge of migration

Gaddafi foresaw exodus to Europe

South Africa is not the only country facing an influx of foreigners. In fact, the Mediterranean region has a much bigger problem, with again the victims mostly Africans. 

It is, however, not only an African problem and deserves a broader perspective.

For many years now the United States has been attempting to stem the influx of people from its southern neighbour. Prevention through a deterrence strategy to stem the flow of desperate people across international borders in the hope of a better life has proven to be ineffective.

Australia has to attend to its own ‘boat people’ from South East Asia. Despite the government boasting of success, it has been criticised for what is perceived to be a heavy-handed and inhumane approach.

Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, urged European leaders to “urgently implement harsh border-protection policies” in response to the European Union’s (EU) current migration problems.

The EU is facing an unprecedented influx of unauthorised immigrants and refugees from especially North Africa, exacerbated by thousands fleeing Syria since the outbreak of a civil war in the country.  

War and poverty are singled out as the two main reasons for people fleeing the countries of their birth – a stance endorsed by the United Nations Commission for Human Rights (UNCHR) declaring that most refugees are Syrians – accounting for a quarter of the refugees globally, followed by Afghans and Somalis.

The South African government’s alleged sympathetic position towards foreigners has been put forward domestically as a contributing reason for the local xenophobic attacks.

The opposite, some argue, is true for the EU. Amnesty International and other humanitarian organisations accuse the EU of a lack of urgency and compassion and a “drawbridge-like mentality”.

Defining moment

The challenge faced by the EU and the plight of hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing there, was highlighted by the drowning of 900 people in the Mediterranean when another overloaded boat capsized on Sunday 19 April 2015. 

In an article headed “Europe Should Protect People, Not Borders”, Der Spiegel reports that the EU annually spends millions to monitor its borders in an attempt to prevent the movement of refugees and prospective immigrants onto EU territory. 

The result, it writes, is that these people “Drown in the Mediterranean, bleed to death on the border fences of the Spanish North African conclaves of Ceuta and Melilla or freeze to death in the mountains between Hungary and Ukraine. But the European public still doesn't appear to be entirely aware of the dimensions of this humanitarian catastrophe. We have become accomplices to one of the biggest crimes to take place in European post war history.”   

Complicated issue

The issue is, however, complicated with no easily solutions.

Some believe the EU should simply open their doors unconditionally. The more considered view is that Europe cannot simply absorb the number of people projected to be involved. Proactive measures need to be taken to stem the flow to prevent European nations from being overwhelmed by unsustainable numbers of refugees and to stem the escalating death toll from drownings.

The migrant crisis is emerging as both a failure of policy, and of the EU’s stated humanitarian values, on which it has long prided itself – values now colliding headlong with unrest in the Middle East and parts of Africa, particularly Libya.

Ironically, the EU played a big role in the events in Libya that forced millions to flee. The EU, helping thousands of boat people, runs the risk of being seen as issuing an invitation to more immigrants – a highly contentious domestic issue.

On the back of xenophobic sentiments right-wing parties are growing across Europe, as proven by the recent gains of the National Front in France. It is also a major issue in the current election campaign in Britain.


With the many drownings turning the Mediterranean into “a cemetery without tombstones”, the challenges are staggering.

Ironically, as his regime in Libya was collapsing in 2011, Gaddafi warned that an Islamist takeover would be followed by “an African movement en masse towards Europe” that would see the Mediterranean “become a sea of chaos”.

But the man championing the idea of a united Africa was also involved in some underhand dealings. When still firmly in power, Gaddafi signed a multimillion dollar deal in a “friendship” agreement with Italy, putting in place extremely harsh measures to stop Africans from Libya reaching Europe, in particular Italy.

To date this year a record 35 000 people have travelled illegally to Europe. To be able to apply legally for asylum in the EU a person must be on European soil. To reach Europe, crossing the sea is the easiest and shortest way, especially starting off from Libya with its lack of border control. Figures are expected to exceed one million by year’s end.

The trafficking of these desperate people heading for Europe has become big business, estimated to be worth US$ 500 million a year and involving organised crime syndicates.

Security concerns

There are claims that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, with strong support in lawless Libya, is exploiting the situation and has smuggled more than 4 000 militants posing as refugees into Europe.

Intelligence experts believe this to be an exaggeration, but few doubt that jihadists are doing their best to exploit the Mediterranean chaos to turn it to their advantage – also as a lucrative source of fundraising.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) there have been 30 times as many deaths so far in 2015 as in the same period last year and the figure could top 30 000. In 2014, 225 000 people were rescued in the Mediterranean.

The EU admitted its shortcomings and adopted a 10-point plan to redress the problem unfolding in the Mediterranean. The EU’s foreign policy chief insists that the bloc has now turned a corner with all its member countries “finally” accepting that the migrant crisis is a European issue, not just a problem for frontline states such as Italy, Spain or Greece and, “to send them back is another way of killing them”.

Africa’s silence                                                                                        

While Europe is at least trying to do something, Africa, on the other hand, remains silent.

Simon Allison wrote, “The European Union is receiving plenty of flak for its role in the migrant boat crisis in the Mediterranean. But it’s not just Europe’s problem. Where are the African leaders expressing their compassion, where is the emergency African Union Task Force to alleviate the problem”?

It is an embarrassing silence.

Not only is Africa and the AU lacking the capacity and most probably the will, to do anything, but any response would be an embarrassing confirmation of the shortcoming and maladministration on the continent, despite the Africa Rising mantra, that compel hundreds of thousands of people from across Africa to risk their lives in search of a better life in a foreign and hostile, even xenophobic, environment.

In fact, Africa itself is also in the grip of a xenophobic epidemic, writes Eyewitness News’s Africa correspondent, Jean-Jacques Cornish, in an article worth reading for a broader perspective.

by Garth Cilliers

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