In depth: Migration in Europe –the Mediterranean cemetery

migrant tragedy

The death of nearly one thousand Africans last April off the coast of Italy prompted European leaders to call an urgent meeting to try to stop the bleeding that makes the Mediterranean into a workers’ cemetery or “human rubbish tip”, as the mayor of Lampedusa said. This tragedy caused so much astonishment that it seemed to be the moment to tackle with courage and realism a drama that began a quarter of a century ago and which has led to the death of 23,000 people in the last 13 years. In 2014 3,419 immigrants died off the Spanish, Italian and Greek coasts, according to UNHCR. In the first four months of 2015 about 1,700 bodies have already been counted.


This recurring drama inspired the head of European diplomacy, Federica Mogherini, on the eve of an extraordinary summit in Brussels (“We have no alibi”).  An expression of a generalised outcry signalling an awareness which would lead to new approaches to address the root causes of this humanitarian crisis. It was not the case. The problem is forgetfulness: the next catastrophe erased the horrors of the day before, obliterating the firm promises and good intentions.


The measures taken by Europe are summarised as combatting the mafias that profit from human trafficking and acheiving a more equitable allocation of quota of rescued immigrants. In other words, increasing the protection of its southern border through repression and providing charitable assistance to starving sub-Saharan Africans who succeed in reaching the rich northern shore after a terrible journey across deserts and seas. Some measures that have been failing over the last few years. Tripling the budget will only raise the price of the seat in a boat.


Judith Sunderland, researcher at Human Rights Watch denounced days ago the European Union’s  “lack of political will” to solve this problem. With the implementation of mechanisms to “prevent the arrival” of immigrants rather than to prevent their departure, the EU launches a clear message: aesthetics are of more concern than ethics. No matter how horrendous and massive the death of many Africans is, as long as Europeans do not have to witness it.


If this political will demanded by HRW and other humanitarian organizations existed, the African drama would have come to an end some time ago. Remember the Ebola crisis: once it was about to affect the western world, they soon found ways and means to tackle an epidemic that had killed thousands of Africans during many years. Europe knows very well what makes Africans flee their countries. Not for nothing were her main nations, until recently, colonial powers in the region. Decolonisation did not prevent them from continuing to exercise a decisive influence over the politics, economy and culture of Africans. So Europe cannot escape responsibility under the pretext of African nations’ independence. Can there be independence without sovereignty? The problem is still selective forgetfulness.


After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid in South Africa, the world seemed to throw itself into Africa. At the annual Franco-African summit meeting, the then French President Francois Mitterrand gathered his African counterparts in La Baule in 1990 to demand they change their ways of ruling, making cooperation conditional on the respect for human rights, good governance and political and social democratisation. Africa experienced a true collective effervescence. It seemed that African democrats’ aspirations would be met: to achieve freedom and development in their countries while keeping close economic, political and cultural ties with the West. Although certain tyrannies fell, the “African Spring” faded away. Mitterrand changed the criteria before the end of its mandate. His successor, Jacques Chirac, openly declared in Libreville that “Africa is not ready for democracy.” And everything continued as it was, or much worse, in some places.


Barely half a dozen out of 55 African states can be considered democracies. The rest are dictatorships with strong political, economic and military connections with western powers and their powerful corporations. A combination that generates that stifling atmosphere full of conflict, repression and underdevelopment. Kofi Annan, the current chairman of the African Progress Panel, published a report in 2013 that reveals the continent loses at least 63,000 million dollars annually because of corruption.The former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who now chairs the High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows, also claimed in 2013 that money laundering by politicians and extractive companies deprives Africa of 50,000 million dollars a year.


Even the African Union admits that 157,000 million dollars (5.6% of GDP) leave Africa every year because of opaque economic practices. Other organisations (Transparency International, Global Financial Integrity, etc.) often denounce these distortions, favoured by the climate of moral relativism which governs international political and economic relations. This is the cause of the extreme poverty prevailing in some immensely rich countries. Their leaders, instead of building and equipping schools and hospitals, prefer to buy luxury goods in Europe and America, invest in businesses which are sponsored by the West and speculate in the financial markets. The EU knows its banking system annually receives an amount of money from Africa equivalent to double the EU budget for development cooperation. And do they insist on the charitable speech when they have in their hand the key to a prosperous and stable Africa?


Today, the pretext for keeping African tyrannies in power is the Islamist expansion with Libya as a paradigm. For some,  Gaddafi’s eviction led to greater instability in North Africa. It may be more reasonable to invert the argument: the chaos in Libya highlights the breakdown of a society which has been crushed for 42 years. And it would have been an impossibility if the tyrant had not been cheered on while he indoctrinated a whole generation against the values of freedom. And instead of modernising his country, he championed the anti-western cause and accumulated wealth for himself and his family in western banks.


Final and maybe inconvenient questions: Why do African leaders keep quiet faced with the bleeding of their compatriots which moves every human spirit? Is it not astonishing that there are demonstrations in Paris because of terrorist attacks, and yet no one goes to funerals in memory of Africans who died during unfinished pilgrimages to a better future far from their homes?

About the Author

Donato Ndongo
Donato Ndongo-Bidyogo was born in Niefang, Equatorial Guinea, in 1950. Writer, journalist and political exile. He was correspondent and delegate of Spanish EFE agency in central Africa (1987-1995). Director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Murcia (2000-2004). Visiting Professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia (United States, 2005-2008). Regular lecturer on American, African and European universities. He is the author of the essays "History and tragedy of Equatorial Guinea" (1977), "Anthology of Guinean literature" (1984) and co-author of "Spain in Guinea" (1998) as well as of three novels translated into several languages. Mr Ndongo is a regular contributor for Spanish media such as El País, ABC, Mundo Negro and The Corner’s print magazine Consejeros, among others.

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