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Why African youth are risking their lives to enter the developed world
Rob Pinney

Many young people from Africa are risking their lives making perilous journeys to the West in search of greener pastures. The cause of this is to be found in the failure of African governments to offer opportunities to young people to realize their dreams. Africa is not poor; its children do not need to die in international waters looking for a better life.

Frustrated, angry and desperate, many young Africans have no faith in their own countries and the extant political leadership. They have dreams of prosperity but have resolved that these dreams cannot bear fruit here. Africa for them is an infertile land. Their belief is based on what they have come to learn from different media sources: social media, television and radio; and this is backed by their local experiences. For them the best of life’s opportunities are in the West - Europe and the United States; in fact, anywhere other than their home country or the African continent in general. And they are determined to reach those shores of ‘respite’ by all means possible.

Thus it is the story of smuggling, of stowing away on flights and ships, and the story of boarding amateur vessels to cross the Mediterranean. And despite the disaster faced by many such migrants in recent years, others have remained undeterred. Economic migration and refuge seeking are not new phenomena, but the sheer scale and accompanying disasters in recent years call for alarm and begs the question, ‘why do they go anyhow?’  

Why are young Africans moving in droves and what can be done to alleviate their plight and stop this flow? The answer to these questions cannot be found in no one migrant’s tale, for the reasons are as diverse as the migrants themselves.

The collapse of iron-fisted regimes in North Africa in 2011, particularly in Libya, holds some of the answers. In countries like Libya where the demise of a strongman has been followed by serious chaos, insecurity and dire economic conditions, these migrants have but one option: to brave the uncertainty of the seas and migrant routes in search of ‘safety’. Recent statistics paint a sad picture. At least 10, 651 persons have died between January 2014 and October 2016 trying to cross the Mediterranean. This number includes mostly young Africans and people from the Middle East. Despite this death toll many young Africans remain resolute. They are going anyhow! This speaks of desperation, a surrender to any condition of life - as seen in the rugged and inhumane conditions of the Calais Jungle in France - rather than the current state of affairs in their home countries; in places like Eritrea, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and many other African countries where poverty and state failure have become conspicuous. This is but one answer. 

Much is at risk; many are dying. Those who survive and arrive at the ports that receive them are confronted with near prisoner status, with jeers and humiliations. They are unwanted. Seen as a burden to an already shaky supply in some cases, they have been dumped in jungles like Calais where they face dehumanizing conditions. But this is not enough to stop the migrants. And in Europe, it is a political game. The migrant crisis has been viewed with shortsighted interpretations of international laws on refugees, migration and asylum seeking.

In spite of all these negatives, humanity is still at play. Ordinary Europeans have been seen leaving the comfort of their homes to help trekking migrants, pregnant women and babies sleeping in parks and bus stations. They serve them food, water and give them hope.

Over the last one year European politicians have been meeting back to back in different capitals to face this unfolding human tragedy. Their failure to find a common approach and their murky interpretations of international law is even tearing them apart, with Britain - a strategic target for migrants - on the verge of leaving the EU.  The meetings in the European capitals have focused mostly on EU laws and policies, and with concerns for the future of their economies and security.

However relevant the European meetings may be, the solution to the migrant crisis is not in the European capitals! They are traceable to the home countries of the migrants. And only a clever understanding of the political and economic drivers of such mass exodus, particularly of African youths, would lead to designing appropriate and more sustainable solutions. EU migration laws would never - no matter how hard or soft they are - solve the root causes of this problem. They cannot stem the flow!

All of the young Africans and people from the Middle East, for example Yemen and Syria, have legitimate reasons for fleeing their homelands. It boils down to sentiments, perceived or real, of greener pastures; a quest for safety and security and fullness of expression and aspiration. It is about validating their dreams. In countries like Eritrea where the state is practically dysfunctional with political repression rife coupled with harsh economic conditions, the exodus of their citizens is understandable. In Somalia where the state is still struggling to gain full control of its territory, violence and famine continue to make life unbearable; you would only imagine why the migrant did not leave earlier. Protracted civil wars in Sudan and South Sudan are obvious reasons for which anyone would depart in search of refuge. In most other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, at least where there is no war or famine, official corruption, and mal-governance continue to weaken the capacity of the states to deliver on their core responsibilities to the citizens. This dismal failure of the state in places like Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone where the Ebola Virus recently ravaged are compelling reasons why citizens no longer feel protected by those countries. Thus it is the fear of a blighted future that drives them away.

Public officials in these countries continue to make the case that Europe and the United States, and most recently China/Hong Kong and Dubai, are the best places on earth for social progress, political stability, and the good life. They show this by buying their homes, securing good insurance, saving their money, getting medical care, paying for education, and taking vacations in those places. While many young Africans have never visited any of the above places, from the comfortable lifestyles of their political leaders and their aspirations to own homes and make the vacation trip there, they (ordinary people) form their own similar aspirations and validate them with their knowledge of the experiences of the political elites who live this reality. They, too, are convinced that they must make this journey.

The mass migration of African youths to the West along with the huge emigration from the Middle East has produced a global humanitarian crisis, with numerous similarities to the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus disease in West Africa. Mass involuntary migration - like Ebola - is symptomatic of the chronic failure of the states in Africa, and the visible inverse relationship in international development cooperation and trade. Without delving too much into the problem of Africa’s place within the production chain, reliance on foreign aid to augment government’s expenditure has proven to be part of the problem. With minimal efforts, if any, towards self-sufficiency in sub-Saharan Africa, there has been virtually no shift from age old cronyism and seriously bloated governments that rely on foreign aid to pay the salaries of civil servants.  This without question has raised serious questions of patronage and corruption which for all intents creates an alienated group that must seek happiness elsewhere. This dependency is the reason why African governments have remained subservient and with decreasing morale of African states in international engagements. Their statehood is questioned and questionable and rightly so, because ‘how can you claim to be an adult when your bowl is still under your mother’s spoon and you make no contribution to the pot?’

With the drop in prices of commodities like iron ore, gold and oil, multinationals are closing up projects. The consequences have been mass layoffs and decreases in wages in places like South Africa, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, adding to the perennial menace of youth unemployment.

In countries like Liberia and Ethiopia where mass expropriation of land has taken place, rural youth have diverted from traditional small- and medium-scale agriculture waiting on promises of employment from government and multinational companies. Failures of these promises continue to deepen anger, giving rise to social instability; riots are commonplace in such settings, for example in Southeastern Liberia

These issues are at the heart of Africa’s contemporary developmental challenges. Unless there are deliberate attempts to tackle them both through local and international mechanisms, stability of societies everywhere will remain under stress. It is high time that African leaders make deliberate efforts to promote socio-economic development that creates jobs and improves the living conditions of the people, many of them youths. 

In these crises, Western nations will continue to apply rules for their own national self-interest assuming that they are safer in ‘gated communities’. Realpolitik – the politics of putting national interest first and beyond all others in international affairs - is becoming increasingly challenged and can no longer guarantee sustained national self-preservation. Recent dynamics from the end of the Cold War to the food and financial crises, the outbreak of wars in Africa and the Middle East and very recently the outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa, have shown that the pursuit of mutual interest in international affairs and trade and development cooperation are vital to sustaining national interest everywhere.  As humanity everywhere has common interest in peace, security and economic prosperity, states must now pursue ‘mutual-politik’ to promote and preserve their national self-interest vis-à-vis the wellbeing of other states in the global village. A famous Rastafarian once wrote that, ‘if you do not share your riches with the poor, the poor will share their poverty with you’.

In response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, there were travel restrictions and cancellation of flights amongst other rigid measures. All of those restrictions were useless in stemming the spread of the virus. Until the world mobilized support to address the problem in the affected countries no country was at peace, no country was safe. In Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, it meant the deployment of medical personnel, supplies and logistics. But that was short term; the conditions that gave rise to Ebola and its rapid spread remain: weak or non-existent health systems, poverty, poor sanitation, weak state institutions; crises or emergence from one; absence of any emergency response system nationwide; broken trust between states and citizens, and the attendant antecedents of failed development aid.

These same issues are amongst the root causes of the recent mass emigration of young Africans, and will continue to be the Achilles’ Heel of Africa until they are contained in a meaningful way through sustainable measures and through solutions that recognize the cause, not the effect.

* Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei is a Liberian activist, political commentator and blogger. Mahmoud H.M. Koroma is a political commentator and gender equality champion.



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