More and more, the governance of African migration is premised on the idea that mobility is harmful to most migrants themselves and Africa’s development as a whole. Yet, while proponents of this approach maintain that everyone is better off if Africans stay put, migration management gives a new shape to Europe’s eternal pretence of having Africa’s best interest at heart. Thus, if Europe were to write an honest letter to African migrants, this is what it might sound like:
Hello, people of our old twin continent. Our new EU commission president is right: the world is calling for more Europe! However, we’re writing to you today to emphasise that Europe is not calling for more world. Gosh, there are just so many of you! You can see how that’s kinda scary for us, right?
While we have some experience in being surrounded by you, that was always from the comfort of our colonial mansions, with rifles and impunity in reach. Now you’re coming on to our turf, no matter how hard we try to keep you out. Since heavily militarised borders seem to give us a bit of a bad rep for being cruel and supporting all sorts of unsavoury people and industries, we’ve come up with some other ideas that will work well for us but are essentially all bad for you. Keen to know more? Here we go.
First things first: we’re so sorry for slavery and colonialism and all that. Bad, bad, bad. But we built you some nice impractical infrastructure, didn’t we? Anyways, let bygones be bygones. Now we’re equal partners in the mission of global governance. Please trust that we have your best interests at heart: it really is the best for absolutely everyone if you just stay in your own countries. You just don’t know it yet, but we’ll continue to beat the message into you in the name of the greater good. Yes, we know, this is not the first time we said we’d help you and then only helped ourselves. But this time it’s different, pinkie promise. Just kidding!
Sorry for Salvini, we know he is a bit hectic. But fundamentally, we don’t disagree entirely with our bearded enfant terrible. If anything, he is just a bit too honest. Makes us look bad. After all, we’re all liberal and enlightened over here and don’t want any “reputational damage”. However, his bullying around in the china shop of human rights makes us the good cop. It allows us to condemn his methods while simultaneously enacting policies that amount to the same result: to keep you guys out. Clever hey? What do you think sounds better: “We’ll enable you to have a future at home” or “You’re a threat to everything we have and don’t want to share”? Exactly.
By the way, we never really meant that “legal and safe” migration channels promise thingy. Instead of offering you the world, we’re offering you development at home, respectful of your natural proclivity and dignity. And here is the best part: you can stay alive doing it! What more could you wish for? Our diligent friend and helper, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) does a great job at supporting us with this. Oh, did you think they were your friend, because of that misleading UN logo and incessant talk about working for the benefit of all? Good one! Once we have crushed your hopes, dreams and bones across deserts and seas, the IOM is at the ready to help you return, completely voluntarily. With our money, they even buy you cows sometimes. Go Africa! The IOM is also really good at getting some of your youth to spread the word for us. Makes it so much more convincing when real Africans say it themselves while wearing our T-shirts. The same goes for the African leaders across the continent who work with us.
Alright, a few of you can come. A handful of real refugees is okay. But they must be super grateful, have no opinions of their own and do everything to become like us. Of course, we determine when it is safe for them to go back. And those of you with the skills we desperately need, you may have a chance – provided you don’t entertain any ideas of long-term settlement. You have to go back and educate other Africans with the excellent work ethic you have learned from us during your stay. A last option to get into our good books of the deserving would be to risk your life to rescue a dangling toddler. We love heroes! (but risking your life on a dinghy doesn’t count).
Historically, what has worked well for us is to deny that you have any kind of agency. With regard to migration, this means: You guys only move if you are forced to or because you just don’t know any better. Our key messages here are: all migrant women are trafficked and sold into sexual slavery! Everyone trying to cross the Med was tricked by evil smugglers or dishonest relatives! As you can see, despite a modern makeover, our racist messaging has effectively stayed very consistent: Africans are happy to mill around on savannahs, eternally in the past, with no ambition for more. They are lost in the civilised world. African progress moves forward only in bursts of Western intervention, like a stuttering engine. What a great metaphor, people will love that sh*t.
Sure, we know that none of the above is true. But if we say so, it is! This has always worked well for us too: with the categories we assign to you, the projects we fund, the partners we chose and the authentic “African voices” we co-opt. We know that migration should be a real choice for you, just as it is for us. We work very hard to sideline those who expose our colonial world view, blatant racism and parochial liberal values. However, that pesky evidence just keeps popping up – stop it already, it’s exhausting! It distracts us from saving you! But we would feel bad about ourselves if we said all this out loud. Why change the winning formula of eternally rescuing you? We love teaching you what it’s like to be like us. Of course, we can never admit that you already are (that would make us feel bad, again). That’s why we can’t ever really let you “in” and why we will never put our weight behind things that would actually get you there.
Jokes aside. If you don’t do what we say, we’ll kill you. Ha-ha. No, not kidding. We’ll keep hiding the inherent injustice of this all and continue to speak about the tragic fates we want to save you from as if they had nothing to do with us. We’ll send our heartless drones to stand by as the cold sea devours you. We’ll let the Libyan coast discard your life to take you back to a place of non-safety. We’ll let you despair in detention centres, shot at, raped and tortured. Make no mistake, your names do not matter to us and never have. All we want is a tick in the box for another African successfully repelled, in the name of the greater good and European glory, for this brings us profits beyond our wildest dreams.
Never yours truly,
Iriann Freemantle is a research associate at the African Centre for Migration & Society, Wits University, Johannesburg. However, opinions are her own and not necessarily the views of her employer.