Since time immemorial, people of West Africa have traversed the globe for various reasons. They migrate freely and travel for trade leisure, or study. The only time when they were forced to migrate was during the trans-Atlantic and trans-Saharan slave trades that saw young, able-bodied Africans moved forcefully to work in the “New World”, the Middle East, and Asia.
Several centuries later, West Africans began to leave the continent in droves – voluntarily, this time – after the introduction of the popular US Green Card policy and the Canada Skilled Immigration programme. Never before had African people risked all to migrate to Europe – or anywhere, for that matter – knowing they could die or barely survive in the quest. Now, in spite of the formidable obstacles they have to go through crossing through the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea, thousands of Africans cross these places every year in order to migrate, albeit illegally. This has become a major social problem for the whole of Africa and indeed the world.
In a report released by the International Office on Migration (IOM), “Over 40,000 young people have lost their lives as they try to illegally cross over into Europe from North African countries along the Mediterranean Sea.” This led Joseph Muscat, the Prime Minister of Malta, to describe the Mediterranean as a graveyard. The death toll for migrants from Nigeria and other countries in Africa drowned in Mediterranean Sea in 2015 is unimaginable and this has not stopped in 2016.
Substantial irregular migrants noticed in Europe are West Africans; this has fueled the contention that ECOWAS’ Free Movement of People and Persons policy somehow encourages these departures to Europe. Indeed, there was an expansion of boats sailing directly from West African countries through the Mediterranean to Sardinia, Greece, and much more occasionally, Cyprus. But there are other Africans moving to Europe from North Africa as well.
Is there a singular factor responsible for mass exodus of people from Africa to Europe? Or what are the myriad factors leading them to search for better opportunities in Europe? What expense do their attempts – successful or failed – cost institutions and governments of Africa and their European counterparts? Is there a link between extreme poverty and migration through the Mediterranean?
A lot of analysts have traced this exodus of Africans to Europe via the sea as caused by extreme poverty on the continent. Till date, there are still many poor people in Africa who face a ridiculously low standard of living and very discouraging life expectancy. The desire to change their fortune often spurs them to risk all to go to Europe where they believe life is better. Many, especially the gullible, believe that once they get to Europe, their lifestyle and world would change for the better. But this is not true exactly. Many have died before reaching Europe; some of those who do survive the voyage live as refugees while others struggle in the various countries they picked as their new home for years without improving their conditions.
Another fundamental reason why many leave in droves for Europe is due to the conflict and wars that have plagued Africa for some time. While Africa’s reputation as a hotbed of conflict is quickly changing, the continent still records frequent outbreaks of violence that have killed many Africans in Somalia, Sudan, Burundi, Libya, etc. Other reasons cited for this escape include oppression, civil disorder, and the search for greener pasture. Sweden, Greece, Italy, and Spain are common destinations for these migrants.
European policymakers are faced with more questions than answers to resolve the migrant tragedies, especially in light of the death toll recorded in the Mediterranean in 2015. Unfortunately, European nations simply are not prepared for this development coupled with the fact that till date, there is no sacrosanct European immigration policy or regime. Rather, there is a mishmash of national policies, and the European Union is far from solving this puzzle. One of the reasons Britain decided to leave the European Union was her inability to control migrant flows as a member of the EU.
So how can this problem be resolved? African nations must continue to get better and take care of the welfare of their citizens, which is the first responsibility of any good government. Unemployment should be tackled and full industrialization must commence or continue in all African countries. More importantly, the African Union needs to work harder to make the continent peace-loving so that money spent to contain conflicts and violence would now be freed for developmental purposes. Indeed, there is no place like home. African youths and old alike will prefer to stay in the continent than risk all to travel via boat to Europe if only their conditions are better taken care of by various governments at home.