African refugees: The new untouchables

 

LAST month, at least 17 people drowned when a boat filled with hundreds of African migrants sank in on its way from Libya to Italy.

The week before, at least 36 had died attempting to make the same treacherous journey in similarly overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels.

The accounts of African migrants dying in the Mediterranean Sea are horrifying. But perhaps even more shocking is just how commonplace such stories have become.

Over the course of just four days in May, for instance, the Italian navy rescued around 6,000 people as they attempted to cross to Europe in crammed boats; full and flimsy boats like those that faltered earlier this month are reportedly leaving Libya almost continuously; and there is no shortage of people from various parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East arriving at Africa’s northern shores to await their turns to attempt the voyage.

The EU’s border agency Frontex suggests some 42 000 migrants have made the journey from North Africa to Italy this year, a sharp rise on the past two years.
And this is before we even mention the tragedy last October when over 360 people drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa.

When the worst happens and migrants die off the coasts of Libya or Italy, European countries often express sympathy and grief.

After Lampedusa tragedy, for example, there was a high degree of soul-searching amongst European governments.
However, as has often been the case, a momentary human concern soon evaporated and European countries soon restarted their well-worn strategies of rhetorically undermining the plight of asylum seekers through clever but disingenuous arguments, of emphasising the need to protect Fortress Europe from “invading African hordes”, and of trying as best they can to offload any burden that might come with protecting refugees onto poorer countries.
One way in which Western countries justify their failure to protect asylum seekers and discredit the plights of migrants is through the notion of “asylum shopping”. This rhetoric works by implying that the people who reach European shores are not genuinely fleeing persecution, but are economic migrants attempting to enter other countries under the pretext of discrimination.

True asylum seekers, it is suggested, would simply apply for refuge in the first country they reached.
This argument often plays well to domestic audiences but rarely takes account of the reality of many migrants’ situations. Firstly, the distinction between economic and political migrants is often a false one. The rhetoric suggests that some asylum seekers are “bogus” because they were motivated by economic choices, but when it comes to the tens of millions of displaced people from across Africa, there is no meaningful distinction between economic discrimination and political discrimination, and little difference between economic refugees and political ones. The false dichotomy implies there is a choice involved in economic migration unlike in the face of political persecution, but the reality for those embarking on risky journeys to escape their homelands, there is no such choice.

Secondly, these arguments hugely misconstrue where most refugees actually end up. Despite the hysteria that sometimes accompanies debates around asylum seekers in the West, Western countries take on just a fraction of the world’s displaced persons.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, of the 21 countries that hosted over one million refugees between 2003 and 2012, just one European country –– France –– made the list, which is in reality dominated by the likes of Pakistan, Iran, Kenya, Tanzania and Chad.

Thirdly, the notion that not applying for asylum in the first country reached constitutes “asylum shopping” is similarly misguided.
For example, many of those who are willing to risk their lives to reach Europe begin their journeys in the deeply repressive Eritrea, and for Eritreans there are few safe havens in the whole East African region, let alone in neighbouring countries.

One way in which Western countries justify their failure to protect asylum seekers and discredit the plights of migrants is through the notion of “asylum shopping”.

This rhetoric works by implying that the people who reach European shores are not genuinely fleeing persecution, but are economic migrants attempting to enter other countries under the pretext of discrimination. True asylum seekers, it is suggested, would simply apply for refuge in the first country they reached.

This argument often plays well to domestic audiences but rarely takes account of the reality of many migrants’ situations. Firstly, the distinction between economic and political migrants is often a false one.

The rhetoric suggests that some asylum seekers are ‘bogus’ because they were motivated by economic choices, but when it comes to the tens of millions of displaced people from across Africa, there is no meaningful distinction between economic discrimination and political discrimination, and little difference between economic refugees and political ones. The false dichotomy implies there is a choice involved in economic migration unlike in the face of political persecution, but the reality for those embarking on risky journeys to escape their homelands, there is no such choice.

Secondly, these arguments hugely misconstrue where most refugees actually end up. Despite the hysteria that sometimes accompanies debates around asylum seekers in the West, Western countries take on just a fraction of the world’s displaced persons. According to the UN Refugee Agency, of the 21 countries that hosted over 1 million refugees between 2003 and 2012, just one European country –– France –– made the list, which is in reality dominated by the likes of Pakistan, Iran, Kenya, Tanzania and Chad.

Woldemariam is a US-based Ethiopian academic and writer.

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