African Migrant Deaths Reminder of Exploitation

By Glenn Ashton · 15 Oct 2013

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Picture: Refugees on a boat courtesy Wikipedia.
Picture: Refugees on a boat courtesy Wikipedia.

The recent tragedy off the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, in which over 300 migrants were drowned, placed inequality between the developing and developed world into sharp focus. That people are desperate enough to risk their lives for economic opportunities highlights two perceptions of the migrants – how bad things are in some nations and how good they appear to be in others. World leaders must urgently re-examine what drives the ever increasing numbers of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers to leave their homes.

According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), 2013 sees the highest number of refugees for the past 15 years. The estimated number of around 45 million internal and external refugees is similar to the entire population of a medium size country like South Africa or Spain. Yet even these figures fail to tell anything like the full story.

The UN definition of refugees remains narrow and excludes categories such as economic migrants, climate change refugees and slaves. Consequently the global number of migrants and refugees is considerably under-reported, primarily because migrants – political, economic or environmental - are excluded from claiming refugee status, except under extremely limited circumstances. Africa remains a colonial vassal to the first world, isolated behind geographical and political barriers.

Zimbabwe is a prime example of statisticians’ uncertainty regarding numbers of displaced citizens. This regime, with its continued political persecution and ongoing economic precariousness, epitomises instability. However the UNHCR only lists a total of 118 452 Zimbabwean persons of concern, as of January 2013. South African immigration officials have registered around 300 000 Zimbabwean migrants. These figures do not reflect the reality. The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) office in Harare cites figures of between 500 000 to 4 million Zimbabweans living outside the country, most in neighbouring nations, others scattered as far abroad as Canada and Australia.

Besides political instability, Zimbabwean migrants flee primarily because of the lack of economic opportunity, reflecting the larger reasons for African migration to Europe and elsewhere. Failing states without social safety nets and with poor health care, collapsing municipal and state services and a general lack of opportunity to thrive are major drivers of migration. This the underlying reason that Sengalese, Somalians, Chadians or numerous other African nationals seek refuge and opportunity in Europe. They are no different to Salvadoreans, Mexicans or Columbians seeking Elysian fields in the USA or Canada. These millions of migrants assume huge risks on their perilous journeys and are prone to further exploitation and abuse at their eventual destinations.

It is not only the well-publicised Mediterranean crossing that experiences particularly high death rates. Crossing the desert to just reach exit points to Europe is equally perilous. Migrants are regularly crowded into superheated containers crossing the Sahara, or simply robbed and abandoned mid-journey, with untold numbers of skeletons whispering their secrets into the sandy ocean.

Migrants using the route from the horn of Africa across the Red Sea to the Sinai Peninsula, Yemen and Saudi Arabia are even more at risk. It appears that the majority of women are raped, often continuously, or condemned into slavery, as are many men. Hundreds have perished on this crossing but their travails are only occasionally covered by the corporate media. Migrants across the Sinai fall victim to Israeli organ smugglers, several gangs of which have been exposed around the world.

Given these horrific realities it is unsurprising that many African migrants choose to head south, instead of north. South Africa now hosts high numbers of migrants besides Zimbabweans. Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean shopkeepers – often indistinguishable to locals – are fixtures of many township corner shops. Pakistanis, Chinese and Bangladeshis further swell the numbers. These immigrants regularly fall victim to crimes of opportunity, xenophobia or exploitation by authorities and police.

While the UNHCR finds Asia has the largest numbers of refugees, the skewed reporting and relative poverty of Africa arguably places migrants in the African milieu at greater risk. Although the situation in Iraq, Myanmar and Afghanistan is dire, Asian refugees generally have broader opportunity to escape their situation than most Africans, directly into Europe via Asia. African migrants are essentially imprisoned on the continent, isolated by oceans and deserts let alone the ruthless exploitation of human smugglers and corrupt officials.

While nations like Australia have established exclusionary migration policies, the ascendancy of an increasingly racist right wing across Fortress Europe has, in concert with economic stagnation, curtailed the already limited migrant numbers entering the continent. Over 30 000 migrants have reached Europe by sea so far this year. Around one quarter historically receive refugee status, with many others repatriated.

These realities are exacerbated by the fact that Africa remains exploited by colonial and neo-colonial economic policies enforced by the dominant global north. This is further compounded by the immoral exploitation of its economic resources. 

Illicit financial outflows through gambits like corporate money laundering, support of kleptocrats and tax avoidance are estimated to have lost Africa between $850 billion and $1.8 trillion between 1970 and 2008, dwarfing aid. Even the so-called aid grudgingly paid to Africa is pathetic. The US pays Israel 6 times more than the entire African continent, which presently supplies around 14% of its oil. During the cold war half of US aid to Africa went to repressive African regimes. US food aid continues to disrupt unsophisticated local agricultural markets. Europe does little better, preferring to arm Africa than deliver on debt reduction or promises of increased trade. EU trade liberalisation alone has cost Africa more than $300 billion since the late 1980’s, let alone ecological costs to marine and forest ecosystems.

The economic balance sheet remains increasingly skewed toward the advantage of the global north. The welfare of most Africans has decreased markedly over the past half century. Resource rich nations like Nigeria, Congo and Angola are openly exploited for their resources while one in four children there will not reach their fifth birthday. In short, double standards prevail between governance in the north and south.

Globalisation sees increasing liberalisation of trade in goods and services to the advantage of the developed north. While immigration of skilled labour is embraced by the north – again exploiting scarce African resources - the same does not apply to unskilled migrants. Africa has effectively been reduced to the role of a captive, continental-scale colony, where its land, resources, environment and people are exploited by the developed world.

When blame is apportioned, the media parses it in tropes of poor leadership and unstable democracy. In reality, the fundamental reasons for African instability can be laid directly at the door of continued exploitation of Africa by neo-colonial policies, enforced by the rich on the poor.

Migrants attempting to escape from Africa are cast as victims of self-imposed poverty and corruption by the dominant media and economic discourse. Instead, each and every single victim should serve as a stark reminder to the developed world that their death reflects the symptoms of an exploitative system made manifest.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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