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The wave of African immigrants is just not coming


This headline of an article featured in one of Germany’s biggest newspapers, FAZ, is so alarming, it felt right to reproduce it here in capital letters, as if it was shouting at the reader. The article summarises a much-cited study on African emigration. Even though the report doesn’t really support the bold claim made in the FAZ headline, politicians from all parts of the political spectrum have used it for their own ends. Be it out of good or bad intentions, everyone seems to agree on the idea, that almost half of Africa wants to come to Europe.

The headline fits only too well into the racist world-view that is shared across the political spectrum in Europe. A world view, created and nurtured over the course of centuries by historic justifications for colonialism and outright racism against Africans, just as much as by the countless repetition of the more well-meaning narrative on so-called “international development”. Together, these narratives have turned Africa into a poor, desolate place, full of in their backwardness exotic and fascinating, original cultures, a wild place for nature, not humans (at least not civilised ones), a continent riddled by wars, corruption, overpopulation and tropical diseases. Ultimately, this perception serves as the popular explanation for Africa’s underdevelopment.

Who wouldn’t want to leave this place? For Europeans, it makes sense that, given the opportunity, people would emigrate in masses to Europe. Especially considering that all these images of Africa have not been created only for the own sake, but also – and particularly – in order to construct the European identity as the exact opposite: civilised, reasoned, progressive and, more recently, “developed”. A self-image that has been used during colonialism as much as it is still today, to meddle with Africa’s internal affairs.

Throw into this toxic stew the FAZ headline and, of course, people accept it. For people in this mindset and historic context, the idea that half of Africa wants to come to Europe, makes so much sense. Obvisouly, the far-right and the conservatives – not that there was a very clear separation between the two in the field of migration – have been all over the headline and have used it regularly to underpin their arguments against a more human border regime. But, unfortunately, it’s not only them. Among progressives and wanna-be progressives, the argument is just as successful, even if their intentions – namely, calling for more aid and a less predatory approach to Africa – were slightly more laudable. The more progressive parts of the political spectrum tend to avoid talking about actual numbers most of the time (though unfortunately not always), but they, too, still use the insinuation for their means. What would be more effective in the current climate than to point to the impeding wave of immigrants to calls for more aid to “fight the root causes of migration” through local development?

Bottom line: all parts of the political spectrum in Germany seem to accept the hypothesis that almost 40% of Africans think about emigrating, without asking too many questions. They even – unanimously – go a step further and interpret it in a way that adds an even more alarming element. The context in which people have referred to this idea makes unequivocally clear, that the fear is not about emigration as such, but about those people coming to Europe, “flooding Europe” to use an unfortunately still very common framing.

Europe is scared. Just 14 kilometres at the Straight of Gibraltar separate us from our Southern neighbour that seems full of millions of desperate people sitting on packed bags, waiting for the first opportunity to come over, crushing social security systems, annihilating cultures and traditions in their way and straining the “receptive capacities” of their host communities beyond breaking point. The end is nigh!

Or isn’t it?

Let’s look at the actual numbers.

“Economic migrants” or “Real refugees”?

First thing to notice: despite the fact that fear of mass immigration is generally projected onto “the African”, there were actually not that many Africans among the first surge of new arrivals which sparked the so-called “migration crisis” back in 2015. The vast majority of those arrivals came from active war zones in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Among the hundreds of thousands of people arriving in summer of 2015, there were just a handful of Africans. Contrary to the popular belief that Africans just come to enjoy a better life in Europe and hence allegedly violating the concept of asylum (which grants support only to those fleeing war and political persecution), most people actually came from countries that have armed conflicts in at least some parts (like Nigeria and Somalia). Others have hyper-repressive regimes (like Eritrea). Some even manage to fit into both of these unflattering categories (for example, Sudan). Considering the high rate of acceptance of their asylum claims (Eritrea 90%; Sudan 53%, Somalia 60%) – and that in a more and more restrictive asylum system – I guess it’s safe to say that the reasons for their journey to Europe are serious and legitimate, a far cry from the accusations of exploiting anything that the far-right yields at them perpetually. Among the six countries that produce the vast majority of migrants from Africa to Europe in 2015 (Eritrea 4% or the grand total, Nigeria 2%, Somalia 2%, Sudan 1%, The Gambia 1%) and Mali 1%), only one (The Gambia) is peaceful enough to support the presumption of a a mainly economic motivation for their journey.

To sum up, the Black people that seem to scare so many people in Europe, made up only 11% of total arrivals in 2015. Nothing suggests that there was a big issue with unfounded or even criminal use or abuse of the asylum system for economic reasons. With these numbers in mind, where does the fear of a wave of economic migrants from Africa to Europe come from?

The short answer: racism. Fears like the one of a kind of a Black wave overrunning Europe fall well into century-old stereotypes about Africa and “the Africans”. Exotic, mysterious, dangerous and dirt poor, riddled with war and disease, left behind, underdeveloped – these are just some of the stereotypes that come to mind when the ordinary European thinks about Africa. Be it ill- (for example, to spark fear) or well-meaning (for example, to mobilise resources for “aid”), myriads of repetitions of these characterisations over the course of decades – even centuries – have prepared fertile grounds for the myth of mass immigration from Africa to Europe to thrive.

The argument summarised in the FAZ headline has been repeated plenty of times, both by the far-right and the progressive parts of the political arena. Germany’s neonazi party, just like many parts of the political centre have used this to spread fear and panic and underpin their arguments for bigger walls and higher fences. But, unfortunately, the progressive part of politics is no better. In order to mobilise resources for development aid or the theoretically good calls for paying more attention to Africa, they all were only too eager to jump on the bandwagon, trying to walk the tightrope of capitalising on fear while trying not to create even more. It’s very obvious that such an attempt is doomed to fail right from the beginning. Today, all of Germany seems convinced that half of Africa is sitting on packed bags, just waiting for the borders to open, so they can flood Europe’s social security systems.

When the alleged “flood wave” turns into a sad trickle

Exaggeration seems to be a common feature in the European discourse on migration from Africa. Just like the numbers of Africans that actually came to Europe in 2015, the 40% of Africans mentioned in the report and repeated (out of context) by so many politicians, are vastly exaggerated. 40% of Africans, that’s currently about half a billion people. Looking a bit more closely at the numbers from the report, you see that while 40% of Africans seem to have indeed thought about emigration at some point in their lives, only 18% have “thought seriously” about it. That’s already slashing the total absolute number of potential migrants by a whopping 250 million people. Hands up, who of you has never thought about moving to a nicer place, a tropical island perhaps, a cabin in the snow? Does that mean you have a packed bag in your corner waiting for the next opportunity? Obviously not. And in Africa things don’t look any different. Only 10% out of the 18% has taken actual steps to migrate. That is leaving us with a teeny weeny 1.8% of Africans who seem ready to migrate.

Well, those 40% have molten quickly. But it doesn’t stop here.

For most of the people constituting these remaining 1.8%, Europe is not even the destination of choice. The vast majority wants to go to North America (22%) or stay in the region (51%). The latter is making a lot of sense, considering the often shared languages and cultures that have been artificially divided by the colonial masters. Faced with the choice between going to a completely foreign, far-away place, or just hop across the border to your great grand-auntie whose part of the family happened to live on a piece of land claimed by France instead of England, it makes sense that most people opt for the great grand-auntie. Only some 27% would like to go to Europe. So, that’s 27% of 1.8% or roughly 0.5% of Africans who seems ready to migrate to Europe. In absolute numbers, that’s about half the population of London. While that might still seem a lot, nobody can deny that receiving three to four million people are way more manageable than half a billion.

Let’s also remember that this number does not allow to draw any conclusions as to whether or not the people who want to migrate, actually have the means to do so. Most of them probably don’t, considering that the people with the strongest wish to leave are probably also the ones with the least means to do so. The number of Africans who might come to Europe just keeps on falling. So much so, that we have reached a point at which statistics become a bit problematic, as individual behaviour starts to get a bigger weight compared to overall trends. So let’s just stop here and just agree on “less than half a percent” as a good approximation of the part of Africans that might leave their home continent in the search for a better life in Europe. “Less than half a percent of Africans might come to Europe!”, imagine the headline. It sounds a lot less dramatic than the original 40%.

“Might come”. That formulation brings us to the next issue. Even if the number ends up being tiny, it is still shaped by a certain world view that is full of racism and wrong assumptions. There is no way to say whether or not the “less than half a percent” of Africans who think seriously about emigration and have the means to do so, will actually take this last step out of their doors, saying good-bye to their communities for an indefinite time.

Let’s face it: Europe is not as attractive as it thinks it is

Europe would do well with a reality check. We are not the centre of the world. We are not the beacon of hope for the poor and destitute, for the oppressed and mistreated, that we like to think we are. Not everybody actually wants to come to us. If you think about it, even the reasons for why some people might want to come to Europe, seem to be different from what you think they are.

Even if it’s not as huge as it is often portrayed to be, without doubt, there is a certain willingness among some Africans to go to Europe in search of a better life for themselves and their families. But where does that willingness come from? The usual answer to that question is that it is obvious: Europe is rich, Africa poor, the difference attracts people, even more so, if there are already diasporas that make the arrival easier or good infrastructure to receive the new arrivals. However, if you look at where new arrivals actually end up, doubts arise about the empirical basis of that claim.

Reality looks way darker and sadder than this simplistic explanation suggests. More than anything else, racism and bureaucracy are taking care of Africans arriving in Europe. Of course, it does seem logical that people who made it here get a bit creative when sending updates and messages back home. They sure use use the nicest terms possible to describe their experience to those they left behind at home. Haven’t we all kept our silence about some annoyances on. Trips we have made? Don’t our lives all look a lot better on Instagram, then they do in reality? But there is only so much of the truth that one can hide from ones families and relatives, people that have known you your entire life. The ugly truth is: nobody ends up benefitting from Europe’s riches. People risk their lives on a journey that is more terrifying and awful than the wildest crack fantasies of a horror movie director. In thousands of cases each year, people end up dead, no longer able to send any messages back home. Plenty of people in West Africa have lost relatives, friends, family, spouses and children on the deadly journey to Europe. Loved ones, who drowned in the Mediterranean with no-one there to pull them out, who got pushed deep into the deadly desert by Europe’s thugs who are now closely surveilling the more frequented routes or died in Libya from horrendous conditions in concentration camps, from torture, a lack of hygiene or at the hands of drunk, sadistic guards, dehumanised by years of brutal war and with guns and cheap ammunition in their hands.

People I spoke with in Central and West Africa are painfully aware of this. And all this for what? Just to most likely end up being either deported or being forced to live under the radar without papers and hence without access to any of the benefits that allegedly lure them in. In this context, it doesn’t seem very credible to me that they manage to uphold the fiction of living in a penthouse in Berlin or enjoy any other kind of VIP treatment as the far-right often suggests. There is something else to take into account here. Most people who come from Africa to Europe (and the same pattern can also be seen in other regions with migration flows, e.g. in the Americas or Southeast Asia) don’t come just for their own sake. They are sent in a joint effort of extended families that finance one person’s journey in exchange for later support from them. The possibility of the chosen ones to send remittances that support entire families and villages, are the main point of the whole endeavour. In that situation, one has only very limited options to embellish and fake the truth. If your whole village pitched in to send you to Europe in order to send back money, how could you tell them you live a fancy life, while not sending a corresponding amount of money back to Africa?

Worse still: even those who make it through the bureaucracy will in most cases not end up living the American or European dream, but be condemned to live lives on the fringes. Alongside other people of colour, they most likely end up in the banlieues of Paris, in the same shitty jobs that the least fortunate Europeans fight for in other to make ends meet. A new culture, a new language, different food, a misery aggravated only by the lack of family and friends, who stayed behind. There is no glamour in living in Europe as a Black refugee. People know that. People communicate that.

So, once again, where does the overly positive image of Europe come from, that image that allegedly lures so many Africans in?

Paradoxically, it seems to me that the only ones portraying Europe as a heaven on earth, are Europeans discussing about how attractive their supposedly perfect place of light, joy and easy living must be for Africans. In a strange way, the most important “lure” is neither a shared language and diasporas in France and the UK, nor the supposedly great social security system in Germany, as the discussion suggests. The main source for a luring image of Europe seems to be Europe’s hubristic fascination with itself, our leaders’ arrogant laudatios on a Europe that only exists for a fortunate few, but certainly not for the vast majority of immigrants.

The reasons for why some Africans consider Europe a good option, paradoxically, is the far-right nationalists shouting into every microphone they get, how their nation is the greatest on earth. Microphones that thanks to centuries of imperialism spread the messages not only in Europe, but also in the rest of the world. It’s the political centre that has jealously raised the walls and fences around our borders, as if there was anything to protect. It’s the equally paradoxical, yet constant talk of a well-functioning system, even in the face of massively failing infrastructure and processes. It’s the progressives, who in their urge to help, only helps to reconstruct and strengthen the traditional racist image of Africa. It’s the campaigns against immigration, the ones that put up billboards and talks in Africa trying to convince people to stay, who most likely would never have gotten the idea to do anything other than that, if it wasn’t for Europe’s hysterical, self-absorbed debate with itself.

It is well worth thinking about where all this leaves us. If Europe, including all its actors, from political parties to civil society and ordinary citizens, would only just manage to snap out of their racist, self-centred view of the world and start seeing the world for what it really is – including their own role in it – the world would suddenly be full of possibilities for actual change. If we kick racist assumptions of an impending African invasion over board, why not think one step further? Why not think about how we could construct a world without borders? Free movement on a global scale in times when transportation is as cheap and available as never before in human history, and in times when intercultural exchange and debate as a condition for creative innovation is more needed than ever, suddenly becomes a possibility. But these are ideas for another post.

Europe couldn’t care less about human rights