Briefing Note for North American Migrants Rights Activists on Recent African Migration Experiences, European Union Repression, and European-African Activist Responses

African migrants in a Spanish detention camp

January 31, 2007 -- There is a striking similarity between North America and Europe experiences in the recent upsurge in unauthorized migration from the South, the militarization of borders, anti-immigrant legislation, criminalization of undocumented migrants, government raids, and expulsions. In response, migrants’ rights activists in Europe, North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) and West Africa (Mali, Senegal, Mauritania, Niger, Benin) are mobilizing communities, organizing activist forums and networks, and conducting demonstrations at national and international levels.

This note is meant to inform the North American migrants’ rights movement of recent events in Europe and Africa as part of a wider effort to promote international unity in the struggle for migrants’ rights.

The Upsurge in Migration and the Militarization of Borders

Young West Africans have long migrated to Europe seeking jobs to support their families back home. Over the past twenty years, Northern governments and multilateral institutions (World Bank, IMF, US, EU) have used Africa’s huge external debt (still growing despite promises of debt forgiveness) and financial dependency on the North to corrupt governments and impose pro-Northern policies. Structural adjustment in the 1980s drastically cut government spending on health and education. More recent Northern demands for free trade policies, hypocritically called Economic Partnership Agreements in Europe, threaten to kill off small African enterprises and family farms by forcing them to compete in their own local markets with foreign, state-subsidized MNCs. It should therefore be no surprise that the migration of poor Africans has taken on an increasingly desperate character.

In October, 2005, thousands of West Africans stormed the fences around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Mellila in northern Morocco, expecting that when they entered these European territories, they would gain the right to be transported to the European mainland. In 2005, there were no deportation agreements between Europe and African countries, so migrants who made it into Europe could usually find jobs that helped their families to survive the increasing destitution in their home countries. This window of opportunity was closed in 2006.

The European response to the storming of the Ceuta and Mellila fences was swift and vicious. Shots were fired from both Spanish and Moroccan sides: several migrants were wounded, some mortally. Moroccan police were engaged to capture and expel would-be migrants---many of whom were dumped in the Sahara Desert. An unknown number died.

Ceuta and Mellila showed the world Europe’s new migration policy: the displacement (“externalization”) of the European Union’s border to North Africa. Today, Europe is aggressively pursuing agreements with North and West African governments who, upon signing, are expected to arrest and repel would-be migrants and refugees before they get anywhere near Europe. The U.S. has reportedly collaborated in this anti-immigrant policy by providing U.S. military equipment to North African military forces engaged by the EU to prevent migrants from crossing the Sahara Desert. This militarized response to migrants taking the trans-Saharan route worked only temporarily. By 2006, African migrants had found another route.

By the end of the year, over 35,000 Africans would-be migrants had embarked in open wooden boats on a perilous sea voyage to Spain’s Canary Islands, located 800 miles off the Senegalese coast. Many were from fishing families whose livelihoods had been destroyed by official African-EU agreements allowing industrial fishing of African coasts. Most others were from farming communities whose livelihoods had been destroyed by free trade in which they could not compete with subsidized cotton, cooking oil and rice from Europe, the U.S. and Asia.

The migrants taking the sea route were desperate. They knew that they were risking their very lives, and indeed, hundreds died from drowning and dehydration. Their motto, Barcelona or death, evokes their hopes, their desperation, and their determination.

Europe’s official response was also determined. The EU’s new border control agency, Frontex, is equipped with helicopters and military cruisers that began patrolling the West African coast and intercepting migrants at sea. West and North African governments were co-opted into collaborating with Frontex by policing their own borders. Senegal and Mauritania began arresting would-be migrants even before they embarked. Migration was criminalized.

Europe’s evolving policy response was formalized in an African-European Union ministerial conference held in Rabat in July 2006. The official agreements reached at this conference link development aid from Europe to African “willingness” to cooperate in “managing” current migrant flows, including establishing detention camps in North Africa and Eastern Europe. Even more ominously for West African families that currently survive on remittances from family members with jobs in Europe, the new EU-African agreements allow European governments to arrest and forcibly return migrants who may have worked in Europe for many years, but have not obtained official resident status. This policy, which for the first time requires African governments to agree to the expulsion of their undocumented citizens, is a huge threat to the millions of African villagers who depend on remittances when crops fail.

The immediate effect of the Rabat agreements was the forced return of the 32,000 immigrants who had been held in the Canary Islands. The Senegalese government reportedly agreed to accept both Senegalese and other West African returnees. Upon arrival in Senegal, the returnees received $20, a sandwich and the admonition to “go home”. As a returnee support organization from Mali made clear at the World Social Forum, however, most failed migrants will not go home. They have not only failed to enter Europe and find a job, but they have lost the $400 or more their families invested in them, making their situation even more desperate than before.

Europe’s tough anti-immigration policies have only one loophole. Highly qualified migrants will still be welcome. France’s new migration law gives priority to “chosen” immigrants rather than refugees. It also asserts the right to deport schoolchildren if their parents are “paperless”.

The Activist Response

Migrants and migrants’ rights organizations have been organizing locally and nationally in Europe and in Africa for at least a decade. From local communities acting in solidarity with migrants to professional organizations seeking legal change, to activists organizing public demonstrations against repressive policies, actions both by migrants and in support of migrants have increased dramatically during the last two years.

In January 2006, during the African World Social Forum meetings in Bamako, African and European activists issued an appeal that was strongly critical of European migration policies. At the European Social Forum in May 2006, migrants rights activists agreed on a day of action on October 7, 2006, (a date chosen to commemorate the storming of the fences in Ceuta and Melilla) that would, via demonstrations, press conferences, and other local actions put forth demands for the respect of migrants rights and for the reversal of repressive European policies.

On June 30 and July 1, 2006, 60 migrants rights, human rights, and research organizations from 20 European and African countries got together in Morocco just before the official EU-African ministerial conference in Rabat (see above). Participants in the non-governmental “counter-conference” analyzed the terrible effects of the emerging European migration policies on Africa, worked out new ways to collaborate across borders, and developed a set of joint demands in four areas:

  • Respect for fundamental human rights, freedom of movement for all, and restoration of the right of asylum;
  • Opposition to militaristic security policies;
  • Pursuit of authentic development and the sharing of prosperity;
  • Improvement of migrant reception policies and respect for workers and citizens’ rights.
The Manifesto issued by the non-governmental Euro-African counter-conference on migration made the hypocrisy, racism, and elitism of Europe’s new immigration policies crystal clear. “We reject the division of humanity into two groups: those who can move freely around the world and those for whom this is prohibited. We refuse to live in a world with militarized borders that divides our continents and transforms each group of countries into a fortress.”


Jeanne Koopman, Boston Delegation to the World Social Forum-Nairobi, jkoopman[@]