The EU is focused on preventing illegal migrants reaching its shores while the AU is looking for ways to increase legal routes to Europe. It is essential that these two positions are reconciled.

Modern-day slave markets in Libya were on the lips of African and European leaders at the opening of a joint two-day summit in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire – culminating in a last-minute emergency meeting on the matter on November 29th night.

They will look at ways to help the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) with access to the detention camps in Libya, where people have reportedly been auctioned like slaves.

The emergency meeting followed on a trilateral between AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, and UN secretary general António Guterres, where they agreed to create a joint EU-AU-UN task force to protect the lives of migrants along the routes and inside Libya.

Leaders were unanimous in their condemnation of the “crime from another era”. The devil, however, is in the detail of what exact cure was needed. A South African official said the Libyans objected to the issue of slavery being on the summit agenda.

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Migrants in Libya – RFI

“Even this morning [November 28th] the Libyans were circulating a document to say there is no proof of people being sold into slavery. They were accusing CNN of fake reports,” he said.

President of the European Council Donald Tusk said the worst leaders could do was “start the blame game”, and urged “common solutions to allow people to live in dignity”. Libya needed help from the AU and the EU, not condemnation, he said.

Mahamat in turn said illegal migration was a “common challenge” and a “shared responsibility” between the AU and the EU.

South Africa’s department of international relations meanwhile urged the Libyan authorities to publish the outcome of its investigation into the atrocities. (Mail & Guardian 30/11)

For Europe, migration has become an almost existential problem. The influx in 2015 of more than 1m refugees and migrants fleeing war, persecution and poverty created deep divisions and raised difficult questions about the EU’s commitment to open borders.

For Africa, despite the tragic deaths of many of those in transit, the migration of its citizens to Europe has not been a major concern. The vast majority of African migrants move between countries on the continent, which places great strain on host nations such as South Africa and Senegal.

The EU is doggedly focused on trying to prevent illegal migrants reaching its shores whereas the AU is looking for ways to increase legal routes to Europe for Africans. It is essential that these two positions are reconciled.

For its part, Europe has developed a two-pronged strategy to curb African migration and what it sees as the associated danger of terrorism. First, it has tried to address the root causes of illegal migration through investment compacts with selected countries, heavily criticised for offering incentives for reducing migrant flows to repressive regimes, such as Sudan and Eritrea, whose own domestic policies fuel the exodus to Europe.

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Migrants at a Libyan detention centre, June 2017 – CNN

Second, the EU and its member states have tried to seal their Mediterranean Sea borders by increasing their military presence in the Sahel. Taken together, these measures aimed at reducing migrant flows show that the EU is willing to do “whatever works”, as one European diplomat put it.

What the AU sees as the EU’s “fortress approach” to border control has alienated Africa. So too has the tendency of the media and populist politicians in Europe to link African migrants to increased terror attacks.

Discussions should focus on gradually increasing access for skilled African workers, who could be essential given Europe’s rapidly aging population. The AU and EU should also look for common ground outside the question of migrant flows, for example by focusing more on the root causes of migration.

Europe’s panic over migration and terrorism represents a significant opportunity for Africa. The EU and its member states have money to spend provided they can be assured of quick wins that will help calm the fears of citizens. “If we talk about migration, anything is possible. […] we’ll pay,” explained one European diplomat.

If the AU and African governments really want to address the root causes of migration, they should leverage support for border control and fighting jihadists and terrorists against EU investment in education, job creation, better governance more evenly distributed economic growth throughout Africa.

This, however, requires coordination. Until now, competing national and regional interests have overridden a more unified African approach to migration that could bring continent-wide benefits. But the grim reality of the migrant slave trade in Libya seems to have stirred the pan-African conscience, and continental cooperation may now be possible. (IRIN 29/11)

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Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin:

LIBYA: Leaders to Hold New Talks
Political, Social and Cultural series
Vol. 54, Issue 9, pp. 21583C–21585A

Economic, Financial and technical Series
Vol. 54, Issue 9, pp. 21846A–21848B

Economic, Financial and Technical series
Vol. 54, Issue 7, pp. 21774A–21776C

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