(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Securitising Africa’s borders is bad for migrants, democracy, and development

    South Africa’s National Assembly recently passed a bill to set up a new border management agency. The Border Management Authority will fall under Home Affairs, a government department long distinguished by its lack of respect for immigrant and refugee rights. But there are other, deeper causes for concern.


    Whereas previously, police and customs officers were under strict (if not always effective) civilian oversight, this new agency will be able to circumvent constitutional constraints. Broader changes to immigration and asylum policies are also in the works, such as a “risk-based” vetting system that could be used to justify barring most people from entering the country overland. Bolstering these efforts are plans to detain asylum seekers at processing centres dotted along the border. 


    South Africa’s new border management strategy has equivalents across the continent that likely do little to prevent smuggling and human trafficking or to stop terrorism – the justifications often used for such securitisation. Instead, they help reinforce authoritarian leadership and undermine regional governance initiatives. In the longer term, they are likely to impact development.


    Free movement – within countries or to neighbouring areas – is central to people finding work and surviving in these precarious times. Constraints on such movement, whatever the source, are fundamentally anti-poor and anti-freedom. They treat migrants as suspected criminals, rather than as people legitimately seeking protection or employment. Many of these policies are being implemented with aid from the European Union and strong domestic support. Countries like Eritrea already maintain a repressive “exit visa” system while Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Niger, and Sudan are all planning enhanced border management strategies, including bio-metric tracking and militarisation.


    Containment era


    Militarising the margins has become an integral plank in the continent’s new approach to “migration management”. Following the Valletta Summit in late 2015, the EU created a trust fund that is funnelling billions of euros of development aid through bilateral arrangements with African states, including those with appalling human rights records, such as Sudan and Eritrea. Legitimised by a language of sovereignty, greater border controls are part of an emerging containment era in which Africans’ movements – not only towards Europe but even across the continent – are becoming pathologised and criminalised. There are continental variations. Some countries and sub-regions are less committed to control than others, but so-called containment development is undeniably on the rise. In this new developmental mode, success is measured primarily by the ability to keep people at home. 


    Critics of this approach focus heavily and justifiably on the migrants condemned to camps and detention centres, and the growing numbers who die before reaching their destination. Others note the extraordinary growth in a range of unsavoury professions: smuggling, kidnapping, and trafficking. Although often tinged with an alarmism driven by moral outrage or professional interest, these stories of exploited people and extinguished lives need to be told.


    Yet focusing exclusively on the migrant victims of new containment technologies and practices risks overlooking their implications for the continent’s governance and all Africans’ human rights. At the very least, the kind of bilateral arrangements various African countries are signing with the EU will scupper African Union plans to promote easier and safer movement within the continent. They will similarly curtail free movement policy proposals circulating within sub-regional economic communities.


    While the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) already has a working protocol, it has been compromised by fears of terrorism and EU-funded programmes to deter migration through the region. In the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African Community (EAC), proposals modelled on the ECOWAS framework are now less likely to move forward. This domesticates politics in ways that weaken the regional governance mechanisms needed to address collective development concerns and negotiate more favourable global trade positions. In place of multilateralism, we are likely to get stronger militaries and more authoritarian leaders. Indeed, directing aid and weapons to existing leadership in the region will almost certainly erode democracy and heighten insecurity and instability.


    Growth industry


    What is perhaps most worrying is how emergent border management approaches are likely to extend and proliferate beyond borders. Efforts promoted by the EU, with complicity from many African leaders, effectively seek to limit movement and freedom across and within countries. Europe fears that any movement – typically towards cities – will beget further moves, some of which will be towards the European motherland.


    The EU’s new migration-linked development aid emphasises the need to create local opportunities so people need never move. The results are likely to be increased investment in rural areas. While not in itself a bad thing, such spending will be distorted by the desire to fix people in place. African leaders may care little about migration towards Europe, but under these new agreements they risk losing aid money if they fail to control populations within their borders. And ongoing urbanisation can also present a political challenge to their power. Maintaining people in situ – not only within their countries but within “primordial” rural communities – helps maintain systems of ethnic patronage and prevents unruly urbanites from protesting at the presidential gates.


    Securitised border management of the kind South Africa is mooting is a gateway to the kind of containment strategies the EU is promoting.  Within this new paradigm, millions will be detained in facilities across Africa or condemned to die along land and water borders. Smuggling, trafficking, and corruption will blossom in place of trade that could increase prosperity. Overseeing this will be politicians empowered by military aid windfalls and a global community without the moral authority to condemn their human rights abuses.


    The vast majority of Africans who have no European fantasies will live in decreasingly democratic countries. The African Union and regional campaigns promoting development through accountable institutions and freer movement will also likely lead nowhere. The results – heightened inequality within and between countries, along with increased poverty and likelihood of conflict – will create precisely the pressures to migrate that Europe hopes to contain.


    (TOP PHOTO: South African soldiers apprehend irregular migrants from Zimbabwe. Guy Oliver/IRIN)



    Securitising Africa’s borders is bad for migrants, democracy, and development
  • What could be bad about a global campaign against xenophobia?

    As part of efforts to strengthen and harmonise responses to migrants and refugees, the UN is to lead a global campaign to counter xenophobia. Announced by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in April, member states are expected to pledge their support for the campaign at the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants taking place in New York today.

    Certainly, the timing is right. With the backlash against foreigners so virulent and violent across all continents, working to establish global norms against xenophobia is undeniably a good thing. Although imperfect, global efforts to promote gender equality norms, for example, have created empowerment opportunities for women who might otherwise remain both deeply marginalised and off the global agenda.

    But as with other global quests for social justice, it’s important to ask: what kind of xenophobia will the campaign target and what strategies ought to be at its centre?  As global gender equality campaigns informed by the circumstances of first-world women have shown, global campaigns can be both contentious and counterproductive.

    Despite the current furore in Europe over migration and asylum, over 85 percent of the world’s refugee population remains in the Global South – often kept there with assistance from the Global North. The proportion of migrants coerced to move by economic considerations that remain in the Global South is even higher. Most of these people are confined to low-rent, economically underprivileged communities in poor, receiving countries. This is the battleground for fighting xenophobia, and the challenge is how to avoid worsening the very problem we hope to address.

    As the UN and its partners move forward with this campaign, it is important that they ask some key questions.

    What is the fight?  

    The first and underlying priority must be stopping violent and structural xenophobic exclusion seen across the globe. Doing so creates the opportunity for other forms of social and economic integration and broader campaigns for tolerance and inclusion.

    In many parts of the world, xenophobia is not necessarily an immigration issue. Discrimination can stem from linguistic, ethnic, and religious differences among a state’s own citizens. For example, migrants from Zambia may be relatively welcome in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Katanga Province, where they share ethno-linguistic connections with local people, while Congolese nationals from elsewhere in the country have been violently excluded.  In South Africa, a country that has received some of the world’s highest numbers of asylum seekers, about a third of those killed in ‘xenophobic’ violence are citizens from elsewhere in the country. And in Kenya, citizens of Somali descent often bear the brunt of police discrimination along with refugees from Somalia. While immigration can certainly exacerbate tensions or bring its own dynamics, broader patterns of mobility and exclusion are an important part of the problem.

    "If the condemnation and action against those inciting or leading violence is not domestically driven, we are likely to fan rather than douse the fires of hate"

    Whether aimed at addressing exclusion of ‘local’ minorities or international migrants, anti-xenophobia campaigns must account for the reality that the most violent and fraught displays of xenophobia are often rooted in local – state, municipal, or even neighbourhood – battles for land, jobs, or political office. For example, South Africa’s highly visible 2008 xenophobic attacks, which killed more than 60 people in the space of two weeks, were in part a response to state policy widely perceived as being too welcoming to Zimbabwean migrants. This response was not led by national political parties, but by local gang leaders, councillors, and shopkeepers who mobilised to further their own interests. Similarly, in elections across Europe and the US, politicians often employ hateful talk in an effort to win elections.

    Who should lead the fight?

    If we accept that the mobilisation of hate is often essentially driven by local or national politics, we must then ask what the international community can do about it. What can the UN do about the extremist vitriol of the world’s Le Pens, Trumps, Gilderses, and others?

    Related Stories:

    South Africa's xenophobia problem: dispelling the myths

    Tough homecoming for Zimbabwean migrants fleeing xenophobia

    Condemnation from the outside is rarely effective for leaders who scorn the international system. A global campaign chastising xenophobic firebrands for their base, nationalistic sentiments may just be handing them a Molotov cocktail. After all, what serves their purposes more than being scolded by global, cosmopolitan elites for trying to protect ‘national values’ and cultures? Such an approach may only help harden cultural and political battlelines. If the condemnation and action against those inciting or leading violence is not domestically driven, we are likely to fan rather than douse the fires of hate.

    How should the fight be fought?

    The bulk of global interventions fail to percolate to these micro-battlegrounds because they don’t address the incentives for anti-outsider mobilisation. Even worse, heavy-handed anti-xenophobia campaigns aimed at protecting the rights of foreign minorities risk drawing them out into the open, enhancing their visibility, and making their foreignness the issue where it might not have been. This can be especially critical in places where refugees and other immigrants suffer similar forms of deprivation to the citizens that live around them. If one wants a recipe for heightened hatred and resentment, campaigns that target foreigners for assistance and protection while ignoring other marginalised categories might just be it.

    A global anti-xenophobia campaign that misses these nuances will at best be a waste of resources, and at worst a generator of perverse outcomes. Those crafting its details must avoid the all-too-common pitfall of failing to account for local realities.

    Working quietly with local authorities – elected, appointed, or self-appointed – to facilitate local, grassroots initiatives to create pressure and incentives for more inclusive societies may be one way to go. This does not mean abandoning global principles of tolerance and inclusion, but it does mean crafting a careful approach to ensure interventions don’t do more harm than good.

    (TOP PHOTO: Victims of xenophobia. Guy Oliver/IRIN)


    How to tackle xenophobia
    E. Tendayi Achiume is assistant professor of law at UCLA School of Law and a research associate with the African Centre for Migration and Society at Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg Loren B Landau is a professor at the African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

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