Opinion: Europe is paying for African migrant deterrence | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 29.08.2017
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Opinion: Europe is paying for African migrant deterrence

Such a display of unity is quite rare. European and African leaders attending a summit in Paris agreed that migration must be stopped - if the price is right, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

After the long summer break, the French president kicked off the first major political event of the season with a tea party of sorts in the garden of the Elysee Palace. If the topics discussed were not so cold-hearted, one could be forgiven for thinking Emmanuel Macron invited leaders from Germany, Italy, Spain, Libya, Niger and Chad to talk about their holidays. But this afternoon in Paris was dedicated to the fate of hundreds of thousands of people - migrants from Africa who are waiting to travel to Europe from Libya or other countries on the continent.

Macron is taking a fast, focused and skillful approach in his implementation of a new European refugee and migration policy. He wants to present himself to the French people as a man of action and this could help boost his poor approval rating. The other guests share his goal of closing the Mediterranean route to migrants and keeping as many people in Africa as possible. European and African leaders want to make clear that before potential migrants embark on a dangerous journey to Europe, they must understand that they have very little chance of obtaining asylum or the right to live in Europe legally.

Quick and ruthless

The European Union is becoming all the more ruthless in this regard and has put aside any concerns about conditions in Libya or the humanitarian situation in North Africa as a whole. Italy does not want to receive any more people who will not be distributed throughout Europe. Spain, on the other hand, does not want to become an alternative route for migrants. German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to prevent the flow of migrants from Italy to Germany via the Alps at all costs. She wants to win re-election in a vote scheduled less than four weeks from now.

Riegert Bernd App photo

DW's Bernd Riegert

Italy has concluded an agreement with Libya in which the Libyan coast guard pulls out migrants or refugees from its territorial waters and returns them to land. This summer, the French president surprisingly brought rivaling Libyan leaders, the UN-backed Fayez Serraj and rebel general Khalifa Haftar, to the table. Macron even revived old ideas of creating "hotspots," meaning centers where the right to asylum is assessed, in Libya, Niger and Chad. Even the idea of setting up a camp for stranded African migrants on the Libyan coast or the country's southern border is no longer taboo. The UN refugee agency UNHCR can protest as much as it wants. The EU has decided to batten down the hatches.

The formula is already working. July saw a considerable drop in the number of migrants crossing the sea compared to the previous month. The deterrence tactics are doing the trick. Leading European politicians couldn't care less what happens to the people in Libya or those en route from Nigeria through the desert states. Chancellor Merkel also seems to have taken the "don't look too closely" line, although she is occasionally heard murmuring something about investigating problems. Of course, she has urged Libya to abide by the law. But there is no way of enforcing this - and nobody really wants to. The new policy will prove successful in one area: It will ruin business for smugglers and human traffickers.

The meeting in Paris served the purpose of consolidating the new walls-up policy and getting Niger and Chad involved. These two states are among the poorest in the world and they are now responsible for keeping refugees from arriving in Libya. The political elites there have little control but the presidents of Niger and Chad will commit themselves for suitable funding. EU leaders will not look too closely at this situation either. Any warnings issued by the UNHCR on the risks that migrants face will be ignored.

Those looking for a better life should return

The UN estimates that 70 percent of migrants are economic migrants, meaning that they are leaving economic hardship in their home countries. In the German election campaign, there are many people - and not just supporters of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) - who argue that no one is forcing these migrants to leave home. The German chancellor can be assured that the majority of voters in her country think the same.

Stemming the flow of migrants in the Mediterranean brings many benefits for the EU, like relieving the strain on Italy and Greece, and defusing the dispute over the distribution of migrants in those countries. If the external maritime borders are closed, then the border controls within the Schengen Area can be lifted again in the foreseeable future. This is another point of contention in the EU. Europe has effectively pushed its outer borders to Africa. Macron, Merkel and other European leaders will celebrate this as a victory but it could end up being a bitter defeat for many migrants.

Watch video 01:14

Niger: Country of transit