Martin Jay is an award winning British journalist now based in Beirut who works on a freelance basis for a number of respected British newspapers as well as previously Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle TV. Before Lebanon, he has worked in Africa and Europe for CNN, Euronews, CNBC, BBC, Sunday Times and Reuters. Follow him on Twitter @MartinRJay
Trump’s recent block on US aid to Egypt over human rights concerns raised many eyebrows. But the EU should follow his lead in Africa as it is geopolitical bribery dressed up as aid, which is really the heart of the matter.
Recently, Europe’s four big guns and three African states agreed on a strategy to tackle illegal human trafficking and support nations struggling to contain the flow of people across the desert and the Mediterranean Sea. The move has been prompted primarily by Italy, which accused France and other EU states of not sharing the migrant burden.
But is it an EU problem? And if it is, just how much blame can the EU and Brussels take for the crisis in the first place?
The 28-nation European Union has long struggled to reach any solution to the influx of migrants fleeing war, poverty and political upheaval in the Middle East and Africa. Specifically, it is Africa where Brussels seems incapable of dealing with the crisis, the epicenter of which is Libya, which French President Emmanual Macron is trying to stabilize with a recent initiative to bring together the two rival power blocs for peace talks following a recent ceasefire.
Macron is also leading the much-needed debate about the refugee crisis from Africa. Addressing the leaders of Germany, Italy, Spain, Chad, Niger and Libya, he called for greater cooperation.
A recent conference allowed leaders to iron out a plan setting out a mechanism to identify legitimate migrants who are fleeing war and persecution. The idea is that they can avoid being exploited by traffickers if the UN can register them in Niger and Chad.
“At the core of it, it’s all about fighting illegal migration,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
EU programs in Libya pay cash to traffickers – MEPs
And she’s right. Although this is a step in the right direction, aren’t both France and Germany paying diplomatic lip service to the EU in not pointing out one erroneous detail in all of this: if the EU imposed much tougher conditions on aid given to African leaders, forcing them to improve on human rights, the effect on the sheer numbers of people fleeing those countries would be considerable.
They are not fleeing poverty alone, but more oppression.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) recently accused the EU of financing the trafficking business with its aid program in Libya. The program, which has funded coastguards to patrol against human smugglers, has led to the deplorable plight of captured migrants being held in detention centers. Nevertheless, Italian and Spanish MEPs on September 12th regaled the EU foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini for her new EU programs, which MSF claims are “short-sighted” and have resulted in the traffickers actually benefiting from EU cash.
Yet the MEPs and MSF missed the point. The international medical organization and the growing numbers of MEPs should look more closely at the EU aid programs for the African countries themselves.
Building detention centers for the refugees is like using a sticking plaster from the first aid box to deal with a decapitation. Simple logic is required. Donald Trump gave us the example in August when he cut off US aid to Egypt, citing human rights concerns.
The problem with dictators on the continent is that they become addicted to Washington or the EU’s aid lifeline. Soon enough, leaders ask for more money to resolve problems which stem from symptoms of escalating corruption. It’s a vicious circle which neither Merkel nor Macron care to acknowledge.
At the auspicious conference, this was apparent, with even EU leaders falling into the trap of throwing more money at the problem.
“If we want to stop human traffickers, then this can only be achieved through development aid,” Angela Merkel said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a shortage of African leaders who were ready to present their former colonial leaders with begging bowls.
But money will not solve the issue. In fact, it is EU money – by the lorry load – which is at the heart of the problem.
EU President Antonio Tajani recently recommended that up to $6 billion should be put aside to stop migrants and $10 billion to do the same in Libya’s southern neighbor, Chad. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson pledged on a recent trip to Benghazi and Tripoli €9 million to help control terrorism and people trafficking. With no loss of an irony, the Italians have been accused of paying off local militias to stop the flow of migrants to their shores.
After living in Africa for six years, I have seen with my own eyes how Western money nearly always creates cultures of dependency and makes governments more ingenious at stealing it, illustrated by investigative journalist Graeme Hancock in his investigation into UN corruption, ‘Lords of Poverty.’
Ethan Chorin, a contributor to Forbes magazine agrees.
“Uncoordinated and vague, these pledges have little chance to make progress — but large potential to make things worse,”he argues, while dismissing the case for a ‘Marshall Plan’ for Africa, arguing instead for regional players to stop financing the warlords in Libya.
However, the real core problem, which neither old Europe nor the EU wants to address, still lies with the African countries themselves. And they have good reason.
Nearly 120,000 migrants, including refugees, have entered Europe by sea so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration. Tragically, more than 2,400 have drowned while making the dangerous journey, often without enough food or water in overcrowded dinghies run by people smugglers.
Yet, most of these people are lower middle-class Africans who want to escape the horror of tyrannical regimes which are oppressing them, convincing them that they have a better life waiting for them in Europe. The real issue is human rights and how the EU continues to blithely support these regimes with hundreds of millions of euro in ‘development’ programs while turning a blind eye to horrific human rights atrocities like torture, rape, and false imprisonment.
Macron should hold the EU to account much more. Ironically, at the very conference where the EU’s foreign policy diva Federica Mogherini is invited – but could not organize as she has so little influence with Paris and Berlin – we are witnessing a farce. The EU is asked to offer its opinion to a problem which is almost entirely created by its own foreign policy ruse with African leaders.
A new UN peace process on Libya – which Macron, not Brussels is taking charge of – might want to ask the EU to hold the leaders of many African countries to account more on human rights atrocities and follow Trump’s example in Egypt.
Baby, you can drive my CAR
The Central African Republic (CAR), for example, which the EU gives hundreds of millions of euro is one of many examples. And we could also, while we’re at it, ask what this money is really for. Being ‘development aid,’ the results are hard to fathom. After working in Brussels for over a decade, I would argue that the money gives Brussels more bang for its buck as those governments are obliged to assist Brussels in its PR program to make itself look more relevant on the world stage.
In 2016, Federica Mogherini herself pledged to give over €2 billion in reconstruction aid following civil war there. It’s hard to see how this, or the more modest €360 million of state-building ‘aid’ given to CAR is helping crack down on torture, rape and a plethora of abysmal human rights atrocities, but more assist the EU with its delusional view that it is a global player.
According to the US State Department, CAR has an off-the-scale rating on human rights atrocities. These include“extrajudicial executions by security forces; the torture, beating and rape of suspects and prisoners; impunity, particularly among the armed forces; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons and detention centers; arbitrary arrest and detention, prolonged pretrial detention and denial of fair trials.”
The State Department also highlights, for good measure “fatal mob violence; the prevalence of female genital mutilation; discrimination against women and Pygmies; trafficking in persons; forced labor; and child labor.”
But there is no real accountability from the EU on where this money is spent, a point often raised by critics of Brussels which call it a “blind spot,” with as much as half of the annual 23 billion euros lost due to corruption and incompetence.
Nor, any reports from the European Commission on what it is doing to crack down on gargantuan human rights atrocities carried out by the CAR regime.
Is it hardly surprising that there is an exodus of people from this country escaping the vestiges of human rights atrocities which, arguably, are meted by a brutal despot supported by the EU?
If this money was used instead to assist start-up companies and train young people in entrepreneurialism – and be given only on the basis of leaders scrapping their atrocious practices – then not only would the migrants not leave their own countries and head for Europe, but they would create jobs for thousands of others in their own countries.
The problem really is the money going there in the first place, and the unpalatable relationship leaders of these regimes have with Brussels, who almost uncertainly pocket the money themselves. It is really the EU which needs to be held to account much more about its own graft in these countries which is fueling the Libyan refugee crisis.
But who would do that? Macron and Merkel know what €20 billion of aid from Brussels and European states are doing in Africa. They are both guilty of turning a blind eye as they know this money is not improving human rights and creating jobs but merely strengthening unruly regimes who will stop at nothing to remain in power.
Martin Jay is based in Beirut and can be followed at @MartinRJay