Gambia might be the most obscure place in Africa. Located at the far end of Western Africa, it’s the smallest country on the mainland, with a tiny population of 1.8M. And it’s flooding Europe. Kevin Sieff’s moving, well-drawn profile in The Washington Post of migrants fleeing villages in droves to risk the voyage across the Sahara to Libya and then across the Mediterranean to Europe—despite knowing literally dozens of neighbors who’ve died in the attempt—prompts two simultaneous reactions.
Reading it, you can’t help sympathize with—and root for—the characters involved. But ultimately, the piece illustrates the uncomfortable reality that the trip is a rational calculation for many, made on economic and quality-of-life grounds, rather than a refugee problem per se:
[I] has never been so alluring — or so easy — to begin the trip. Over the past two years, sub-Saharan Africa’s smuggling networks have expanded, as Libya has descended into chaos, leaving its coasts unguarded as migrants set out for Italy, a few hundred miles away […]
Susso could afford only two meals a day for his family. He knew he would have to pull his four sons out of school in their early teens, so they could work his small rice field or make money elsewhere. He shared his two-room home with 12 people, including his brother, nieces and nephews, a bedsheet hanging where the front door should be.
Like so many Gambians, no matter how much he was willing to work, his ambition yielded almost nothing.
A growing number of Gambians are literate, but with “little chance at employment that matches their skills, just like China by the 1960s and India by the 1970s,” said Joel Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration. “So they do the rational thing and they leave.”
We’re with Susso: given the crazy dictator (Gambia’s run by the kind of man who claims he can cure AIDS), given the life of grinding agricultural poverty, given that living in Europe will not only allow for a better life for yourself, but even on a low-wage job will enable remittences that could fundamentally transform life for your family, who wouldn’t want to leave? The problem is, all of the Gambia cannot move to Europe. And Africa has a lot of Gambias.
Ultimately, this kind of sound reporting undermines the European understanding, reflected both in the legal treatment of those rescued at sea and the presentation of the problem in the media, that what “the Continent” is experiencing at present is a refugee, rather than migrant, crisis. The poor of Africa live in conditions that almost all Europeans would consider unacceptable, yet are not really refugees being driven from their homes by wars, ethnic cleansing, or natural disaster.
America, as well as its European allies, bears a share of responsibility for this. Gambia has for a long time been a less pleasant place to live than the Rheinland. It was the destruction of the Libyan government, without any sort of replacement plan, that made the desperate gamble possible. The stark death toll in Sieff’s piece is on Washington, as well as Brussels and Banjul and many places in between.
But if Washington is involved, Europe bears primary responsibility for dealing with the crisis as is—and has so far came up short. In this week alone, reports have emerged that “asylum seekers” in Italy have been refusing to be fingerprinted because they prefer to seek their asylum in Germany; that the Italians, totally overwhelmed by the human wave hitting its shores, threatened to rubber stamp every immigrant that hit its shores with papers that would allow them to travel the whole Schengen zone; and that France and Germany, cowed, have agreed with the Italians to create migrant sharing and vetting plans. We’ll see if it lasts. Previous such plans mooted in Brussels have stalled out.
Either way, though, it’ll be no more than a temporary fix. If Europe wants to take a population this big, there are more humane, as well as more straightforward, ways to do it. That would require shifts in cultural mores as well as in legal architecture that would be daunting for any policy maker to pull off, however.
And if Europe doesn’t want to, there are more humane ways to deter the migrants, too. Right now, the muddle is producing death and deniability—but doing very little to welcome the Sussos of Africa, or dissuade them from the journey.