Major shipwrecks off the coast of Libya this month brought the death toll among migrants crossing the Mediterranean seeking European shores to over 1,800 in 2015. The crisis has focused attention on European immigration policies, the violence in Libya, and the crisis in Syria—a source of many of the migrants. But it is also important to pay attention to African reactions, particularly in the Sahel region, which extends from Senegal to Eritrea.
Many of the migrants who attempt to cross the Mediterranean come from the Sahel, but the region’s governments have mostly been silent on the shipwrecks. Nonetheless, there are signs that Sahelian leaders are deeply unhappy with how Europe has responded, not just to the migrant situation, but also to the crisis inside Libya.
At the African Union level, Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma issued a rather mild statement about the most recent shipwrecks. Although calling the deaths “preventable tragedies” and calling for “urgent regional and global action,” she did not apportion blame. Indeed, she praised the Italian government for its efforts to save migrants, even though Italy’s record has suffered since the end of its Mare Nostrum search and rescue program, which was replaced by the European Union’s border protection-focused Triton. ” Dlamini Zuma emphasized the need for cooperation between Europe and Africa.
A more forceful reaction came from the government of Niger, a Sahelian state that borders Libya. Niger has been affected in myriad ways by the crisis in Libya, including by receiving a southbound flows of refugees. After the Mediterranean shipwreck of April 19, the deadliest incident this year, Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou condemned what he called the “disconcerting banality” affecting perceptions of these deaths. He called on the international community to act more forcefully.
Issoufou argued that the crisis extends far beyond the Mediterranean and advocated addressing the root causes of migration: “Measures of repression and restriction against the phenomenon [of migration] will only produce the desired effect if they are accompanied at the same time by substantial initiatives for durable economic and social development in the countries of origin, the free circulation of goods and persons, as well as the opening of the labor market.” Issoufou’s criticism of European policies—and not just on migration—is not hard to detect. His statement also indicates how talk of “cooperation,” as in the African Union’s message, can blur issues of inequality, particularly as Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Ethiopia’s government has been watching European responses to the sea crossings, but has not yet offered an official reaction. It has, however, issued a strong statement on the general instability that has sustained the crisis, including the April 19 release of a video by the so-called Islamic State, which showed its Libyan affiliates murdering Ethiopian Christians—migrants who were seeking to reach Europe.
The Ethiopian government and the government-sponsored Muslim Affairs Supreme Council condemned the killings (as did the African Union). However, the government also cracked down on a domestic protest of the killings after it turned violent, and some protesters denounced the government’s statements on Libya as mere propaganda. The government faces growing pressure to address the crisis of migration, which could lead it to make more forceful demands for European action in and around Libya.
Many other Sahelian governments have remained silent. The government of Eritrea, a major source of the Mediterranean migrants, has in the past called for “an urgent review of European migration policies towards Eritreans,” but does not seem to have spoken out on the recent deaths. This silence partly reflects a preoccupation with events elsewhere. The Economic Community of West African States, to which many Sahelian states belong, has also not commented on the deaths. This contrasts with its statement against the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa targeting expatriate Africans.
Sahelian and West African media are also more focused on the South African xenophobia than on the migrant issue. This is partly because the tragedy of Africans killing Africans taps into long-standing issues in African countries’ sometimes fraught relationships with South Africa. For example, a Nigerian newspaper editorial tied the recent violence to a complicated history of both partnership and resentment. It invoked South African business’ success in Nigeria and the “humiliation [Nigerians] face when they apply for South African visas while nationals of countries that supported apartheid require no visa to enter South Africa.” The migrants’ deaths do not have the same emotional resonance, perhaps because of the “banality” to which Issoufou referred. Though the xenophobia crisis did have a precedent in 2008, the drowning deaths of African migrants have occurred continuously for years.
Some Sahelian politicians have begun to decry their governments’ silence. In Senegal, a former cabinet minister and possible 2017 presidential aspirant, referring to the April 19 incident, said, “I mark my indignation at the absence of reactions by African heads of state to the death of more than 700 young migrants in the Mediterranean. At a time when European heads of state are meeting…in an extraordinary summit to find solutions, the indifference of our African heads of state wounds me deeply.” Perhaps as a result of this pressure, Senegal announced on Tuesday the creation of a new unit that will “help the families of migrants shipwrecked in the Mediterranean to get information about their loved ones.”
If Sahelian leaders are mostly silent about the migrants, that does not mean they are unconcerned by the situation inside Libya. Some have been nervous since 2011 about the possible fallout of the NATO-led military intervention there and now say that the ongoing instability has validated their skepticism. At a security summit in Senegal in December 2014, Chadian President Idriss Deby harshly criticized NATO’s handling of Libya and attributed diverse Sahelian problems—the armed conflict in Mali since 2012, Boko Haram’s violence in northern Nigeria, and the flow of weapons throughout the region—to the chaos. Deby said, “It is our Western friends who must find [the solution], a solution for Libya and for the Libyan people and for Africa.”
Whether expressed in diplomatic language, as in Issoufou’s statement on the migrants, or in blunter tones, as in Deby’s comments on Libya, there is a significant strain of Sahelian anger toward Western, and particularly European, powers’ handling of Libya and the problems related to it. The continuing crisis of Mediterranean migrant deaths may exacerbate that anger.