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Europe’s Containment Strategy Toward Africa Won’t Stop Migration

 5 min read / 

This summer, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced to the G20 that she is planning to spend £30m pounds on premiums with British insurance companies to help counter the effects of natural disasters in Africa. Such a move is in line with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s prioritisation of the African continent in Germany’s new “Marshall Plan with Africa” that aims to advance economic growth on the continent to curb migration flows.

Such initiatives reflect an increasing prioritisation of the African continent in European development policies, with a primary aim of containment. The refugee crisis in Europe of today, of which Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq are the primary source countries, could be minimal compared to what European leaders are increasingly viewing as an imminent threat: the prospect of rapid population growth and mass unemployment in Africa leading to massive migrant flows to Europe.
Current population statistics project that the African continent will comprise a fourth of the world by 2050 and half of the world by 2100. This population growth is primarily composed of the youth demographic, and employment generation is the key revolving issue of context for Africa’s future.

There is already mass unemployment on the continent and this jobs shortfall will compound to a 50 million jobs gap by 2040 if appropriate and contextualised strategies are not pursued. Within this context it is necessary to pursue contextualised macroeconomic policies as a departure from Western political and economic prescriptions that do not take into account local realities and capacities.

It is important to note that African migration remains overwhelmingly intra-continental, with the great majority of African migration being comprised of rural to urban flows within African countries. The next largest migration flows are between African countries and this movement is mainly regional. Though they receive the most attention, migration flows from Africa to Europe comprise the least amount of total African migration flows.

Europe’s Reaction

European leaders view mass migration from Africa as a threat and are seeking to contain it, emphasising the security of European publics. The motivation of containing Africans to ensure the safety of European publics is inherently racist and self-serving. Such motivation is reflected in European policymaker’s approaches towards Africa, with the primary answer to containing mass migration so far being to focus on the root causes in source countries, namely the advancement of economic growth.

But this assumption is inherently flawed, as numerous studies have found that economic and human development tends to coincide with an increase in migration. Thus, both the status quo and advanced economic growth and development will only lead to an increase in sustained migration. Restrictive immigration policies in the US and EU have largely failed, as there are no “short cut” solutions to curb migration despite the emphasis on policies of trade, aid, return migration and remittances to address the perceived root causes. As Hein de Haas of the International Migration Institute at Oxford University has written, “development instead of migration policies are bound to fail.”

Mutual Benefits

Whereas Emerging Powers such as China and India emphasize horizontal cooperation and employ the rhetoric of solidarity, friendship, and cooperation, the most recent European development reforms too easily fall into a Weltanschauung of the West and the “other” to be contained. The Africa-China relationship is a spectrum of complexity of which exploitation and power imbalance are realities not to be overlooked. But the Chinese approach recognizes the power of mutual benefit and of the profit motive in development cooperation, which should serve as guiding inspiration for European policies on migration.

Rather than viewing a complex and diverse continent as a looming threat that must be contained, Africa could instead be viewed as a partner for European countries and a source of markets that could help to counter Europe’s sluggish growth. In changing the mindset away from containment, African populations and economies could be seen as an asset in aiding Europe’s key economic and demographic challenges.

A recent study found that refugees in Germany have had a very positive impact on the country’s social security schemes, and that the immigrants coming to the country are “primarily the healthy ones.” The German politician Peter Weiss has stated that, “In the end, it makes for lower pension contributions and higher pensions for all.” This fact was also echoed by the politician Hilde Mattheis in a recent Handelsblatt article,

“Immigration enriches our country not only culturally, but also tangibly by strengthening our social security system.”

Without the “youthful injection” that is immigration, the demographics of contributors to the pensions schemes in Germany would be far older. The ageing demographic of Germany is part of the wider demographic phenomenon of the “greying of Europe,” which has led to views that Europe’s core problems are demographic, not economic and that migrants have a key role to play in addressing the issue.


Current European development policies toward Africa focus on the root causes of growth in source countries with the motivation of containment to promote the safety and security of Western publics. It must be recognised that both the status quo and the advancement of economic growth will lead to increased migration flows, and that there is far more opportunity in viewing African populations as partners rather than as threats to be contained.

Immigration to European countries represents great potential for contributions to society in the context of Europe’s demographic challenge of ageing populations. A change in mindset is needed for policy approaches to capitalise on the opportunities represented from both sides and realise the power of mutual benefit in addressing common challenges.

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