The agreements made at the Malta summit reveal that European leaders have decided that it is prudent to live with African leaders, no matter how unsavoury some of them might be.

By Martin Plaut

Source: New Statesman

EU Africa VallettaThe unprecedented EU-African summit that has just ended in the Maltese capital Valletta was proclaimed a success.

It was an example of African leaders co-operating with their European counterparts to resolve a common problem: the refugee crisis.

The political communiqué was replete with motherhood and apple pie.

“We recognise the high degree of interdependence between Africa and Europe as we face common challenges that have an impact on migration: promoting democracy, human rights, eradicating poverty, supporting socio-economic development, including rural development, mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change.”

The reality, buried in the action plan was rather different. Certainly there were elements that were welcome. These included a recognition that African states bear the greatest burden of refugees – only a minority of whom actually make the journey to Europe.

There was also an understanding that the camps in which so many languish need to be upgraded. Security in the camps must be improved, education and entertainment needs to be provided, so that young men and women are not simply left to rot. There are even suggestions that some – a tiny, educated minority – might be able to travel via legal routes to European destinations.

What is really worrying is contained in paragraph 4 of the document. Here are details of how European institutions will co-operate with the African partners to fight “irregular migration, migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings”.

This aim is laudable enough. But consider the implications through the eyes of a young refugee struggling to get past Eritrea’s border force, with strict instructions to shoot to kill, or to escape from the clutches of the dictatorship of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

Europe will offer training to “law enforcement and judicial authorities” in new methods of investigation and “assisting in setting up specialised anti-trafficking and smuggling police units”. The European police forces of Europol and the EU’s border force (Frontex) will assist African security police in countering the “production of forged and fraudulent documents”.

While there would be few who would oppose offering such support to democracies like Ghana, what will be the implication for the majority of refugees fleeing from notoriously repressive African states like Eritrea and Sudan? The price of forged passports is certain to rise all along the paths refugees tread, from Khartoum to Niamey.

The threat this poses refugees is no idle speculation. The latest quarterly report from Frontex indicates that Eritrea is the main driver of African refugees. Eritrea is responsible for the third largest exodus of all refugees landing in the EU (10 per cent of the total) behind Syria and Afghanistan. Even war-torn Somalia does not come close.

The Eritrean government has made plain its intention to end this embarrassing exodus. At the last high-level meeting with the EU in 2014 the Eritrean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Osman Saleh, told the gathering that:

“Eritrea values its partnership with the European Union and is determined to work with the EU and all European countries to tackle irregular migration and human trafficking and to address their root causes. We call for an urgent review of European migration policies towards Eritreans, as they are, to say the least, based on incorrect information, something that is being increasingly acknowledged.” [emphasis in the original]

The Eritrean government will never accept that it is its own policies that force its young people into exile. Yet this is clearly the case.

The UN Commission of Inquiry into Eritrea’s human rights made this clear in June this year. Its key finding was that: “The Government of Eritrea is responsible for systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations that have created a climate of fear in which dissent is stifled, a large proportion of the population is subjected to forced labour and imprisonment, and hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the country… Some of these violations may constitute crimes against humanity.” [emphasis added]

Despite this scathing finding European leaders, including David Cameron, had no qualms about reaching an agreement with the Eritrean and Sudanese governments. The aim of the European leadership is to attempt to slam the continent’s doors shut at any cost. Hardly surprising that Eritrea’s Foreign Minister welcomed the outcome. “A clearer and more accurate picture of the reality is emerging,” he said.

In reality, the West has decided that it is prudent to live with African leaders, no matter how unsavoury they might be. The Arab Spring is today seen to have led to the chaos that gripped Egypt and the collapse of the Libyan state. Rather than face a renewed threat of Islamist extremist regimes foreign ministries from Washington to Rome would rather back the current dictators. Better the devil you know. . .

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?