Out of Africa

EU Immigration Policy and the North African Uprising

Courtesy Reuters

As most of the world celebrates the revolutions sweeping Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya, Europe is watching with anxiety, fearing an influx of African immigrants. Already in recent weeks, more than 5,000 Tunisians have crossed the Mediterranean Sea on boats and arrived on Italy’s shores. A smaller but still significant number of Egyptians has fled for Europe. And more than 100,000 Libyans and migrant workers from East Asia have left Libya, making their way toward Tunisia and Egypt. But these North African migrants are not Europe’s primary concern. In fact, what Europe fears most is a mass exodus of sub-Saharan Africans to Europe through unpoliced North Africa borders.

In the early 1990s, surging numbers of sub-Saharan Africans tried to leave their civil war—and poverty-ridden countries for Europe. In response, Europe tightened its border controls and dramatically curtailed legal avenues for migration by instituting quotas. Still desperate to escape Africa, the migrants found alternative routes out, and Turkey and the countries of the Maghreb became major hubs for illegal emigration from Africa to Europe: every year, tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans arrived in Libya, Morocco, or Tunisia, to recuperate, arrange deals with human smugglers, and climb aboard flimsy boats to Italy or Spain. Many of them died on the journey or were intercepted by European patrols and sent back to Africa. Those who made it joined Europe’s army of irregular workers and asylum seekers. Those who were unable to reach Europe and unwilling to return home remained in North Africa, trying their chances again and again.

In the past decade, European countries started supplementing their own border controls with external gate- keeping agreements with North African dictators. In a 2003 agreement with Spain, Moroccan authorities pledged full cooperation in migration control in return for $390 million in aid. Since the late 1990s, former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali helped crack down on the transit of migrants through Tunisia in exchange for economic cooperation and preferential trade.

Cooperation between Italy and

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