By Lorenzo Kamel

About 500 million people live in the Middle East and North Africa, two-thirds of whom are under the age of 30. In about three decades, according to a number of estimates, their number will double.

These figures, cogent also for the rest of the African continent, reflect the contours of a number of epochal challenges and opportunities, also for Europe. The possibility that a substantial percentage of these people will be “tempted” by Europe is in fact concrete.

Rather than trying to outline a strategic and long-term vision, most European governments – and part of their public opinion – tend to focus on partial and reactive (not proactive) policies, aimed at quickly fixing the “emergency”.

One glaring example concerns the agreement reached earlier this month at the Italian Ministry of Interior between what Italian daily La Repubblica called “the heads of the major tribes of South Libya, the Awlad Suleiman and the Tebu, at the presence of Tuareg leaders”.

This has been welcomed as a success of the “diplomacy of the desert” which aims to “stop the trafficking of human beings” coming from Libya.

Words matter

Plenty of other daily newspapers demonstrate that ethnic groups such as Tuareg and Tebu are still today often defined in terms of “tribes” directed by “heads”. “Tribe” refers to a concept used by European scholars and observers to refer to non-European contexts.

Roman gents, Basques, migrant populations coming from Central Asia in the 4th century CE, Celtic clans, to name a few, would easily “comply” with the category of “tribes”: They are however addressed and evaluated according to different criteria.

The alleged existence of a “Middle East Tribal DNA”, or that of an African continent characterised by “tribes” (qaba’il) and “tribalism” (qabaliyya), has been historically functional from the perspective of European powers.

For colonialism to take root, in fact, it was deemed important that African peoples and others would think of themselves in terms of small clans and tribes without any collective, or more “elaborated”, identity.

And yet, quoting Stephen Chan in a book based on decades of studies in and on the African continent, “it is now possible to say that there were seldom such entities as African ‘tribes’, except that they were the creations of colonial administration […] which needed to define, categorize and then administer people, often balancing the interests and benefits gained from one group against another”.

Migration flows

The decision to rely – via massive incentives – on agreements between “tribal leaders” is an integral part of the policies implemented by the EU to outsource migration control. This has an enormous cost for millions of human beings; women and children first and foremost, subject to systematic forms of sexual abuse and torture.

The policy of outsourcing has created an economic boom in a number of centres, some located in desert areas, becoming an industry that that profits of the most vulnerable ones.

In spite of this, “outsourcing” proved to be effective in terms of media coverage: It stopped the refugee flow and so appeased European public opinion, increasingly urged to fear an imaginary invasion that would endanger “European civilization”.

Aside from Arnold J. Toynbee’s intellectual legacy (“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder”), it should be noted that over 80 percent of migration flows in Africa happen within the continent (intra-African): Fewer than one-fifth of these people show interest in reaching Europe.

It should be added that almost the entire burden of migration in the eastern Mediterranean rests on the shoulders of neighbouring countries Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – but also Pakistan and Iran – who each absorb more migrants than the 28 EU member states combined.

Those who manage to reach Europe have, in general, the means, the energy and the education to make it: About 30 percent of Syrians en route, for instance, have university degrees (more than Germany’s national average).

Lucrative interests 

In spite of these considerations, the attention of a large percentage of European public opinion is increasingly directed toward two main aspects. First, the enormous interests that gravitate around migrants and the lucrative business set up by a plethora of NGOs, cooperatives and charities (€35 a day for every adult they house).

Second, the role of operations such as Italy’s “Mare Nostrum”, accused of having caused many more deaths than it prevented. Citing a video that recently went viral, traffickers are now using precarious “barges” as they are “confident that there will be boats ready to take these people on board a few miles from the Libyan coast”. This, it is argued, explains the exponential increase in mortality.

In truth, it is the increasing number of attempted crossings – which spiked following the destabilisation of Libya – which is the prime reason for greater numbers of deaths (and survivors).

Structural solutions

It should be added that lucrative business of charities and cooperatives represents the last stage of a more complex picture. The structural causes of migration – those hindering the development of many countries in the region – should be found elsewhere and cannot just be linked to local responsibilities, nor to a distant colonial past.

Still today, the natural resources (fuel, gold, gas etc.) of many African countries, and a number of the states in the Eastern Mediterranean are siphoned off through offshore companies that, to a large extent, are linked to European and American companies and businessmen.

As the Panama Papers confirmed, tax havens are used to exploit the natural wealth of some of the world’s poorest countries.

Only by opening Europe to African products and addressing the structural conditions that undermine the development capacity of millions of people, will the EU be able to implement a vision based on sustainable solutions.

The search for these solutions also involves the need to put pressure on rich Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait and others, to assume concrete responsibilities.

These countries are among the major recipients of the of the 1.35 billion euros in rifles, rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, mortar shells and anti-tank weapons currently exported from Europe (largely via the Balkans) to the Middle East: Some of these arms are currently being in used in Syria and Yemen, contributing to destabilisation of the region as a whole.

The image of a generous and welcoming Europe is far removed from the reality. Instead, it is coming to terms with some of the consequences of a history that continues to shape its present.


Lorenzo Kamel (PhD Hab. Associate Professor) is a Marie Curie historian at the University of Freiburg’s Institute for Advance Studies (FRIAS). He is also a Senior Fellow at IAI and an Associate at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES).

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