The arc of human misery on its doorsteps is made worse by evil people like Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group.
They keep coming — and keep dying. Just this week, another 55 migrants trying to reach Europe drowned off the coast of Libya when their rubber dinghy sank. Two days earlier, 33 people died in four different capsizes near the Italian island of Lampedusa. A few days before that, dozens of bodies washed up on a beach near Tripoli. Each of these men, women or children could have told a tale of unimaginable sorrow.
The running tally of migrant drownings for the year so far is 661, according to the International Organization for Migration. That makes about 20,000 such deaths since 2014. And this number only counts fatalities on the central Mediterranean route from Africa to the European Union, not the refugees who perished on the Aegean or other passages.
If there’s more dying, it’s because there’s more migrating again. Illegal entries into the EU, by land or sea, were up 64% in 2022 over the previous year, to the highest number since the refugee crisis of 2016. Formal asylum requests grew by 50%, with about one million applications filed. Not counted in those numbers are the millions of Ukrainians who fled the Russian invasion and now live in the EU under so-called temporary protection.
The EU is at a loss. It doesn’t want so many people to come, but also doesn’t know how to stop them or what to do with them once they reach European shores. Italy now has a prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, who ran as a far-right populist on anti-migrant rhetoric. She tries to make it as hard as possible for dinghies — or even rescue ships — to ferry refugees to Italy. But she can’t break the law and wants to avoid even more egregious humanitarian disasters.
Other European leaders are in a similar bind. Some, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, pretend the problem isn’t theirs and just keep migrants out completely. Formerly liberal Denmark has in effect closed its doors and focuses instead on deporting refugees back home, even to war-traumatized Syria.
But sending migrants back against their will — and without the cooperation of their home countries — is hard. The EU still swears by the rule of law and prefers to see itself as a paragon of decency, especially in contrast to barbarian regimes like that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. That makes it difficult to just shove people on a plane, knowing they may be welcomed on the other side by the Taliban, or Boko Haram, or the troops of either of the two generals now tearing up Sudan, or others of that ilk. Such complications explain why only 21% of the roughly 300,000 migrants told to leave the EU every year actually go.
The reality is that migrants will keep coming to Europe for the foreseeable future — and in growing numbers — just as they’ll also keep trekking from South and Central America to the US. It’s because they come from places that resemble hell on earth and make Europe or America seem like relative heavens. They’re huddled masses fleeing from disorder toward order. They’re trying to outrun despair in search of hope. They’re doing what I would do too.
To glimpse the potential of the coming migrations, just take a look at the Sahel, the arid belt of Africa just south of the Sahara. The region’s problems start with droughts and famines, which anthropogenic climate change has made 100 times more likely to occur. (That problem of global warming, it should be added, was caused not by Africans, but by rich countries in North America, Europe and elsewhere.)
But droughts are just the start of the Sahel’s problems. The intertwined list goes on to include ethnic strife and other mayhem, from coups in Burkina Faso to civil wars in Sudan or Mali, as well as Islamic terror and random violence in various places.
Together, these scourges have displaced a record 36 million Africans, three times the number a decade earlier. Three in four of these refugees are internally displaced — that is, still in Africa. But that could change.
Now comes the most diabolical part. There are actually people in this world who delight in this human suffering — and want to exacerbate it, because they want to cause mass migrations that will make the EU break down, or apart.
Enter Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Putin confidante who runs the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary conglomerate which the US considers a transnational criminal organization and Kremlin proxy. Lately, Prigozhin has been in the news for hiring convicts out of Russia’s prisons and sending them as cannon fodder to attack Ukrainian lines in places like Bakhmut. But Wagner operates in many countries, and has taken a particular interest in Africa.
According to US intelligence documents that were recently leaked, Wagner — like the Russian state — is actively pushing into the Sahel to take advantage of ambivalent interest in the region by the former colonial power, France, and superpower, America. Its goal is to cause chaos, by selling martial services to any warlord willing to make a bid.
One target is Chad. It’s a problematic country — government forces killed scores of peaceful protesters in October — but also a US and Western ally of sorts in the fight against Islamic insurgencies. Wagner is apparently hiring and training fighters from the Central African Republic, Chad and other places to oust the Chadian government, perhaps even plotting to assassinate its leader, Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno.
This coup would be just one part of plans by Prigozhin — and therefore presumably Putin — to foment rebellion and strife across the Sahel, in order to turn the region against the West, and of course to cause a mass migration toward Europe.
As the EU’s 27 leaders haggle about tweaking their dysfunctional asylum regime this year, let none of them peddle the illusion that the problem of migration can be either solved or ignored. Not on a planet that is heating, not in a universe with so much evil, not in a world that includes the likes of Prigozhin.
Such bleak assessments are hardly de rigueur in Brussels. But anything else is simply dishonest. The price of being European will include pulling bodies out of mare nostrum, “our sea.”
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”