A Matter of Survival How to Humanely Solve Europe's Migration Crisis

Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL

By , and Fritz Schaap

Part 2: 'European Hell Is Better than Africa's Paradise'


You Only Die Once: Agadez, Niger

There are only five people left here. The smugglers packed all the others into white Toyota pickups without license plates in the morning and drove away with them into the desert, toward Libya. The five young people who had been left behind didn't have any money. That's why they're still sitting on mats on the ground in this barren, mud-walled house on the outskirts of Agadez. Their names are Oussama, Abdullarahmed, Brigitte, Drogba and Sow. They hail from Ivory Coast and Guinea and are all teenagers. The house serves as a transit station for about a hundred people each week. People in Niger call places like this "ghettos." The walls are filled with scribbled sentences like: "European hell is better than Africa's paradise."

The five are hoping for some kind of divine intervention that will help them raise the money they need for the trip to Libya. Oussama wants to become a football player, to bring coach Jogi Löw's national team in Germany back to the top, to become the German Mbappé. He's 15 and he ran away from home because there was nothing to do. Abdullarahmed, 17, dreams of becoming a hero, like the Malian immigrant nicknamed "Spiderman" who rescued a child from the railing of a balcony on the fourth floor of a Paris apartment building and was subsequently granted French citizenship by President Emmanuel Macron. Abdullarahmed saw the video on the internet. Brigitte, 17, wants to work as a cleaning lady in Paris and to one day be able to buy perfume. Drogba, 18, wants to escape the violence in Ivory Coast, where young people attack each other on the streets with knives. And Sow, 19, wants to learn something in Germany and build a company that will then bring jobs back to Guinea.

They are young, healthy and confident people. The fact that this is likely to change soon makes this story such a sad one. Don't they know what can happen to migrants in Libya? Or what could occur when they try to make their way across the Mediterranean? Or try to land their boats in Italy, where they are often kept from coming ashore? Drogba laughs. Of course, they've heard about the slave markets, he says. He's also aware of the new Italian government and the fact that it has more or less cut off the Mediterranean route to Italy. "But we can't allow ourselves to be discouraged," he says, "there's no other chance for us. Once you're in Europe, you've made it." And what if he doesn't make it? "You only die once."

In Europe, the saying goes that "you only live once," the guiding principle for those who want to experience everything fully. But, here, you only die once -- a sad reality for those who want to taste a little bit of the world they know only from television and hearsay.

Europe's Laboratory for Migration Management

For years now, the Nigerian city of Agadez has been a central hub for migration from West Africa. Around three-quarters of all African migrants who have reached Italy by boat in recent years have traveled through the country. In a sense, Niger is a kind of southern external border of the EU. Up until 2015, the "passeurs" legally transported migrants through the Sahara on old, informal routes. It was only then, under pressure from the EU, that the country passed Law 36, which made it a crime to traffic humans. The law destroyed one of the most important sectors of the country's economy and many people's livelihoods. "Why are we now suddenly criminals," asks one former trafficker. "We never killed anyone," he says, adding that many are angry with the EU. He argues that people who have abandoned smuggling should be provided with support so that they can find a new way of making a living. So far, though, little has happened on that front.

Niger has essentially become an EU laboratory for migration management. European countries are trying to combat the causes of flight here, which in this case largely means cutting off the routes to Europe. France, Italy and Germany have all stationed soldiers here to train local security forces. The former main route through the desert has been closed off, numerous new checkpoints have been built and the soldiers have been equipped with off-road vehicles, motorcycles and satellite telephones.

Countries of origin of asylum-seekers in Germany
DER SPIEGEL

Countries of origin of asylum-seekers in Germany

The EU has rapidly increased the development funds it provides to Niger in recent years. The country is set to receive around 1 billion euros between 2017 and 2020. The largest share of that money will go directly into the government's coffers. Niger ranks 112 out of 180 on Transparency International's Corruption Index. Off the record, EU officials speak of the "shopping lists" Niger's 44 government ministers demand in return for ongoing cooperation, lists that include cars, planes and helicopters. Meanwhile, the World Food Program, which cares for just under a tenth of Niger's malnourished population, has so far received only 35 percent of the funds it needs for 2018.

The EU is only selling Niger as a "success story" because the flow of migrants has officially declined by 80 percent. But the smugglers have just shifted to significantly more dangerous alternative routes through the Sahara. "The desert kills as many people as the sea," people in Agadez are now saying.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has established an EU-funded center for migrants in the city to help them voluntarily return to their home countries. Since many people cooperate, the required papers can typically be arranged within a matter of a few weeks. UNHCR has responsibility for people facing political persecution. Around 1,500 people are here currently.

Women live in a separate area. Almost all are victims of Libyan traffickers and have experienced mass rape. An African woman with a round belly and an empty gaze sits, crying, in the infirmary.

Youssouf Sow, 32, arrived two weeks ago by bus from Tripoli. He's the only son in a family of nine from Guinea. For five years, he tried in vain to get to Europe so that he could support his family back home. He's now returning, without having achieved anything. He lost time and ruined his health. You can see the sadness and despair in his face. He no longer understands the world. "But I can do something," he says. He says he's a carpenter, that he can build doors, windows and kitchen furniture. "You would probably have good use for me, wouldn't you?"

Sow was in Libya. Despite the shootings and fights, he worked there until he had made the money the smugglers demand for the trip to Europe. He spent several weeks roaming the Mediterranean Sea. Then the Libyan coast guard fished him out of the water and turned him over to smugglers. They took Sow to a camp. People were kept against their will, unless they could pay to get out. Sow says he was beaten at the camp, and that his left eye has been damaged ever since. He can barely see out of it. He spent three months in the camp before he managed to escape. He called his parents and made the decision to return home. He's ashamed. But he can't keep going.

Stories like that anger economics professor Collier. "It's a terrible tragedy," he says. "We attract these young people to Europe. And we do so with the best of intentions. But it's an irreversible trap." They often realize after a yearslong odyssey that they have no chance. By then, he says, it's too late. That's why he believes it is irresponsible to welcome migrants to Europe who have arrived there illegally. "We can't encourage these people to risk their lives. It's our ethical responsibility to do the opposite."

But is it justifiable to close the borders to illegal migration?

Collier says it would be best if the EU strictly controlled its external borders. "The moral authority to protect our borders goes hand in hand with the task of fulfilling our duties toward refugees and the world's poorest," says Collier. He adds that it is wrong to see development cooperation as a way to serve the purpose of preventing migration. Especially given that that approach doesn't even work. Experts note that emigration tends to increase when economic strength grows. After all, the journey can only begin once you've got a bit of money in your pocket. It's only at a much higher economic level that the willingness to migrate begins to abate again.

Collier would like to see a radical rethink. He says Europe must not encourage the ugly narrative that the only hope for Africans is for them to get out of Africa. Young Africans, he says, need to be viewed for their potential and not as a burden. He calls for serious efforts to be undertaken to create more jobs locally in Africa. These should include economic aid involving the private sector and the elimination of EU trade and subsidies policies that do harm to African countries and flood their markets with cheap products.

Europe's Failure To Help: The Bezzina Shipyard, Malta

In early July, 22 men and women on the bridge and deck of the Sea-Watch 3 are waiting to set sail in the glistening morning sun. The 55-meter-long (180-foot-long) ship is still moored by its stern to the wharf, but the crew is ready to depart. The fuel tanks are full, water and rice are securely stored on pallets in the ship's belly, the infirmary shelves are filled with antibiotics, with bandages and ointments for treating burns. They often have to provide treatment to migrants who have been exposed to a mixture of gasoline, salt water, urine and vomit that can burn the skin right down to the flesh.

The captain requests permission to sail. It's standard procedure, but he is told he cannot leave the port. The rescue vessels Lifeline and Seefuchs had already been detained in the port of Valletta, Malta, and now the crew of the Sea-Watch 3 are also told that the vessel's Dutch registration must be verified, despite having complete and correct papers.

In the days that follow, there will be repeat deaths in the area Sea-Watch 3 wanted to sail to, including those of babies. Many shipwrecked people are brought back to North Africa by the Libyan coast guard, and often end up in the notorious camps along the coast. IOM data indicates that more than 700,000 migrants currently live in Libya. At least 7,000 are being held in camps where forced labor and ill-treatment are part of everyday life. With the Libyan coast guard stopping more and more refugee boats in recent months, that number has more than doubled since the beginning of the year. Mistreatment is a recurring issue. But the EU nevertheless continues to rely on Libyan security forces and only recently massively increased the funds it is providing them.

Sea-Watch 3 has now been stuck in the port of Valetta for more than 50 days, despite having the correct paperwork. The Seefuchs and Lifeline civilian rescue ships are also still being held in the port. Since January alone, at least 1,527 people have died or are considered missing in the Mediterranean.

Barbara H., a doctor from Hamburg, stuck it out and stayed on board in the harbor for three weeks. "This is a failure to provide assistance. We're being forced not to help. This is unprecedented. I never experienced anything like this during my entire professional career," says the 51-year-old, who used to work as an emergency physician and is now employed as a doctor on cruise ships.

At the end of July, the EU's Sophia mission to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean was also temporarily suspended. The mission's Italian commander ordered all the warships involved back to the ports.

A Ferocious Debate

After being celebrated as heroes at the beginning, Barbara H. says, the mood has now changed entirely. She says volunteers have been sent death and rape threats. "People are suddenly saying: 'You're aiding the traffickers,' or even: 'You are the traffickers.'"

Germany is ferociously debating whether private sea rescue efforts should be viewed as a humanitarian endeavor and whether the helpers are to blame for the fact that more and more people are daring to make the Mediterranean crossing in dangerous, ramshackle boats. A journalist with the weekly newspaper Die Zeit was personally targeted online in July after she raised the question in an opinion piece of whether private sea rescue initiatives play right into the hands of the human-traffickers. No other aspect of the debate surrounding the refugees has recently triggered as much societal division.

So, what might the appropriate solution look like?

First, Europeans clearly have an obligation to rescue people who are drowning. The EU rescue missions must continue. This is a task that cannot be left to the NGOs. But the clear aim of a common refugee policy must be to ensure that people are no longer getting into boats and making the trip to Europe.

But how can that be prevented? Experts on migration argue that refugees in need of protection should be identified out of the mass of arrivals and assisted as quickly as possible. They argue that all others should be quickly repatriated to their home countries. This could be handled at the facilities the EU is currently planning.

Eliminating the Incentive

Collier believes these transit centers could be set up both at the European external borders and in North Africa. But they must be under the auspices of the Europeans and not, as is currently the case in Libya, managed by criminals. He believes this would eliminate the incentive to take the dangerous boat trip because it would make no difference to a person's chances of staying in Europe. Although no North African country has so far agreed to allow such centers on their territory, it is probably just a question of money.

But it would likely be difficult to control those types of facilities in Africa. Although it might be feasible in Tunisia or Morocco, in Libya it might even require the stationing of international troops. This has prompted other experts to argue in favor of only building the centers at Europe's external borders.

One of the most detailed proposals for a workable solution comes from Gerald Knaus, the founder and director of the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank. He designed the refugee deal between the EU and Turkey, which has been widely criticized for making the EU dependent on an autocrat like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But the deal has also meant that far fewer people have drowned in the Aegean Sea.

To handle the Mediterranean routes, Knaus envisions European transit centers in Italy, Greece and Spain, where most migrants are currently arriving. If they want to remain in Europe, immigrants are required to apply for asylum in these countries. This is where the maritime rescue groups, or even better, EU officials, could take shipwrecked migrants. This would put an end to the disgraceful debate over which countries are even willing to allow these rescue ships to dock. The facilities would have to be well-equipped, clean and humane.

There must also be enough interpreters and European asylum decision-makers working on site for applications to quickly be evaluated. There must also be lawyers to help asylum-seekers challenge those evaluations, and judges to make the ultimate decisions.

Both the Dutch and the Swiss have adopted such a system in their own countries. Those who have no right to asylum, Knaus says, must immediately leave Europe and return to their country of origin. Those who have no identification papers with them must allow their mobile phones to be examined in the search for clues. "The message will spread by word of mouth that those who have no right to protection will be turned back at the European border," Knaus says.

To ensure origin countries like Senegal, Gambia and Nigeria take their citizens back, Knaus proposes that repatriation agreements be negotiated, similar to what Spain has been doing for the past 10 years as part of its "Plan Africa." That was another reason for Merkel's recent trip to Africa in August. According to Knaus, the allotment of work visas could be of particular interest to countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. "African countries would profit just as much as Europe would," he says.

The Senegalese Bavarian: Buchloe, Germany

If Mouhammadou Sambou had had the opportunity to apply for such a visa, he likely would have decided against taking the dangerous route crossing Niger, Libya and the Mediterranean. He wouldn't have had to spend weeks starving in a Libyan prison. And he wouldn't have had the experience of seeing two men shot to death as they tried to escape with him. That was back in 2014. Sambou was able to make his way to the coast, before then spending almost two days on a boat until an Italian Navy helicopter spotted the vessel and brought him and the others to land.

Four years later, Sambou, now 21, is sitting on the steps of the building where he lives in western Bavaria. It is a mild summer evening in Buchloe; the hostel belonging to the construction company he works for is located right next to the train tracks. The grass is knee-high.

"It was brutal," he says in Bavarian-accented German and shakes his head, as though he still can't believe it himself. "Really brutal." He only briefly talks about his past and doesn't offer too many details. They are painful memories. His father was violent, he says. One day, his mother was lying dead in a pool of her own blood, having been shot by a friend of his father's. Why? "They were always arguing. My father had enough other women."

Because a German development worker told him how great it was in Bavaria, Sambou knew early on: "That is where I wanted to go."

The enthusiasm, though, isn't mutual -- even after four years. The federal migration authority BAMF hasn't approved Sambou's asylum application and is unlikely ever to do so. People from Senegal have almost no chance of being given asylum or recognized as refugees. Indeed, last year he received a letter demanding that he leave the country and saying that if he refused, he would be deported. By then, he had long since begun a vocational training program at a construction company called Rudolf Hörmann.

"It was a shock for all of us," says Thomas Novacek, who directs his training program. "We thought there might be problems after the traineeship, but right in the middle? It was a terrible situation for everyone involved." Like most such companies, Rudolf Hörmann is constantly on the lookout for candidates to fill open positions. Without immigration, the German economy wouldn't have a chance against the growing shortage of trained workers.

In recognition of that fact, the German government two years ago passed a new integration law, which contained the so-called 3+2 Regulation in the hopes that it would provide both refugees and the companies that employed them with more stability for future planning. The regulation ensures that refugees who are not in line for permanent residency permits will be allowed to stay for the duration of their training program and for two additional years if they can prove they have a job.

German employers welcomed the regulation, but while the law looks clear-cut on paper, it hasn't always been so in reality. Immigration officials, after all, have broad leeway when it comes to applying the rule. It is possible, for example, to reject a migrant's 3+2 application if he or she is unable to credibly prove their country of origin or comes from a safe country of origin like Senegal or Ghana.

Given this, migration expert Knaus and many companies support giving migrants who want to work a work visa and residency permit, even if they don't qualify for asylum or refugee status. "Most of these people won't go back home anyway, so we should give them a chance to integrate, and do so as quickly as possible." Government officials could then focus their energies on deporting those who have committed crimes.

To counteract the impression that anyone can stay in Germany once they've managed to make it across the border, however, Knaus recommends implementing a cut-off date. The rule would apply to all those who arrived prior to that date.

Beyond that, though, Germany needs an immigration law that better and more consistently regulates access to the labor market. That won't help reduce illegal immigration, but it could reduce pressure on the asylum system -- at least if the also provides opportunities to people from African countries who tend to have fewer qualifications. One option would be to implement work visas limited to three years, enough time to allow capital and knowledge to flow back to Africa.

Migration Pressures Will Remain High

But The challenge remains. Never has the number of people fleeing from war and persecution been as high as it is today. At the end of 2017, some 68.5 million people had been forced from their homes, with 85 percent of them living in developing countries. Migration pressures on Western democracies will remain high for the foreseeable future. But Germany has also demonstrated in recent years that it is able to integrate people into its society.

Sensible asylum policies must strike a balance: They cannot ignore Europe's ethical foundations, but they also cannot ask too much of the European people. Cherished truths must be abandoned -- on all sides. Because the situation at Europe's borders is currently relatively calm, now would be an excellent time to approach difficult questions calmly and with the necessary sobriety, and to listen to both our heads and our hearts.

Good asylum policy means seeing not just individuals, but also masses. The first thing Europe must do is increase financial support for countries bordering on war zones. Instead of keeping refugees in camps and preventing them from taking part in real life, they should be given back their autonomy and publicly subsidized jobs should be introduced in the regions they have fled to.

That doesn't mean Europe should stop accepting refugees. Individual asylum-seekers could be chosen for resettlement with the help of the UNHCR and brought to Europe. But no European country, no European population, can be forced to accept refugees by way of a quota system.

Europe's external borders must be protected. Transit centers are not inhuman as long as asylum-seekers are well looked after and their applications are processed quickly. Europe cannot allow people to continue drowning in the Mediterranean, but it also has every right to reject economic migrants. Quickly sending migrants back to their home countries is the ethical thing to do: Africa needs its most talented people. These measures, though, go hand in hand with an obligation to recognize the hopelessness afflicting around 1 billion poverty-stricken people around the world. Ignoring them would be extremely unethical. A comprehensive focus on Africa's economic development is necessary -- and that will require sufficient funding.

It is important to identify a cutoff date for the migrants who arrived in Europe years ago. It makes no sense to deport people who have been here for an extended period and who have successfully integrated. Any immigration law must find a solution to this issue.

Sambou, the construction trainee from Senegal, never wants to go back to his West African homeland. With the help of his lawyer, he was able to delay his deportation, but only by one year. He is almost finished with his traineeship and his employer would like to keep him on. Sambou plays soccer in a local club, has a German girlfriend and a family who has taken care of him since his arrival as an underage refugee.

In the eyes of the CSU, Sambou is a problem. Andreas Scheuer, the former CSU general secretary and current federal transportation minister, once said: "The worst thing" that can happen to Germany "is a soccer-playing, admirable Senegalese who has been here for over three years. Such a person will never be deported."

Scheuer might be right on that last point, but seems to have otherwise succumbed to a logical fallacy. When it comes to integration, Sambou isn't the worst, but rather the best thing that can happen to Germany.

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