William Kentridge More Sweetly Play the Dance

This essay, on the EU’s outsourced migration controls as the new imperialism, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on easy answers in the wake of the London Bridge attack.) It was published on 1 December 2019, under the headline ‘When refugees in Libya are being starved, Europe’s plan is working’.

A hospital that finds its patients so burdensome that it denies them medical care. A homeless hostel that turfs its residents out on the streets. A refugee agency that refuses to provide food for those under its care.

All might seem implausible. Except that there are credible reports that the third scenario is playing out in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is a body that, as its name suggests, is entrusted with the care and protection of refugees. Yet it is apparently trying to shut down a centre that it opened just last year, and to ‘starve out’ the people still inside to force them to leave.

The UNHCR’s actions, if the reports are true, are scandalous. They are also unsurprising. Starving refugees out of a place of safety is a fair metaphor for Western policy towards unwanted migrants. The EU, in particular, has been adept at using suffering as a policy lever.

Central to the EU’s strategy over the past decade has been the outsourcing of immigration control, paying countries from Libya to Sudan, from Niger to Turkey, to deter potential migrants to Europe. In this process a new form of imperialism is emerging, whereby rich nations, in the name of protecting their borders from migrants, trample all over the borders of poorer neighbours.

Niger, on the southern edge of the Sahara, is now, in the words of one European ambassador, ‘the southern border of Europe’. Whereas immigration controls are usually about stopping people entering a country illegally, the new imperialism requires African nations to prevent people leaving their territory if they might be coming to Europe. It’s the 21st century’s version of the Berlin Wall slung across the African continent.

What is really being outsourced, as Mali’s former presidential candidate Aminata Traoré observes, is ‘violence and instability’. Europe has turned migrants into commodities to be haggled over in a brutal new marketplace. It presents its policies as ‘a response to criminality’, a recent report on EU strategy notes, but in reality it is ‘fuelling predatory and criminal behaviourby generating perverse incentives in “partner” countries’.

The EU does not particularly care who its ‘partners’ are, so long as they willing to stop migrants reaching the Mediterranean. Sudan’s former president, Omar al-Bashir, overthrown in a military coup this year, has been indicted by the international criminal court for war crimes in Darfur. His regime was part of the ‘Khartoum process’, an EU initiative to cut off the migrant route from the Horn of Africa. One of the most effective instruments in policing migrants is Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitaries. Until 2013 they were known as the Janjaweed, a vicious militia that pursued almost genocidal violence in Darfur. Earlier this year, the RSF was responsible for massacres against anti-government protesters in Khartoum. It also plies its trade on behalf of the EU.

Nor does the EU particularly worry about whom its ‘partners’ lock up, so long as they lock up potential migrants to Europe. In the Sahel, 80% of migration is not to Europe but is regional, involving people who for decades have moved around an area in which borders are naturally porous. Militias and security forces don’t care to sift through different kinds of migrants, so all become targets for the new kidnap and detention industry. The result is the disruption of traditional trade routes, growing economic instability and rising discontent – feeding the desire for migration.

The EU turns a blind eye to the treatment of detainees, too. European governments are not just aware of the torture, sexual abuse and extortion to which detainees are subject but also, in the words of Amnesty International’s John Dalhuisen, ‘complicit in these abuses’. The whole point of outsourcing is to pay others to do Europe’s dirty work. The more hostile the climate for migrants in countries such as Libya or Niger, the more effective the policy of keeping migrants away from Europe.

The consequences of EU migration policy should, as the charity Médecins Sans Frontières puts it, ‘shock the collective conscience of Europe’s citizens and elected leaders’. Yet it is barely discussed. For those hostile to immigration, it’s a price worth paying. For liberals, it’s a touchy issue, for they fear feeding hostility to the EU. For Brussels, the policy is a political success. For dictators and warlords, it’s a means to riches and power. And so, the biggest scandal of our time has become an outrage that dare not speak its name.



The image is from William Kentridge’s installation More Sweetly Play the Dance.


  1. damon

    Charlie Yaxley from the UNHCR disagrees.
    “This article does not reflect the realities on the ground. Refugees are not being denied food with no other option. Cash assistance is available to all refugees in urban areas to purchase food AND accommodation”

    So does Filippo Grandi.
    “I find that accusation offensive,” UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi told reporters in Athens.

    “I don’t know where you read that report. Us, starving refugees and migrants in Libya? When my colleagues, day in, day out, risk their lives to access people that are often detained by criminal gangs?” he said.”

    I spent thirty minutes reading the Saferworld report.
    Their conclusion seems to be (and they say it explicitly) “Let’s get away from this being a numbers game”.
    What they want instead is for migrants and refugees to be helped on every step of their way as they move through and around the region. 500,000 are currently inside Libya and I’m presuming that most of those want to travel on to Europe. They must be helped to do so is the message of that report I think.

    And it doesn’t matter where they came from.
    Sally Hayden starts off one of her pieces by highlighting the death of a young boy from Togo inside a detention camp in Libya.

    The UNHCR has a policy of returning many of these migrants from West Africa back to their countries.
    Filippo Grandi has even accompanied some of them on repatriation flights.
    Should this be opposed too? Obviously Libya is no place for migrants and refugees.
    But should they be returned to their home countries and home regions?
    Some Somalians have even been flown to Rwanda for resettlement.
    Is that justifiable?

    • I’m glad you’re following Twitter debates, but I’m not sure that they’re particularly useful as ‘evidence’. As I pointed out in response, which presumably you also read, the UNHCR accepts both that it is closing down the facility and that it is withdrawing food from refugees already there – both the central points of Sally Hayden’s report. The facts are not being disputed, but rather the interpretation. And, while I don’t want to turn this into a ‘He said, she said’ kind of meaningless debate, there were plenty of responses on Twitter from people on the ground in Libya who agreed with Sally Hayden. Given that you so often accuse the ‘left’ of selective quoting, it’s surprising that you should be equally selective here.

      In any case, this was an article about EU policy, not the UNHCR. I can understand why the UNHCR might be defensive in its response. Why you should be, I’m not sure, except perhaps a misguided attempt at a ‘gotcha’ claim.

      The Anderson/Keen report is primarily about, as its subtitle makes clear, ‘The impacts of Europe’s outsourced migration controls on peace, stability and rights’, both with regard to migrants and to local people, not about ‘migrants and refugees to be helped on every step of their way as they move through and around the region’. It’s striking that you have nothing to say – in fact, never had anything to say – about the horrendous treatment meted out to both migrants and local people in order to facilitate EU policy, the EU’s creation of a kidnap and detention industry throughout North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, the destabilizing of local economies, the destruction of trade routes, the giving of political legitimacy (and financial resources) to dictators (even genocidal ones), warlords and militias throughout the region, the at best turning a blind eye to, at worst complicity with, torture, abuse and extortion, the complicity with militias who are both human smugglers and migrant detainers, and so on. None of this matters to you?

      • damon

        The EUs outsourcing of its migration controls do seem to be as you’ve described them.
        It’s the alternatives to them that needs to be made clear to everyone.
        From that report, I took the central message that the refugees and migrants should be being helped all along their journeys and not hindered. One of the blocks in the journey has been a ban on migrants from West Africa going past Agadez. I presume it’s such roadblocks and the turning of people back there that you’d object to. Even though, transport heading north from there can only be heading to Libya.
        400,000 passed through the town in 2016.

        I really don’t know what should be done. Let them all through, then they are heading into a conflict zone and will immediately need to be helped by the likes of the UNHCR.
        I think I read that the place in question, the “Gathering and Departure Facility” isn’t meant for those that moved into it but was for other people with different needs. So they’ve been trying to get them out to help people with even more acute needs. That’s maybe all it is, but they are obviously struggling with numbers. It’s ridiculous for people to be heading to Libya in their hundreds of thousands and and hoping to get on to small boats and put out to sea. That can’t continue. Stopping people at Agadez would certainly help with keeping down the numbers.
        Either that, or we take them directly to Europe. I don’t think we can have it both ways. It’s an ongoing crisis and will be this way for at least the next decade.

        This short video was included in a link Sally Hayden did from her Guardian article.
        About a Nigerian woman who has managed to get to Italy.

        Large scale migration from there to Europe, using those kinds of methods, is a disaster for everyone involved.
        I remember this episode of the excellent “Unreported World” from a few years ago which shows clearly the state the world is in.

        As for it mattering to me. I’m just an individual and have a hard time getting my mind around some of these ideas and what the implications of different practices could be.
        I think a political summariser – like LBC radio’s very astute Theo Usherwood, could do with explaining this all, and these reports
        The way he so expertly analyses and summarises the latest U.K. political goings-on every day.
        To get to some conclusions about what we would need to do differently and what would be the consequences of that. What to do with the 500,000 migrants and refugees in Libya right now for example. And the ones that will take their places if we took them out of there.

        • ‘It’s the alternatives to them that needs to be made clear to everyone.’

          How about beginning with the following alternatives? Don’t fund mass, arbitrary detention, torture, abuse and extortion. Don’t ally with some of the worst dictators and militias in the world because you think their brutality is handy in sending a message to potential migrants. Don’t turn upside down the economies and trade routes of whole regions to pursue policies that might be politically useful in Europe. Don’t finance a huge kidnap and detention industry across North Africa, the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Just for starters.

          ‘One of the blocks in the journey has been a ban on migrants from West Africa going past Agadez. I presume it’s such roadblocks and the turning of people back there that you’d object to. Even though, transport heading north from there can only be heading to Libya.
          400,000 passed through the town in 2016.’

          First, would it be acceptable if Britain decided that no one could travel north of Birmingham because that was what the EU wanted? Second, around 80% of migrants in the Sahel are local migrants, not migrants to Europe. Libya, too, is, like Niger, a country of migration – people go there to work. The EU, however, has insisted on reclassifying both purely as ‘transit countries’ for migration to Europe. What this has done has been to destroy local migration patterns – and hence the local economies – for the sake of the much smaller migration to Europe.

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