The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on Its Way to the Old Continent 
by Stephen Smith.
Polity, 197 pp., £15.99, April 2019, 978 1 5095 3457 9
Show More
Show More

The Sahara​ is one of the few places on earth no one has been foolish enough to try to conquer. There have, however, been attempts, over the centuries, to govern it. In Ghat, one of the last Libyan towns in the Fezzan before the desert takes over, there are vestiges of efforts to bring the land to order: Bedouin trails that date from the Middle Ages; a rough-hewn fortress, started by the Ottomans and finished by Italian Fascists, that overlooks the hollowed-out ruins of a medina below. The traders, militiamen, shop owners and tour operators here have a range of views about Europe’s rekindled interest in their region. For some, it is the promise of a better livelihood: to get their share of the vast amount of money the EU is now pouring into North Africa, or at least to recoup the losses that followed Nato’s destruction of Gaddafi’s distribution networks. (When Gaddafi’s son was released from prison two years ago, the citizens of Ghat celebrated in the streets with gunfire.) For others, new electronic fences, biometric scanning stations, military outposts and an increasing number of European soldiers are signs that delicate circuits of kinship and commerce are being disrupted. At a makeshift café in a petrol station on the outskirts of Ghat I met a Tuareg man associated with a local militia. ‘They get tired, they want to leave,’ he said of the European forces, as if their arrival was a nuisance rather than a paradigm shift.

Since the start of the Libyan and Syrian civil wars in 2011, European policy towards North Africa has stepped up another gear. In Agadez, an old trading town in central Niger, hundreds of white pick-up trucks lie impounded at a military base. They are the former cash cows of men who made their living transporting their fellow West Africans across Niger and the Sahara towards Libya, but who now, if they aren’t in prison, try to pass as entrepreneurs in a mostly non-existent start-up economy. On the Niger-Mali border, more than two hundred miles to the west, temporary villages have been built with EU and UN funding for those fleeing uncertainty in Mali, itself a consequence of Nato’s intervention in Libya. Women and men line up to have their fingerprints remembered by machines to help the state keep track of them – scanning is required if you want to be offered housing. In Niamey, Niger’s capital, French and UN specialists assess asylum claims at a distance of several thousand miles from the French coast, with only the most plausible applicants approved for the onward journey. It’s the sort of offshore processing that the UK Border Force can only envy.

The reconnaissance drones, border fences and scanning stations across the Sahara and the Sahel form only part of an expanding array of new technologies and strategies that Europe’s humanitarian agencies, corporations and militaries have devised to keep Africans and their goods where they are, or to return them to where they came from. Since 2011, an ongoing UN operation called Minusma – Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali – has deployed more than 12,500 troops to North Africa. French soldiers involved in Operation Barkhane, Minusma’s anti-insurgency offshoot, have nominally been sent to mop up the chaos in central Mali, but their mandate has since been expanded and they now operate anti-migrant patrols. Meanwhile, multilateral operations such as the EU Capacity Building Mission in Niger, headed by a former chief superintendent of the Belgian police, are increasingly popular among European states. They may find it hard to agree about much when it comes to their own continent, but on North African territory intra-EU co-operation is all the rage. Last year the Italian parliament voted to divert a battalion from the Middle East to Niger; Germany has sent a thousand troops to West Africa, with the Bundeswehr now operating a military camp in Niamey.

The dirtier work is still left to proxies. In Sudan, Janjawiid veterans of the Darfur War have been rebranded as the government’s Rapid Support Forces. During anti-regime protests in Khartoum in June, the RSF are alleged to have raped at least seventy women and killed more than a hundred people, disposing of some of the corpses in the Nile. Sudan’s most powerful military figure, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan, known as Hemeti, has spent the last few years turning the RSF into a lucrative business that enjoys the benefits of European support. The aim, reportedly, has been to get paid twice: first by taking captured migrants to Khartoum to show the EU that Sudan is serious about stopping the migrant traffic, and then by soliciting bribes from some refugees and enlisting others as labourers on RSF-controlled worksites before transporting them back to Libya for a fee. European officials have repeatedly denied that any of the €100 million ‘migration’ aid package for Sudan goes directly to the RSF, though one of its commanders, Abbas Abdulaziz, recently complained on German television that his work is underfunded by European states – which isn’t the same as not being funded at all.

The militarisation of large sections of North Africa has been a bonanza for the global security industry. At arms fairs across Europe, the latest counter-migration offerings include a Bulgarian heat-seeking device to detect migrants before they get too close, a Motorola-designed ‘humanitarian’ drone and a weatherproof retina scanner. A five-metre-high barrier, constructed with funding from the US Defence Threat Reduction Agency and the Bundeswehr, now stretches for 168 kilometres along the Libyan-Tunisian border; Airbus has supplied the Tunisian border force with ground surveillance radar and night vision units that can be fixed to the scopes of automatic weapons. A German-developed system to determine the exact age of asylum seekers through the use of X-rays was recently rejected by the national medical association, so the German government invested in ultrasound technology to achieve the same end instead. As if to disabuse anyone who imagines that EU policies on security and development belong to entirely separate spheres, one of Merkel’s former ministers for Economic Co-operation and Development eased himself into the post of armament lobbyist for Rheinmetall, one of Europe’s largest defence contractors, shortly after leaving office.

European politicians are convinced that the survival of the European project depends on limiting African movement and fecundity. There is little need to look to the right for evidence of this fear when it comes as readily to the lips of the continent’s purportedly centrist leaders. Emmanuel Macron has called for ‘a successful demographic transition for countries that today have seven or eight children per woman’, and his new national questionnaire includes the leading question: ‘Would you like us to be able to fix annual immigration quotas, as defined by Parliament?’ Jean-Claude Juncker has met his Eastern European critics with exasperation: ‘Of course we use carrots and sticks when it comes to African countries and migration.’ ‘We would like to co-operate with countries so they stop people from leaving irregularly in the first place,’ another EU official said on a recent tour of North African states. At least one European ambassador to Niger has referred to the Sahel as ‘the southern border of the EU’. In 2017, Marco Minniti, whose portfolio as Italy’s interior minister rather tellingly includes Libya, reactivated the migration pact Gaddafi made with Italy shortly before his death. The EU has poured €135 million from its Trust Fund for Africa into Libya, in order to enhance the Libyan Coast Guard and the Department for Combating Illegal Migration, which employs local militias to staff detention centres where torture is routine. Earlier this year, during a meeting in Cairo with EU leaders, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hardly needed to audition for the role of Europe’s latest highly paid bouncer. ‘It is worth recalling that the Egyptian authorities have made the fight against smuggling and trafficking their priority,’ Donald Tusk said. ‘As a result there have been no irregular departures from Egypt to Europe this year.’ For Brussels, Sisi’s waxing authoritarianism appears a small price to pay for his perfect record in policing migration in a country with rampant unemployment, especially among the young. As the Dutch president, Mark Rutte, put it in Cairo, ‘sometimes you have to dance with whoever’s on the dance floor.’

Some dance partners, like Niger, perform the required steps with perfect fidelity. At the 2015 Valletta Summit on Migration – the first major conference of European leaders after the start of the so-called migration crisis – Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, presented a set of measures he would undertake to keep refugees from Niger out of Europe. The plan was designed by a group of European consultants he had hired as part of a drive to attract new forms of revenue to his country, one of the poorest in Africa. Since then, Niger has become the preferred testing ground for European anti-migration experiments. In return for passing a law in 2016 banning ‘smuggling’ – a long-standing activity in Niger’s desert hinterland – the EU, and Germany in particular, would reward Niamey with more than €1 billion in ‘security’ investment. Niger’s government believes that the blessing of the ‘international community’ is a safer source of political legitimacy than the socialising of natural resources. In the days when they ruled it French prime ministers rarely visited Niger; Merkel, to celebrate her productive new ‘partnership’, has made the trip twice in the last five years.

Government officials in Niger are fluent in the language of humanitarianism, regularly soothing the consciences of Western journalists. I met Kalla Moutari, the defence minister, at Pilier, a restaurant in the Deizeibon district of Niamey that could have been transplanted straight from interwar Paris. Liveried waiters rolled dessert carts sprayed with mosquito repellent, while security men sat outside in the dust watching a TV programme about English vocabulary. I asked Moutari whether the human trafficking law that came into effect in 2016 had benefited Niger. ‘We had a severe humanitarian catastrophe in the north,’ he told me. ‘We had people dying up there, getting killed, risking our relations with our neighbours. Algeria, you know, sends people right back into the desert, but we don’t do that – that’s not our way. The Algerians think that it’s better when unwanted people disintegrate in the desert than when they drown in the Mediterranean in front of the cameras.’ Niger had recently deported migrants to Sudan. ‘Sometimes you have to send a message,’ he smiled. I asked him about the EU technicians who help draft the agenda for cabinet meetings in Niamey. ‘When you are as poor as we are,’ he said, ‘what is needed is knowledge, financing, money – we need it all.’

Rentier humanitarianism of this kind is on the rise in North Africa’s halls of government. It pays to speak the language of human rights, and to indulge European nightmares about vast smuggling networks that make no distinction between young girls and cigarettes. But the rhetorical recalibration has come at a cost. In carrying out the anti-smuggling agenda of European states Niger’s government must find a way of compensating the country’s extensive network of freelance transporters, or else write them off as political constituents altogether. Until 2015, the smuggling network, which among other things was responsible for supplying Gaddafi’s modernisation projects with Western African labour, was a multimillion-dollar business. It fit few of the stereotypes attributed to it by the Western media. As the political scientist Max Gallien has shown, just because an economy is informal doesn’t mean it’s unregulated. For more than thirty years, the borders of Saharan states have been controlled zones of carefully choreographed illicit trade.

When I drove through the Tunisian border town of Ben Gardane last November, the roads were lined with multicoloured mountains of plastic petrol canisters, along with rows of cars dramatically jacked up into the air, waiting to be turned into mechanised camels for contraband. Patrol officers make a show of sizing up suspicious vehicles, knowing that even the tiniest, rusted-out Fiat may be equipped with an extra petrol tank to carry cheap fuel out of militia-controlled Libya into petrol-poor Tunisia. The bribes paid at checkpoints are settled via negotiations between Libyan traffickers, Tunisian wholesalers and Tunisian and Libyan police. Everyone knows that traffickers carrying more than $2000 worth of merchandise have to pay a fixed bribe. Everyone knows that you need a doctor’s note for medical supplies, and that alcohol – even, as Gallien notes, the alcohol in sanitary towels – makes the price go up. These networks experienced a shock when Gaddafi fell; most of them quickly rebounded. Yet the demonisation of smugglers by the Western press – more interested in the evils of individual characters than any consideration of political economy – has been decisive in the treatment of the ‘European refugee crisis’, which can only be alleviated one bad actor at a time.

In tone​ , if not in argument, Stephen Smith’s Scramble for Europe belongs to the crisis literature that began to appear in 2015 after Merkel’s decision to allow more refugees into Germany than EU burden-sharing rules required. The notion of a ‘European refugee crisis’ had already coalesced in the West by late that year: a Wikipedia page was devoted to it and there was a widespread sense that an unprecedented number of people had suddenly descended on the continent. (For interior ministers in other parts of the world, from Beirut to Micronesia, who face far higher proportions of asylum demands on their states, the idea that Europe was experiencing a ‘crisis’ was laughable.) The prospect of housing and caring for more than one million people in Western Europe in 2015 was hardly enough to justify fears of civilisational collapse: there were more refugees after the Second World War and nearly as many asylum seekers entered Germany from Yugoslavia in 1991-96 as from Syria in 2011-16. Even so, 2015 was the start of a crisis over refugees – but it was a crisis of politics rather than numbers. Merkel’s coalition broke down and one of her possible successors publicly aired the idea of withdrawing the right to asylum from Germany’s basic law. In Belgium, the debate brought down the government of Charles Michel. Meanwhile, parties such as Denmark’s Social Democrats have learned to outdo the right in anti-immigrant policy proposals – which include stripping asylum seekers of jewellery and quarantining them, Australian-style, on a barren island in the Baltic.

Smith’s book focuses on fears of large numbers of Africans – especially sub-Saharan Africans – coming to Europe. By his reckoning, the number of mostly Middle Eastern refugees who entered Europe in 2015 is paltry compared to the number of people who will soon be successfully making the irregular journey from sub-Saharan countries: he predicts that the figure will exceed 200 million over the next thirty years. In his estimate, by the year 2050 between a fifth and a quarter of Europe’s population will be of African origin. Despite their having some of the world’s highest infant and maternal mortality rates, Smith projects that 28 sub-Saharan countries will see their populations double by 2050, while Angola, Burundi, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia will see theirs quintuple. Between now and the end of the century, three out of every four babies in the world will be born in sub-Saharan Africa. Smith’s estimates are based on UN projections and Pew Research reports but the conclusions he draws are his own.

‘I do not lie awake at night trembling at the prospect of an Africanisation of Europe,’ Smith assures us. As an old Africa hand who edited and reported for Libération and Le Monde from West Africa for decades, Smith is not easily cast as a Eurocentric alarmist. Nevertheless, in his eyes, the ‘exponential population growth’ in Africa, and the supposedly imminent mass migration into Europe, spells chaos. Europeans, Smith claims, have hardly been able to see the coming population shift. Until recently, demography was not on the agenda at EU summits, a fact all the more curious, Smith thinks, when you consider that ‘from 2000 onwards, half of the children born in Brussels had immigrant parents, and Muslims represented one out of every four inhabitants under the age of 25.’ But Smith’s main concern about migration into Europe is that Africans will be entering a society where the welfare state is already under duress and forms of labour are increasingly precarious.

The evidence for the US, Europe and the UK, however, indicates that immigrants of whatever kind increase the redistributive capacity of state welfare – they pay more in taxes over time than they take. The popular nationalist notion that migrants suppress the wages of native workers is similarly not necessarily supported by the evidence, with effects varying from country to country: in Germany since 2015, government payouts to asylum seekers have often functioned as an economic stimulus. As the political scientist Philip Manow has found in a detailed study of German sentiment, the people most likely to be averse to immigrants are those who once relied on government assistance but are currently employed. They worry that, once the refugees have picked up their cheques, the welfare state won’t be able to afford to step in if they themselves need help again. But surely the culprit in this scenario is not immigration: it is the kind of governance that nurtures both precarity in the present and forebodings of a more fragile future.

Like Wolfgang Streeck, who points to the new underclass of Africans in European cities who hawk umbrellas ‘that last for one rain shower’, Smith worries about the prevalence of a pro-immigration attitude that exhibits moral purity without considering the prospects for actual African immigrants in European society after they arrive. ‘Should European governments not feel responsible for creating a new underclass on their soil?’ Streeck writes. ‘Are the African migrants coming to the continent potential doctors, engineers, or revolutionaries in their home countries?’ And: ‘How different Africa would be if all that energy expended to leave the continent were turned inward.’ Youthful vigour would seem a slippery variable. But it is a spectre in Smith’s book: both the overproduction of African youth, and their misallocation in Europe. ‘Africa is a Neverland of young people,’ he writes, before citing data that suggests that civil wars are more likely to break out in countries with high numbers of young people. He then points out that al-Shabaab – the name of the Islamist terror group that operates out of the Horn of Africa – literally translates as ‘the young’.

When​  The Scramble for Europe appeared in France last year it was received with rapture by a wide swathe of the establishment. Marcel Gauchet, intellectual king of the French liberals, declared it ‘compulsory reading for all political leaders’. Macron called it ‘a perfect description of Africa’s demographic time bomb’ and Smith received a prize from the foreign minister. Alain Finkielkraut, doyen of respectable Islamophobes, lapped up Smith’s thesis, which he took to be that ‘Europe shouldn’t become African.’ For such readers, Smith’s argument included a bonus: he laid bare the threat that millions of evangelical, born-again Protestant Africans might enter France and erode the country’s communal and welfarist culture with their hyper-individualistic, entrepreneurial zealotry.

The early reception of Smith’s book revealed something alarming about the state of thinking about migration in Europe. Admirers claimed to have been suddenly enlightened. ‘By granting development aid, which everyone thought was the way to keep Africans at home,’ Finkielkraut wrote, ‘rich countries are shooting themselves in the foot.’ But the fact that development aid has at times increased levels of migration has been known since the 1970s. The relevant question, as Benoît Bréville shot back in Le Monde diplomatique, is not whether development aid is reaching a country that many are migrating from, but what kind of development is happening there. When wages rise across the board in any given society, would-be migrants are more likely to stay. Heavy emigration is more common in places where development is uneven, or where land seizures turn smallholders into workers or – above all – where workers can’t find jobs. As some French demographers noted, most of the Africans who will try to make the journey to Europe in future decades won’t be financially comfortable enough to stay at home – but they won’t be poor either. Travel to Europe, by whatever means, will continue to be prohibitively costly for many. Smith’s response is that even the arrival of the more decently off in considerable numbers may be too much for Europe to bear, at least politically.

The relation between capital and migration in Africa today is nearly the reverse of the situation that prevailed in the 19th century and in the heyday of the ‘mission civilisatrice’. The interwar challenge for French colonial administrators in places like Mali was to attract migrants from across the Sahel to work in the sparsely populated Middle Niger, cultivating cotton to free France from dependency on the US. There was capital, in other words, but there were no people. Today, in the places which the French in particular struggled to populate, there are people but there is no capital. To paraphrase an African economist: in several sub-Saharan countries 100,000 unemployed men could die suddenly and it wouldn’t register on the Bourse – except, perhaps, as an uptick. It makes sense for a 25-year-old who has already left their village but has yet to find steady employment in a nearby city to chase capital – in the form of cash in hand – further afield. Most do so within Africa. But to impugn the motives of African migrants aiming for Europe, as Smith does, seems odd. ‘Adventure,’ he writes, ‘is the password of migration.’ A colleague of his at Duke University, Charles Piot, tried offering young men in a village in Togo a motorbike – the type they would be able to afford only after working for months on a plantation in Nigeria – if they agreed to remain in their village and help their parents rather than travel to Europe. They all refused. ‘Young Africans,’ Smith writes, ‘leave their village, their town or their continent because they hope to catch “a bit of luck”.’ This is the sort of thing I have sometimes heard from officials in North Africa: tasked with trying to stem the flow of emigrants they talk despairingly of hot-headed youth and their incurable desires. ‘One makes it to Marseille,’ an intelligence consultant to the Tunisian government told me. ‘He buys a Renault. He posts the Renault on Facebook. And … it looks so easy.’ Smith quotes some ‘youngsters’ in Tambacounda in Senegal: ‘Barsa walla barsac,’ they say – Wolof for ‘Barcelona or death.’

Smith’s emphasis on the psychological motives of African emigrants leads him to propose some overly psychological solutions. ‘There is a case to be made,’ he writes, for ‘Fortress Europe’. The full militarisation of the European border would help ‘narrow the gap – an abyss, really – between the right of asylum and the moral principles underlying it’. Only ‘true’ refugees should be allowed to enter. Smith is sceptical about the causes of the recent surge in asylum requests from Africa. ‘Has the world really become so much more dangerous over the past half-century, in particular in the new democracies south of the Sahara, like Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria or Kenya?’ Like many liberal policy men in Europe – from Paul Collier to David Miliband – Smith locates the tragedy of the migration ‘crisis’ in the drowning out of legitimate asylum requests by the false claims of ‘economic migrants’.

The term ‘economic refugee’ originated in Europe in the 1950s. It was first applied to refugees from East Germany and beyond whom the West German government believed had a legitimate moral claim to a better life in the West. As the chairman of the Social Democrats put it in 1958, ‘what is called economy in communist-ruled countries is so tightly linked with politics and persecution that our bureaucracy should not put the burden of proof on the refugee to show what he is.’ Little distinction was made between ‘political’ and ‘economic’ persecution. Bonn actively sought out ‘economic refugees’ from Yugoslavia and elsewhere in south-eastern Europe to help power its Wirtschaftswunder. As the historian Lauren Stokes recounts, when Bavarian authorities first started deporting some Yugoslav refugees in the late 1950s on the grounds that they were economic parasites, German Social Democrats were outraged. ‘Who invented the term “economic refugee” – a horrible term?’ one SPD member asked the Bundestag. ‘I can’t tell you who invented it,’ another responded, ‘but it wasn’t us. It developed in the press or somewhere like that.’ By the 1970s, the meaning of the term had been definitively transformed. To be a ‘model’ migrant should be to advertise your human capital, and yet this is what asylum seekers were not supposed to do. As Stokes writes,

The category ‘economic refugee’ describes a deceitful individual who blurs the distinction between the political and the economic out of self-interest. It stigmatises in foreigners precisely those features considered desirable in citizens: the desire to work, the will to self-improvement, and the willingness to invest one’s own human capital where it will produce the highest return. ‘Real’ refugees are supposed to be so afraid for their lives that they can scarcely function, whereas people suspected of making rational choices fall out of the tolerated category of ‘refugee’ and into the stigmatised category of the ‘economic refugee’, precisely by displaying independence and making purposeful calculations.

The most dramatic liberal proposal came in the autumn of 2015: the Merkel Plan. Under pressure to find a way to stem immigration numbers after one million asylum seekers had entered Germany over the course of the year, Merkel’s government took its bearings from a 14-page white paper by Gerald Knaus, who once co-wrote a book with Rory Stewart defending humanitarian intervention and now operates a think tank out of an apartment in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood of Berlin. Knaus’s suggestion was simple: Merkel had to offer Erdoğan and other gatekeepers a strong enough incentive to keep migrants away from the EU. Knaus suggested visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in Europe – a frequent source of contention between Berlin and Ankara – along with a large payment (not directly but through humanitarian agencies) that would assist with the settling of Syrian refugees in Turkey and help absorb them into the economy. Germany, Knaus believed, should follow the programmes already established in the Netherlands and Switzerland, where verdicts on asylum claims were made rapidly. If the system was efficient enough, people would soon realise that they would be deported almost immediately if they made false claims – and such claims would dry up altogether. ‘I was in Montenegro recently,’ Knaus told me, ‘and there are entire villages where people try to extend their vacations in Germany indefinitely. It’s a local pastime to figure out how to beat the system.’ Claimants from Montenegro – classified as a safe country – should be rejected straightaway, freeing up time for consideration of more worthy applicants. Since the ‘Turkey deal’ came into force, the number of refugees entering Europe has fallen by 40 per cent a year. Deportation has become an established part of the solution in Germany. Support hotlines are advertised on the Berlin U-bahn, with a ‘starter grant’ of €1200 on offer to those who undertake to ‘self-deport’.

Despite Smith’s willingness to consider the benefits of Fortress Europe, he prefers a solution he calls ‘bric-à-brac politics’ – a kind of muddling through. If, ‘one way or another’, the EU can hold off African migration ‘for two or three generations’, then, assuming that Africa eventually develops, many Afro-Europeans will some day move back ‘home’. This vision rests on a series of assumptions: that identity is fixed, that Africa will soon prosper and that its ecological devastation can be contained. Smith thinks that Spain has been an admirable muddler-through: it has ‘absorbed migratory flows and shirked the consequences; sometimes it has dodged them altogether’. But part of the reason he admires Spain is that in the period when Germany took in more than a million refugees it accepted only 13,000. Madrid owes its success in suppressing numbers to what Smith calls ‘a pragmatic approach to improving its co-operation with Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal’. But the consequences of this ‘pragmatic approach’ demand some scrutiny. Madrid has forged a series of bilateral deals, and many more informal ones, to ensure that people trying to enter the Hispano-African enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta are now deported back down to the south of Morocco. With its anti-migration measures Morocco has appeased its Spanish patrons – but it has also jeopardised its application to join the Economic Community of West African States, which requires visa-free travel among its members. By effectively reversing Morocco’s former policy of closer integration with Africa, Madrid has helped to close off the Moroccan economy from sub-Saharan Africans in ways that are likely to make economic conditions in the region worse, and the number of people who want to leave greater.

When​ the last full sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Abdul Hamid II, learned that his engineers were installing a telegraph cable to connect Tripoli to the Libyan interior, he insisted that it also cross the Mediterranean to his possessions in Crete. The possibility of building islands and bridges between Europe and Africa has occasionally been revived. In Europe today, two camps have formed, defined by their response to the immigration question: on the one hand, precarious students, internationalist leftists, greens and immigrants themselves, who speak of a ‘sea bridge’ to Africa; on the other, workers, left nationalists, the right and xenophobic neoliberals who want a Fortress Europe. Smith may be correct that the pro-immigration faction is more unrealistic than the forces of reaction who want immigration stopped: Italy has shown that it is possible to close a coastline. Yet focusing on migration itself may be a distraction from the policies of the European centre, whose erosion of welfare increases xenophobia at home. There is little interest in seeing African states enact redistributive policies on the basis of revenues from natural resources, or in negotiating trade on fairer terms. The Third Worldist idea of extracting concessions from Europe, not on any appeal to guilt, but by withholding valuable resources such as cobalt and lithium, would require a nearly unimaginable changing of the guard in North Africa. While European liberals try to parse the difference between asylum worthies, economic migrants and climate refugees, and all the while enrich and compound the authoritarian regimes that produce them, the better approach is probably to embrace a different paradox: reduce the incentive for Africans to want to come to Europe, while simultaneously making their journey easier and safer. But Europe itself seems to have settled on a narrow strip of common ground. Ursula von der Leyden, the incoming EU commissioner, has proposed renaming the job of top migration officer in Europe ‘Vice President for Protecting Our Way of Life’. Jean-Claude Juncker, her predecessor, agrees: ‘We want a Europe that protects … a Europe that defends.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 41 No. 22 · 21 November 2019

A terrible continuity is highlighted by the appearance in the same issue of Christopher Clark’s review of books on Hitler by Peter Longerich and Brendan Simms and Thomas Meaney’s review of Stephen Smith’s The Scramble for Europe (LRB, 7 November). In 1937 Hitler ‘enabled the forcible sterilisation of the “Rhineland bastards” (the children of French colonial troops and German women)’; currently ‘European politicians are convinced that the survival of the European project depends on limiting African movement and fecundity.’

Melanie Selfe
Ipswich, Suffolk

Vol. 41 No. 24 · 19 December 2019

Excellent essays by Thomas Meaney (LRB, 7 November) and Jérôme Tubiana and Clotilde Warin (LRB, 21 March) draw attention to the violence, oppression and crimes against humanity in Sudan. But why do both authors refer to events in Darfur as a ‘war’, while consistently avoiding the word ‘genocide’? Perhaps they are hesitant because political institutions have gone back and forth on the matter. As early as July 2004 the US Congress passed a resolution calling what was taking place in Darfur a genocide. But both the United Nations, in the initial report to the secretary-general in 2005, and the International Criminal Court in their initial investigation (also 2005), steered clear of a direct charge of genocide. The ICC reversed its decision in 2009 in issuing a warrant for Omar al-Bashir. Today, the actions of the Janjawiid militias in Darfur from 2003 onwards are no longer regarded as ambiguous cases by serious scholars of genocide, of Sudan, or of international legal opinion.

Whether or not events in Darfur meet the standard in international human rights law for genocide, you could be forgiven for thinking it meets the conventional understanding of the term: thousands of people were murdered as part of a centrally directed state strategy on the basis of their presumed ethnicity.

Avoiding the word is not a neutral stance. During the Rwandan genocide US State Department officials were instructed to avoid the word ‘genocide’ because using it implied the US government ought to act. And redescribing genocidal episodes as ‘wars’ has a long and dishonourable history. Turkish state denials of the reality of the Armenian genocide have frequently sought to frame events as ‘merely’ the sort of collateral damage that happens in war, and deniers of the Rwandan genocide are often keen to present the events of 1994 as an armed conflict between symmetrical sides, both of which committed regrettable war crimes. The original reasoning of the UN in resisting the label of genocide is chillingly reminiscent of the way the Turkish government has repeatedly represented the events of 1914: ‘Generally speaking the policy of attacking, killing and forcibly displacing members of some tribes does not evince a specific intent to annihilate, in whole or in part, a group distinguished on racial, ethnic, national or religious grounds. Rather, it would seem that those who planned and organised attacks on villages pursued the intent to drive the victims from their homes, primarily for purposes of counter-insurgency warfare.’

I will leave it to philosophers defending the doctrine of double-effect to assess the importance of the distinction between seeking to annihilate and pursuing policies in the knowledge that annihilation is a forseeable consequence. We know of Janjawiid attacks that involve going from house to house killing every man and boy and raping every woman and girl. We know there was aerial bombing of towns and villages. We know the bombings sometimes used chemical weapons. We know the Janjawiid pursued fleeing refugees, sometimes across international borders to what were supposed to be safe havens in Chad. To call this a war risks giving comfort to denialists and perpetrators, and transgresses on the dignity of victims and survivors.

Will Jones
Royal Holloway, University of London

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences