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Two years ago, our nation boiled in rage when Congress attempted to revise immigration policy that had long been in shambles. I was working as an intern then at Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak’s office, taking phone calls from crotchety, disaffected senior citizens about their political concerns and entering their opinions in a crammed database.

When bipartisan legislation was introduced in the Senate that would, among other things, give citizenship status to 12 million illegal immigrants, phone calls at the office ran off the hook. Complaints ranged in tone from articulate, quiet concern to vitriolic, racist diatribes. I was struck by the utter lack of sympathy displayed by callers who claimed the United States should close its doors to immigrants forever.

Fast forward to 2009.  Revising immigration laws doesn’t seem to be a top priority for the incoming Obama adminstration. In fact, during the election, the topic of immigration mysteriously disappeared from local town hall meetings and presidential debates. Curiously enough, Public Radio International’s Lisa Mullens reported that the financial crisis has prompted a mass exodus of immigrants from the United States. Sparse jobs and waning incomes have taken a toll on remittances crucial to the Mexican and other Latin American economies.

But the flow of migrants from Africa doesn’t appear to have ebbed since the global credit meltdown.

Each year thousands of sub-Saharan Africans cross the treacherous Sahara in hopes of self-sustenance and prosperity in Europe–things they can’t count on in their countries of origin. Along the way, many are attacked by robbers and smugglers. Others die of dehydration, ensnared by desert heat without enough water. Still others fall prey to disease or murder.

Migrants from countries like Niger, Mali, and Chad who manage to safely traverse the Sahara face even more obstacles in North Africa. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, why do African migrants risk their lives each year?

The BBC’s Jenny Cuffe asked Innocent Acabo from Niger why he is saving to embark on a dangerous trip to Spain:

“This country we are not doing anything there is no work…There is no work…There is nothing here. So many people like that we get to Libya see if we get a job…Spain..I don’t know much about Spain..but it’s far better than my own country in terms of working. In my country, we work and work and work and you don’t get what you’re working for. In Spain, but I believe when you get there, you work, you struggle, something will change.”

But the citizens of recipient countries aren’t always so sympathetic. Under pressure from citizens rankled by the influx of undocumented immigrants, many European countries are cracking down on migrants, forcing sub-Saharan and North Africans like Innocent back to their respective homelands. Still worse, many migrants are captured by authorities at North Africa’s borders, and are often sent to languish in putrid detention camps. Those who make it through Africa travel across the Mediterranean in flimsy vessels, often meeting their deaths in stormy seas.

European lawmakers talk of managed migration, whereby African migrants will be permitted to enter Europe to fill in labor gaps. However, African policy-makers worry that such a measure may further stunt the economic growth of the continent.

In 2006, European and African countries gathered in Morocco for the Rabat Conference to discuss solutions to unrelenting migration. Attending the meeting is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who claims that problems of migration are firmly rooted in the conundrum of African under-development.

“I hope that this conference will enable the states of Africa and Europe to formulate cooperative approaches to the challenge of development – approaches which can help us to create the conditions that enable people to migrate out of choice, rather than necessity.”

Two years later, scant progress has been made as rates of migration continue to increase and the developed world persists in ignoring the connection to poverty and global inequality.



September 2018
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