The Modern Slave Trade? Not Quite

The trafficking of human being across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe has been on the news last month. The death of almost 900 people as they sought refuge and a better life in Europe so much pricked our collective conscience that at last there seems to be some movement to prevent these events from re-occuring. Former leaders of European countries for example described it as “a stain on the conscience of our continent”[1]. 

In response, the European Union convened an extra-ordinary meeting in Brussels to come up with short term measures. The statistics also indicate that the numbers of migrants into Europe are now approaching record levels [2]. To ensure that such a tragedy does not occur again and to keep the numbers in check, it is important to address the causes, accelerating factors and design a solution that understands the interests of all the stakeholders. In other words, failure to come up with a wholistic and comprehensive solution will turn the conference into a mere talk shop. First, since most of the immigrants come from Africa it is necessary to involve the African governments in the discussions. Other countries of origin such as Bangladesh, Iraq should also be involved in the process. Surprisingly, the African Union, the representative of the continent of origin for most of the victims has been quiet about the tragedy.

Apart from sending a message of condolence and a commitment to “enhance (their) efforts in seeking a solution to these preventable tragedies as well as prosecute those involved in the unacceptable acts of human trafficking and smuggling of migrants”[3], there has not been any tangible developments by the African Union. The European conference must be followed by a Euro-African summit. African governments must be made to see the urgency of the current situation. To allocate resources, if necessary. Secondly, the lure of Europe is largely economic: the perception-perhaps reality?- that the immigrants will get a better life in Europe [4]. The better life is defined in economic terms-jobs, more income and social security. How do you address this? By ensuring that the African governments pulling up their socks in economic governance. After successfully ‘exporting’ democracy and human rights to developing countries, the developed world has to put pressure on the socio-economic rights. Perhaps this is the time to hold African governments to account on this front. But, there ought to be true economic assistance to developing nations to enable them provide for the needs of their citizens. None of the World Bank inspired agreements that were aimed at maintaining and feeding the world economic status quo. The human traffickers thrive on hope for a better life. If the citizens of these countries begin to see some real changes they hope will be reincarnated.
The European countries also have to acknowledge their mistakes in the past. For example, NATO’s invasion of Libya was mainly caused by their geopolitical differences with the regime of the late Muammar Qaddafi. Libya is now a failed state. This, in turn, has meant that, without a functioning government, the traffickers can use its ports. The same can be said about the role of the developed world in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The net effect is certainly more complicated than earlier anticipated.

Lastly, all rescued persons ought to be returned to their states of origin. Immediately. The message to the migrants ought to be clear: this is a zero sum game. Presently, the migrants who are intercepted at sea will be protected, even hosted by the European countries. Thus the implicit message is passed that if they get to the other side their dreams will be realized. In the words of Sir Paul Collier “until getting a foot on a Lampedusa beach ceases to leapfrog the queue of consideration for residence, young risk-takers will be induced to play the Russian roulette of a boat crossing. Only an automatic rule of return without exception can end leapfrogging”[5]. Well, this ought to change. Apart from those fleeing political or religious persecution, the rest should be repatriated as soon as possible. This is the only way, it seems, of preventing them from needlessly putting their lives in danger.
[1] See


[3] See

[4] For an account of some of the reasons see



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