Fed up with the European Union’s inability to stop the waves of African migrants arriving in southern Europe, Italy is making a cautious return to its colonial-era stamping grounds of Eritrea in Ethiopia. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte made a state visit to the two countries in October last year, the first high-level outreach by Italy to the Horn of Africa since the 1990s.
Conte’s action is partly a sign of Italy’s desperation regarding its refugee crisis. Illegal seaborne migration across the Mediterranean has risen from 60,000 in 2010 to over one million in 2015. Previous Roman government had begun mapping out a strategy for the region in previous governments, including increased development assistance and ministerial contacts. But the refugee crisis, the end of Eritrea’s pariah status and Ethiopia’s sky-high economic growth rates have lent some urgency in Italy’s policy. An estimated 25 per cent of the illegal African migrants who come to southern Europe through Libya are from the Horn.
The rise of anti-immigrant populism across Europe has made it politically difficult for governments on either side to find a solution. In December last year, African leaders publicly criticised the decision of eight European governments to not sign a global compact to handle such migrations because of rightwing views that even regularized migration was unacceptable.
European governments have tried piecemeal solutions such as increasing aid to Africa to reduce economic incentives to migrate. One German official proposed swathes of African land be leased to the West for long-term development, a suggestion denounced as “voluntary colonialism.” Others have reverted to bribing autocratic regimes or coastal militia to block migration. Experts say this only adds to political instability or human rights abuses.
Southern Europe, which has borne the brunt of the refugees, has been particularly frustrated with the failure to create a pan-European response. Italy is among those that have taken to seek unilateral solutions. Earlier this year, France recalled its ambassador from Italy for the first time since 1940 after the latter blamed its colonial policies for the present migrant crisis. Interestingly, one of the reasons Italy has publicly embraced China’s Belt Road Initiative has been its view Beijing can be of help because of its large economic and political footprint across Africa.
February 28, 2019