WEST AFRICA: Forced mass deportations, violence against migrants on rise

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Participants wrapping up the two-day "Stakeholders in Migration" conference on migration in West Africa organised by non-profit Open Society Institute (OSI) said clandestine migration from sub-Saharan Africa to North Africa and Europe has prompted increased border crackdowns, abuses and killings of migrants.

High season clogs detention centers

More Africans attempt ocean and desert crossings to North Africa and Europe from June to September when the seas are relatively calmer, according to participants.

Dozens of would-be migrants have been found dead at sea in recent weeks. Hundreds more remain in detention in Italy, Spain, and North Africa.

Italian security forces report more than 2,000 would-be migrants, mostly African, in detention in a center in Lampedusa, Italy intended to hold only 850 people. The number of people trying to enter Italy without travel documents has doubled during the last year to about 15,000, according to Italian government officials.

Forced deportations, repression on rise

Dakar-based lawyer Helene Cissé said seasonal spikes in migration prompt mass forced deportations.

She said there has been an 80 percent rise in such deportations of mostly West African migrants from France in the past year. "As Europe deals with more Sub-Saharan African migrants, it has turned to increasingly repressive, violent, and even deadly expulsions of irregular migrants [who do not have embassy-issued travel documents]."

International agreements that prevent mass deportation include the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms, and the 1990 UN Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families.

But Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Andorra, Greece and Switzerland have not ratified the European rights protocol, and only 35 countries have approved the UN convention.

Mauritanian rights advocate Fatimata Mbaye says that even in countries with laws that protect migrants, these are often not enforced.

Mbaye said she witnessed French police abusing a Mauritanian woman on an 11 March 2008 Air France flight from Paris to Nouakchott.

Mbaye said when she protested, airport police removed her from the flight and held her for overnight questioning before releasing her. Mbaye told IRIN the woman who prompted her to speak out remains in police custody, without access to a lawyer, after being arrested for not having proper travel documents.

"People become complacent and look the other way because they do not want to deal with the consequence of speaking up. So they remain silent. Rather I should say we, remain silent."

Women more vulnerable to abuse

The UN Development Fund for Women (UNFEM) says even though women form about half of migrants worldwide, they remain largely invisible in migration and integration policies.
The mafia-like nature of clandestine migration leaves women vulnerable to sexual abuse by a mostly-African network of recruiters, boat operators, employers, and people who provide temporary housing to female migrants, according to a 2008 OSI "Irregular Migration in West Africa" study carried out in Mali, Mauritania, the Ghana and Senegal.

The study found some housing operators who forced young female migrants into prostitution by threatening to expose them to law enforcement.

Africa shares the blame

Human rights lawyer Cissé says local media reports, security reports, and witnesses have documented African security forces at times beating and forcing migrants on long marches through the desert in North Africa without food or water during deportation proceedings.

Mauritania's national security forces reported expelling more than 3,000 would-be migrants in 2007, mostly to Senegal and Mali, regardless of the migrants' countries of origin.

Between 2002 and 2008, Libya deported the largest number of migrants to Mali, more than 2,000, according to the Malian government.

Since January 2008, Egyptian security forces say they have arrested more than 600 migrants trying to enter through their 250-kilometre border with Israel, killing 20 in the process.

Amnesty International reported this past July that transit countries in Africa are under increased pressured to act as de facto policemen controlling migration toward Europe.

OSI's Nairobi-based advisor Ibrahim Kane said African security forces share the blame for migrant abuse, "We need to take a good look at ourselves. The violence starts there. The question is, how do we stop it in our own borders when it is Africans turning on Africans?"

Early recommendations

Cissé told IRIN most organisations working on behalf of migrants in Africa need more training to lobby for the ratification of and compliance with international agreements that prohibit mass deportation.

African courts are ill equipped to prosecute human rights cases, in general, much less for migrants whose legal rights are more easily threatened, she said.

Malian government representative, Amadou Diakate, said civil society groups should form a regional early warning system to educate migrants about abuse hot spots. He added governments should fight poverty alongside enforcing bans on abuse.

Two-time failed migrant Mamadou Seckna Fall listened to the discussion on migration and abuse before speaking to the group, "Abuse will not discourage migrants. You have to remember these are people who are willing to die. What is needed is not violence, or more laws or longer detention. We need your help. We need jobs. We need a way to provide for our families."