Thousands of African migrants and refugees fleeing war, repression and poverty have long struggled to enter European borders, enduring dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea without any guarantee of being accepted upon reaching Europe's shores. Now, in the wake of deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, Africans coming to Europe could face even greater scrutiny as security overtakes compassion and lawmakers call for tighter border controls.
Africans already grapple with tougher immigration policies compared with other refugees and migrants in Europe, particularly Syrians. After the attacks in France last week, some lamented that the global show of support for Paris was the latest sign that conflict in Africa has largely been ignored and will continue to be marginalized.
“With the Paris attacks, Europe will start seeing what it can do to secure its countries and automatically we see how compassion and sympathy is decreasing,” said Haddy Sarr, a doctoral candidate who researches African migration at University of Basel in Switzerland. “It will make it very difficult for African migrants not only to enter the countries themselves, but we’re talking about integration and assimilation into society, as well.”
After nearly simultaneous attacks by Islamic militants in France’s capital killed at least 129 people and wounded hundreds more Friday night, investigators discovered a passport of a recent Syrian migrant near the body of one of the dead gunmen. France has not publicly confirmed that the passport holder, identified as 25-year-old Ahmad Almohammad, is a suspect, but Greek Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas said French officials had told Greece they suspected Almohammad was one of the attackers.
The revelation has quickly galvanized opponents of migration in Europe’s political debate. Anti-Islam, far-right politician Geert Wilders in the Netherlands called on the government to close Dutch borders immediately, saying officials were in denial about links between immigration and terrorism. In Italy, nationalist leader Matteo Salvini called for the closure of Europe’s borers, saying the religious radicalization of immigrants and their children were a security threat, according to Reuters.
Some 819,218 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by sea in 2015, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Most of them are Syrians, who are fleeing from civil war. But while the European Union and the United States have vowed to host tens of thousands of Syrian asylum-seekers, their African counterparts who have traveled far more dangerous routes often struggle to obtain asylum, experts said.
“It’s already extremely difficult for them to get there in the first place. It’s an intensely treacherous journey,” said Darren Kew, associate professor on conflict resolution and executive director of the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “My fear is that the Paris attacks will give Europeans a greater license for decreased tolerance of migrants coming to Europe, which is absolutely understandable for security reasons but it’s terribly worrisome from a humanitarian perspective.”
About 12 percent of the arrivals – or nearly 100,000 people -- came from the African nations of Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Gambia and Mali, which are among the top 10 refugee-producing countries in the world. Many of them trekked across the vast Sahara dessert and departed from Libya to Italy across the Mediterranean, a deadly sea voyage that has so far killed more than 2,200 migrants this year. Some Africans are fleeing rampant poverty and repressive regimes, while many others are seeking safety from Islamic terrorists in their own countries.
“Very many vulnerable migrants are in danger of being scooped up in a rapid reaction – and an understandable rapid reaction,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for International Organization for migration in Geneva. “It’s important for people to take care before they decide to do that, because you may be putting people back in harm’s way of the very terrorists they’re running from.”
Terrorist attacks like the ones in Paris on Friday have plagued African countries for years, but typically receive less international response. Islamic militant group Boko Haram has killed some 20,000 people and displaced millions of others since launching an insurgency in northeast Nigeria six years ago. The group has also coordinated attacks in neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Meanwhile, al-Shabab launched its own Islamic insurgency on major Somali cities by 2009 and has killed dozens in nearby Kenya and Uganda. The Somalia-based group killed at least 148 people at Kenya’s Garissa University College in April and took hostage hundreds of students.
“Africa does not get the same level of attention for these sorts of terrorist attacks that Europe gets,” said Kew, the University of Massachusetts Boston professor, who is also an expert on Nigeria. “I think there is an overall expectation in the West that terrible things happen in Africa.”
In January, millions of people marched through the streets of Paris to mourn the death of 17 victims of terrorists attack that began at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine. At the same time, Boko Haram invaded northeast Nigeria’s Baga region and killed as many as 2,000 people, mostly women and children. The rampages were both motivated by extremist ideology, but there were no pledges of international solidarity for Nigeria as there were for France.
“It’s a sense of déjà vu,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “It’s not just that Africa’s bad stories aren’t told; the good stories aren’t being told either.”
Even before the Paris massacre, European officials had begun in recent months to look for ways to stem the unprecedented flow of migrants from the world’s poorest continent. During an international summit on migration last week in Malta, European and African leaders made pledges to increase cooperation and discussed deals to send home some hundreds of thousands of Africans already in Europe. Since the Paris attacks, experts said Europe might push even harder for deportation, stronger border controls and stricter arrival inspection.
"We already saw with the Valetta summit Europe taking a harder approach to border control. It would be unfortunate to see a further acceleration of that,” said Sara Tesorieri, E.U. conflict and humanitarian policy adviser at Oxfam International, a relief organization. “Any measures that are taken still have to be compatible with everyone’s rights, including the right to seek asylum.”
Sarr, the doctoral student at the University of Basel, was born and raised in Sweden, but her parents came from Senegambia, a former confederation between the West African nations of Senegal and the Gambia. Sarr, a Muslim, said Sweden has been largely supportive of African migrants, but she said the recent terrorist attacks were changing that sentiment.
“You see a lot of people who are very open to migrants and refugees who are starting to flip,” she said during a telephone call from Stockholm. “It worries me and it worries people I know, as well.”