Migration is not a crime. Migrants are not criminals

News that Gabonese police had arrested clandestine immigrants from West Africa on the nights of November 3 and 4, the majority of them from Togo, sparked a number of reactions. In view of the criticism heaped upon these poor people, particularly on social media, and contrary to what the media likes to suggest, we believe it is important to emphasise that clandestine migrants are not criminals.  They are victims.  It is not a crime to leave your country and search for opportunities elsewhere. Migrants from Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Togo risk their lives on the open seas, crammed into makeshift boats overloaded with people and goods for 4 to 5 days, in an attempt to reach Gabon.  They do so, purely because there is no available alternative that allows them to migrate legally. They would prefer the comfort of travelling by bus or by plane like everyone else. But politicians have given them no other choice.

The migratory policies that are being put in place in an ever-increasing number of countries do not give everyone the same opportunity to migrate legally. The world is divided into the “haves” and “have nots”. Those with money and power who can travel legally, and those who are forced to take the most dangerous routes through deserts, seas and forests.  In a world where even animals can migrate freely several times a year to survive the change in seasons, those in power deny other human beings the same right. For the undocumented migrants who are attempting by every means possible to erase the barriers that are relentlessly put up to stop them from going in search of a better future, that is the sad reality.    Illegal migration is created by politicians and their laws.  Migrants are neither thieves nor murderers.  They are just people who, after having tried unsuccessfully to survive in their own country, are looking for work elsewhere.  That is exactly what rich people, called “investors”, are doing every day; circulating freely throughout the world in search of business opportunities. Yet, we do not hear the same cries of indignation for this type of migration, and the exploitation of the poorest people in destination countries, the corruption of politicians and the environmental pollution that underpin it.

The most virulent critics of the 74 clandestine immigrants that were arrested, which included 45 Togolese women and 3 Togolese men, were Togolese people living abroad. Far from sympathising with the unfortunate immigrants arrested, all they could do was question why their fellow countrymen had left Togo in the first place and “ended up” in Gabon, a country in crisis.  The irony of people criticising their brothers and sisters for refusing to live in a country where they themselves refuse to live is staggering. However, the root cause of these tragic events is our principle concern.  And that is the difficulty the Togolese people face in trying to travel legally to Gabon or, for that matter, the majority of countries in central Africa.

It is a fact that the Togolese passport is not considered highly by other countries in the world.   This makes it very difficult for Togolese passport holders to travel without a visa. Only thirty countries are open to them. However, this has nothing to do with the size of our country.  In fact, many island countries which are a significantly smaller than Togo, such as Cape Verde, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, have managed to negotiate arrangements that facilitate travel for their citizens.  Even Gambia, often considered one of the less prominent West African countries, at least during Yahya Jammeh’s period in power, has arrangements that allow its passport holders to travel to more countries than Togolese citizens. The most appropriate solution to prevent innocent lives being lost in the world’s deserts, forests and seas, is to make it easy to travel without a visa. Togo’s diplomatic authorities, who have been more reactive over the last few years, must make improving mobility for Togolese citizens their mission, as is the case for other small countries.

It is also their duty to ensure that the Togolese people arrested for illegal entry to Gabon, are treated with dignity. Migrants arrested for illegal entry and stay have increasingly fallen prey to abusive practices as the discourse demonising irregular migration has intensified. Over the last few years, hunting African migrants has escalated, and countries are resorting to mass expulsions in Algeria, Angola, Gabon, Guinea, Morocco, Tunisia, South African, with total disregard for the humanity of the people being expelled.   By following in the footsteps of European countries, African countries have left the door open to a surge in xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiment on a continent that dreams of panafrican union. The African people’s culture of hospitality is increasingly becoming a myth. Faced with the gradual loss of this fundamental value, essential for a humane society, we must turn to our political institutions whose duty it is to protect our citizens and safeguard their dignity, wherever they are.

(Written by Samir ABI, Permanent Secretary of the West African Observatory on Migrations)

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