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The cause of our failings - Tonio Fenech

Migrants sit at a naval base after being rescued by Libyan coast guards in Tripoli, Libya. Photo: Ismail Zitouny/Reuters

Migrants sit at a naval base after being rescued by Libyan coast guards in Tripoli, Libya. Photo: Ismail Zitouny/Reuters

It has become cliché to say that there is no easy solution to the immigration phenomena. A lot of hope, including a monument unveiled, to commemorate the successes of the Valletta EU and African Leaders Summit, endless EU summits that quibble on burden sharing while avoiding to tackle the real causes to this phenomenon, seeing immigrants as not the humans they are but the political problem they cause.  

Politicians refuse to educate our people and prefer to play on their unfounded fears of a perceived invasion, and while we build tower after tower, we claim to have no space for the few that need our rescue and compassion.

We split hairs between refugees and so-called economic migrants, basically people who leave their country in the first instance because of persecution and the latter because of misery and hunger. By what right do we refuse shelter and to share the fruits of the earth that God endowed all humanity, choosing to close our ports and throw these so-called problems, human lives, under the sea?  

Africa is the world’s resource-rich continent. It has the world’s largest deposits for gold, diamonds, chromium, 90 per cent of the cobalt, a mineral essential to the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles made by companies such as Apple, Samsung and major automakers and is extracted by eight-year-old children that are paid eight cents a day.

  Africa has the potential to produce 40 per cent of the world’s hydroelectric power, 65 per cent of the manganese, millions of acres of untilled farmland as well as deserts that can offer limitless opportunities for the generation of solar power as well as other natural resources.

And yet, the peoples of the 41 African nations are in the main impoverished and abused people, where ethnic genocide has taken the lives of untold millions of innocent civilians. We fail to recognise that millions in Africa, especially Christians, are fleeing their homes for overcrowded refugee camps and smuggling routes to Europe because of religious persecution that is on the rise, especially in countries like Nigeria. 

These people have no opportunities. The land that used to provide for themis looted by the greed of corrupt politicians, government structures and the multi-national companies from Europe, the US, China and the rest of the world that are only interested in the resources they can take for cheap to make phenomenal profits.

No wonder that these people dream of a future somewhere else, and seek to come to the continent where the economic benefits of African resources are being enjoyed, like Europe.  

Will Africa ever benefit from its natural resources? The BBC asked this basic question in 2012 when new discoveries of coal, oil and gas across East Africa looked set to transform global energy markets and, Africans hoped, their own economies.  Ironically the same report quotes Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist at the World Bank as saying: “On average, resource-rich countries have done even more poorly than countries without resources.”

We have an obligation towards these people because we are part of this unjust world economic order of which we are the beneficiaries

While the West keeps supplying weapons to governments that run their countries more like authoritarian regimes, manipulating elections, restricting freedom of expression, executing dissent through dubious means, do little to stop persecution and ethnic cleansing, despite their military muscle and do nothing to improve the livelihood of their citizens by investing in sanitation, education, job opportunities, social welfare and other essential needs.

Nigeria, the continent’s biggest oil producer, is described by the United Nations as one of the poorest and unequal countries in the world, with over 80m of her population living below the poverty line, i.e. earning less than $2 a day. The same BBC report claims that since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, the former World Bank vice-president for Africa, Oby Ezekwesili, estimates that $400 billion of oil revenue have been stolen.

Foreign aid is no solution. The EU knows that if any positive impact is to be attained from such aid, it needs to bypass government officials and work with organisations closer to the ground, otherwise most of the amounts end up deposited in secretive bank accounts or used to pay bribes to keep corrupt governments in power. There is much to say on the lack of effective foreign aid, but it suffices to say that first we rob them and then we offer charity with conditions.

I will not present myself as having all the solutions but some of the steps that need to be taken should be pretty obvious to all of us. First, stop selling weapons to these countries, legally or underhandedly.  Secondly, severely punish multi-national corporations that are granted access rights to resources or contacts through corruption deals.

Thirdly, the African economy needs to be built on the principle that African natural resources are to benefit the peoples of Africa primarily, and companies extracting or buying these resources have to pay fair compensation and win contracts through fair and transparent means. 

Fourth, an institution like the World Bank should support the building of a country-by-country development plan that focuses on productive job creation, factories, infrastructure, sanitary, education and urgently needed projects and making sure that more added value is created in these than merely jobs associated with mining and exporting resources.

Fifth corrupt governments need to be starved, not through sanctions that make their people suffer more, but through specific means, like international arrest warrants for crimes against humanity such as causing starvation, depriving their own people, etc. and support governments that work for the common good of their countries even if initially we see ourselves getting nothing out of this. 

The African people crossing the Mediterranean are helpless people and not economic migrants. They are robbed of their dignity by a world economic order that suffocates them in poverty and desperation. Their future is in the hands of corrupt government structures, government-backed thugs like Boko Haram, multi-nationals that are only interested and answerable to stock market movements, and political leaders playing short-sighted politics preferring the status quo and pushing these people under the carpet, or under the sea. 

It is easy to say that these people should sort their problems with their own governments when democracy fails them. We cannot expect these people to rise civilly to contest their political leaders when the powers that be sell weapons to the governments that oppress them with force.  

We have an obligation towards these people because we are part of this unjust world economic order of which we are the beneficiaries. The number of boats that cross the Mediterranean Sea are only the thermometer of our failings. 

Pope Francis reminds us that in the gospel parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus, the rich man was condemned not because of his wealth, but for being incapable of feeling compassion for Lazarus and for not coming to his aid. If we have no heart for these people, we are already dead.

Tonio Fenech is former minister for finance.

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