How Europe Made Indebted African States Into Its Border Police

Since 2015, the EU has increasingly demanded that African states repress migration on its behalf. It secures their compliance through economic coercion — exploiting debt relations which have in recent times sharply turned in favor of rich EU countries.

The Tunisian Maritime National Guard intercepts boats of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea on June 9, 2023. (Hasan Mrad / DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

On November 27, General Abdourahamane Tiani, head of the military junta currently running Niger’s government, declared the unilateral abolition of two key migration agreements which former president Mahamadou Issoufou had brokered with the European Union (EU) back in 2015. Most importantly, he repealed law 36-2015, which severely punished transporting migrants, particularly ones heading north. There was much speculation on the likely consequences of the move — yet many of the expectations that have been raised are misguided.

The Nigerien authorities’ move is unlikely itself to drive mass migration to Europe, as the EU still exercises brutal control over migration routes in the region. Neither is the move indicative of a power reversal between former colonies and colonizers, as desirable as this may be. In reality, relations between the EU and most states neighboring Niger, or otherwise located on important North African migration routes, are firmly embedded in neocolonial structures. Migration will be repressed, anyhow.

Particularly since 2020, economic hierarchies have grown even steeper, enabling the EU to use economic coercion to force such states’ political compliance on questions of migration. These means are adopted systematically: the EU has established “migration arrangements” with every single North African country, from Mauritania to Egypt and from Morocco to Sudan, by either coercing or bribing their governments, be they democratic or authoritarian. The sole exceptions are Niger and Algeria. However, it’ll take more than two exceptions to challenge global power relations.

Architecture of Segregation

This isn’t just about the Sahel region of Africa. Rather, the vast majority of Global South states are trapped in a neocolonial world order, even after decolonization. This system, which seems like a matter of economic ties but also has a strongly political nature, works to their severe detriment. Some formerly colonized countries such as China were able to escape the grips of neocolonialism. Others, such as the Gulf states, managed to achieve relatively high levels of economic and political power by means of resource extractivism. Yet, the central line of segregation between the rich and the poor still runs between former colonies and colonizers.

Economist Branko Milanovic has shown that citizenship is the single most decisive factor in explaining average economic inequality on the individual level. In this sense, the modern citizenship system mirrors its bloodstained past, as a tool endorsed by the ruling classes of colonizing countries in the nineteenth century to divide the members of their empire according to race and sex. Today, there is a global hierarchy of citizenships — endowing members of the in-group not only with status, rights, and duties, but also wealth and income.

Access to citizenship is mostly distributed according to race. Citizenships guaranteeing — in global terms, at least — relatively high income and predominantly pleasant living conditions are acquired by most white people at birth. EU and North American passports grant the right, though not necessarily the means, to settle or naturalize wherever one pleases. At the very same time, freedom of movement is heavily restricted by holding a former colony’s citizenship.

The routes from peripheral to central states are characterized by selective openness. Elites in peripheral countries do have access to naturalization procedures and can, in effect, simply buy the most desirable citizenships. Yet in absolute numbers, naturalization from Global South to Global North countries is negligible in contrast to North–North movement. Immigration by workers of certain professions is furthermore actively encouraged through various programs in the capitalist centers of the Global North. These forms of so-called regular migration are desirable for elites in the capitalist centers while so-called irregular migration, be it voluntary or involuntary, is presented as a threat and violently oppressed.

Economic Death Grip

The assumption that Niger’s policy turn marks significant change in any of these regards is misguided. Instead, current developments point in the exact opposite direction.

Since the financial crisis and even more so since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic situation of North African states, although very diverse in nature, has in general rapidly deteriorated. Levels of dependence and vulnerability to coercion and bribery from the Global North have increased accordingly. Speaking in numbers: the total combined external debt stock of the North African states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania — Libya is not counted for want of good data — has more than tripled since 2007. It jumped from a total of $124 billion in 2007 to $376 billion in 2021. In relative terms, this translates to an average increase of 213 percent relative to GDP. Furthermore, the yearly interest payments in the region have even risen by 339 percent since 2007, totaling over $10 billion in 2021.

The refinancing conditions for the few countries in the region who still dare to issue sovereign debt denominated in US dollars — Nigeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco— have also steadily but significantly deteriorated. This December 1, these four countries paid an average 14 percent interest on their sovereign debt — up from 5 percent in 2020. Germany, in contrast, currently only pays an interest rate of about 2.5 percent. These developments are the result of the geoeconomics endorsed by the capitalist centers of the Global North — one central tool being monetary policy aimed to strengthen the Global North’s currencies and relegate the economic costs of the Global North’s crises to the Global South. This pattern that has a long tradition.

This constellation creates both necessity and pressure for North African countries to get their hands on US dollar and euro liquidity. As conditions on private markets have significantly worsened, multi- or bilateral sources are the only remaining choice. Not surprisingly, the total amount of borrowing by North African states from the IMF and the World Bank has risen around 600 percent since 2007. This marks a new age of dependency and forces states to accept dire conditions, such as slashing health spending, attached to the loans. As of yet, the IMF has only been proven to be involved in migration deals brokered by the EU once, in the case of a recent deal between the bloc and Tunisia — but this is most likely but a test run.

Another willing donor is the EU itself, which according to recent estimates has provided states outside its jurisdiction more than €13 billion between 2014 and 2020 to curb migration to Europe while pretending to foster regional development. A good case in point is the recent deal between the EU and Tunisia brokered by Giorgia Meloni, the post-fascist Italian prime minister. While the deal was initially presented as a form of development cooperation, recently published details show that it focusses on repressing illegalized migration while encouraging freedom of movement for Tunisian elites through an Erasmus student mobility scheme. All this in the name of development.

Generally speaking, employing development cooperation to curb migration is a contradiction in itself, as economic development is known to increase emigration. Nonetheless, the EU seems willing to scale up this scheme. Since 2021, the EU has announced fourteen renewed or new migration deals with a strong regional focus on North Africa and a second stronghold in Eastern Europe and the states of former Yugoslavia. At this very moment, the EU is trying to coerce Egypt, Mauritania, and Senegal to restrict freedom of movement on its behalf. However, these efforts have been met by resistance on the ground. In Senegal, for example, a campaign seeking to stop Frontex activity in the country has recently been initiated, denouncing “how the EU collaborates with . . . complicit regimes killing people in the Mediterranean and in transit countries.”

To Kill and Seal Off

This abstract system of economic coercion and political deals translates into systematic violence targeting human beings who happen to hold the wrong passports and frequent so-called irregular migration routes to Europe. These include the 37 people whom Spain’s border guards massacred at the fence of Melilla in summer 2022, the 49 dead and more than two hundred missing on the border between Belarus and Poland, the 603 dead on their way to the Canary Islands in 2023 alone, the 28,260 people reportedly drowned in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014, and the 2,016 people who died on North African land routes since 2018 — not to mention the far higher number of unrecorded cases. Direct, indirect, active, and hired killings are the result of policy decisions taken by the EU and its member states’ governments.

The intentions are crystal clear: deny the humanity and any potential rights of black and brown people on the move. Let them die, but as far away from Europe as possible, so we are not held responsible. Or preferable: claim African governments are responsible for white supremacists’ decisions in Europe. The racial segregation between the people of the Global South and the Global North is fully intact. The killing of more than thirty thousand innocent people is only feasible because they are not white and happen to have the wrong passport. Meanwhile, and almost ironically, the European Commission proposed new measures to attract “skills and talent” just last month. Fueled by optimism about the job market effects of green and digital transition, the EU seeks to attract and employ a minimum of twelve million immigrants.

While some classes of migrants are to be killed on their route to Europe, others are encouraged to fill the demographic gaps in the EU’s workforce. The aim of these policies is to create a divided working class with big, racialized parts whose residency remains ever precarious. Such workers are easier to discipline and oppress. Accordingly, insecure residence permits have become an important tool to establish an easily disposable low-wage workforce and a potential reserve army of labor.

By Any Means Available

Niger’s move to enhance freedom of movement is nothing but a drop in an ocean of structural racial segregation and economic coercion. Nonetheless, three lessons are to be learned by observing recent developments in the relationship between the EU and North African states.

First, the capitalist centers and particularly the EU do rely on cooperation. This is not only the case for repressing migration, but also holds true for the energy transition so vividly proclaimed by EU leaders. Lithium one of the rare earth metals essential for any energy transition — however, by far the largest deposits are found outside Europe. Efforts to tap lithium reserves on European soil are ages away from yielding the quantities expected to be necessary. Similar patterns are prevalent for most rare earth metals so direly needed for the European industry to stand a chance in the global race for electrified production and transportation.

Furthermore, the EU lacks both territory and fossil-fuel resources to develop or maintain an independent energy system. Currently, the EU is highly dependent on liquified natural gas imports, Algeria being a central player in this regard. In the future, it will depend on large-scale solar panel landscapes in North Africa, where solar energy production is up to three times more efficient than in Europe. The conditions of those arrangements are currently being negotiated, and the terms of power might potentially change with the design of the future energy-production landscape.

Second, Algeria has pursued a strict line of absolute denial of European interference in matters of its political sovereignty. This clear stance is a central result of the collective trauma caused by French colonial terror, and can be considered close to a raison d’état. Far from a utopia, Algeria’s political system is brutally authoritarian. It leaves little room for democratic politics, although the Hirak movement was able to create substantial change by withstanding severe repression. It should also not be ignored that the Algerian government is repressing migration by means of harsh violence, often causing the deaths of innocent people. It does so on the basis of a national security regime strictly policing emigration and transit to Europe, as well as immigration. However, Algeria is explicitly not bowing to EU policy interests. Both the design of Algeria’s integration into the global economy and its resource-richness allow it to withstand political pressure from the EU and multilateral institutions. Only 1 percent of its government debt is foreign held and there are no debts denominated in the US dollar. Economic coercion is hard to realize on these grounds.

Third, political resistance to neocolonialism is possible. Niger’s government’s decision to withdraw from the agreement with the EU was celebrated as an anti-colonial move in the region. It can be interpreted as one further step toward expelling colonial powers and their political influence. However, the increasing political influence and economic importance of Russia, China, and the Gulf states in the region could, in the worst-case scenario, potentially create new relations of dependency on various centers of capitalist power. In the best-case scenario, ties of solidarity between the people of North African states bring about a coordinated political movement taking advantage of the benefits offered by cooperation with the capitalist center while maintaining sovereignty and autonomy. In this admittedly optimistic scenario, given the intense political tensions between governments in the region, no one would care about Fortress Europe or consider risking their life for migration to a continent increasingly in the hands of white supremacists.