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AfriCities V

The Implications of Europe’s ‘Containment Development’ for African cities

Caroline Wanjiku Kihato – University of Johannesburg and Loren B. Landau - University of Witwatersrand


Since 2015, European leaders have worked alone and in concert to retard and reverse migration to Europe. They have channeled billions of Euros to Turkey to fend off migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Billions more aim to address what they see as the ‘root causes’ of migration from sub-Saharan Africa: chronic underdevelopment, poverty and poor governance. Using a mix of ‘development at home’ and border control strategies, Europeans aim to ‘fix’ Africans through ‘substantial socio-economic transformation […] so people no longer leave for a better life’. Bolstering this ‘containment development’ are coercive border surveillance and security interventions meant to prevent Africans from journeying to Europe. Underlying the EU migration management strategies is a deep-seated fear of African mobility, and the assumption that any movement within the continent is a step closer to Europe.

European efforts to craft the sedentary subject have profound impact on cities and urban policy agendas. Constraints on movement – whether through development programmes or coercion – stop people from moving to where they can trade, work, or study. In an era of precarity amidst planetary urbanism, normalizing fixity can legitimize forms of anti-poor urbanism that undermine the possibility for realizing SDGs and the New Urban Agenda vision of building inclusive sustainable cities.

How did we get here? In many ways, European leaders are still grappling with the impact of the refugee crisis that has shaken the region since 2015, when record numbers of people landed in Greece, Italy, or Spain after crossing the Mediterranean Sea in rickety, overcrowded boats. The number of arrivals have since declined, due in part to European efforts to halt migration and in part to conflict in Libya making the passage more perilous. Even so, 407 people died crossing the Mediterranean between 1 January and 10 April 2019. By prohibiting boats from rescuing drowning migrants, Europe is complicit in these deaths. Moreover, European politicians are using each death to justify further ‘humanitarian’ efforts to keep people at home.

The EU’s two-pronged – containment development and control – approach is unlikely to succeed. First, clamping down on African migration through ramped up border security, data collection and technical aid to strongmen, sets the stage for human rights abuses and the weakening of democratic institutions that could result in human displacement. Second, there is little chance of Europe’s proposed ’Marshall Plan with Africa,’ which includes investments in African education, vocational training, and infrastructure, will achieve the growth required to locally absorb the next generation of African labor. Moreover, rather than stemming African mobility, development investments will create incentives for people to move towards employment centres. Research suggests that economic growth in low-income countries tends to increase rather than reduce migration. This is because even modest increases in wealth and education provide more people with the resources and tools to move. Eventually, economic growth will slow emigration, but those days are decades off. Along with emigration, investments in rural areas will only accelerate the rapid urbanization taking place across much of the continent.


Fostering urban exclusion

Despite global commitments in the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals to build inclusive and sustainable cities, the new ‘containment development’ will likely further Africa authorities’ unease with widespread urbanization. Most directly, selected cities are becoming imbricated within a continental, EU-supported security apparatus. Take, for example, the tens of millions of euros being sent to Agadez in central Niger, long a hub for smugglers and migrants en route to Europe. Although ostensibly intended to help the region’s poor by creating jobs in migrant transit areas, the plan for Niger is far more elaborate. By supporting law enforcement to close routes across the Sahara, cities become outposts in a security line across the continent. Europe is trying similar strategies in Mali and elsewhere by investing in both local development and coercive structures to stem mobility. Given the global tendency to do immigration far from border areas, EU support for enhanced surveillance and border control will likely foster unaccountable police harassment of immigrants, domestic migrants, and the poor communities in which they live.

Beyond enhanced securitization, development for containment includes attempts to create populations disconnected from local and global circulations and imaginations. Current efforts at categorisation, stigmatization and emplacement reinforce colonial planning modalities that seek to root Africans in their ‘traditional’ lands. Such framing empowers urban elites and authorities who remain deeply uneasy with the unregulated movement of poor people into their city. In modern politics – all the more so in deterritorialising late-modern capitalism – one’s ability to move has become a hallmark of citizenship. Fixing people beyond city boundaries produces a kind of defracted geography that fosters the marginalisation of the cities’ most vulnerable populations.

The closer one is born to the European border, the more extreme such efforts to sedentarize and exclude are likely to become. Those within European nominated ‘risk zones’ will encounter the most martially coercive and ideationally concerted interventions aimed at restricting mobility. Those further south will be affected less overtly by external interventions, freer to move and imagine in ways only slightly altered by the containment apparatus largely paralleling the equator. But here too the normalisation of bordering, urban exclusion, and the denigrations of universalism, Pan-Africanism and rights talk will have important effects.

The arguments in this opinion piece are fleshed out in: Landau, L. and Kihato, C. (2018) The future of mobility and migration within and from Sub-Saharan Africa. A foresight reflection paper. Brussels: The European Political Strategy Centre.


Related Contents:Africa 2063: How Cities Will Shape the Future of a Continent


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