JOHANNESBURG: Despite growing pressure to address the tragedy of African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, the African Union is unlikely to offer any home-grown solutions to the crisis, say analysts.
Refugees will be discussed in a closed session at the first day of the African Union summit on Sunday, in anticipation of a meeting with the European Union in the latter half of this year.
But African leaders, many of whom routinely flout human rights, are accused of lacking the will to criticize each other on refugee and immigration policies for fear of attracting criticism themselves.
The stalemate thwarts efforts to combat the continent’s refugee crises.
“I am not sure to what extent the leaders can tell each other this type of uncomfortable truth,” said Tjiurimo Hengari, a research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).
“The solutions are mostly domestic, it’s about better governance. They need to tell each other: we need to promote inclusive growth, we need to promote good governance.”
Last weekend alone, 6,000 people, most of them sub-Saharan Africans, were pulled to safety from fishing boats and rubber dinghies off Libya.
Nearly 1,800, mainly African and Middle Eastern refugees, have drowned in the Mediterranean this year.
The summit’s host, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, is unlikely to take the lead on any pan-continental effort to tackle the refugee crisis, as he faces criticism over deadly xenophobic violence in his country earlier this year.
Nigeria and Zimbabwe were among those who lashed out at South Africa for not protecting their citizens after a series of anti-migrant attacks in January and April.
In the aftermath of the unrest, a defiant Zuma refused to accept blame.
“As much as we can have a problem alleged to be xenophobic, our brother countries contributed to this,” he said. “Why are the citizens not in their countries?”
Led by anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, South Africa used to be seen as a home for Africa’s refugees.
The country ended apartheid and in 1994 embraced its new democracy as a racially united “rainbow nation”, before signing the most progressive legislation on refugee protection in the world.
It was a logical reaction: many of the leaders of the ruling ANC party had at some point lived in exile in Africa.
However, from 2000 the attitude towards migrants coming from across the continent began to change.
Restrictions were put on the length of time refugees could stay.
The Home Affairs ministry started to see fights in the queues outside its offices as refugees were turned away by hostile — and sometimes corrupt — officers.
“There were far more people coming to South Africa than they expected, with conflicts happening on the continent and South Africa being an economic hub,” said David Cote of the Lawyers for Human Rights group.
By 2012, the ANC had adopted a much harsher stance on refugees.
This year Zuma mobilized the army in an operation to arrest 1,600 undocumented immigrants in May, echoing his Congolese counterpart Denis Sassou Nguesso who has also conducted similar operations since last year.
“The tragedy of what happened in January and April in South Africa is it sends the signal that migrants no matter where you go, if you go north, if you go south, you are not very welcome,” said Jens Pedersen, humanitarian adviser for Doctors Without Borders.
Marc Gbaffou, chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum, agrees.
In April, Gbaffou wrote to the African Union asking to add “the protection of immigrants in host countries” on its agenda, as well as “freedom to settle and conduct business in any African country of choice”.
“The impression we have is that they are trying to downgrade the importance of this subject,” Gbaffou said.