BERLIN—When Adam Bahar fled Sudan in 2008, he had no plans to head to Germany.
Bahar’s family is originally from the historically neglected Darfur region in Sudan’s west. When fighters from the region rebelled against the Khartoum-based government in 2003, they were met with sweeping violence. The government backed a genocidal response aimed not just at the rebels, but also their perceived civilian sympathizers. Nearly 15 years later, spasmodic attacks continue.
Bahar, living in Khartoum when the fighting began, was horrified both by the slaughter and the propaganda the regime used to justify it, which included circulating rumors that the Darfuris were anti-Islam. He and a group of friends began an underground campaign, organizing small, closed meetings to educate people about what was really happening in the region.
"We saw it was our responsibility to tell the truth," he said. "We come from this area and we know what is going on."
Crossing the government was always a risk, but it became even more dangerous after opposition forces stormed Khartoum in 2008 and nearly took the capital. The regime responded with a broad crackdown on any subversive activities. Bahar’s group was infiltrated and its members arrested. Some, he said, are still in prison.
Bahar was able to cross the border to Egypt, beginning a three-year journey that took him to two more countries before he finally arrived in Europe. By 2012, he had reached Germany and was working to encourage broader rights for refugees. He therefore had a front-row seat when that issue came to dominate headlines in the country three years later.
In 2015, as an exodus of people fleeing war in Syria and Iraq—as well as economic conditions and authoritarian regimes in Africa—flooded across Southern Europe, Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly threw open Germany’s borders. In less than a year, Germany received more than 1 million refugees and migrants, and Merkel became the darling of the international humanitarian community.
Domestically, though, the reviews were mixed, and within weeks a backlash to Merkel’s decision had formed. Just as quickly, Bahar saw Merkel’s government introduce policies intended to forestall a wave of future arrivals by preventing refugees from reaching Europe. Africa has increasingly been at the center of those efforts, particularly the countries that are generating refugees with a propensity to head to Europe and those that are serving as transit points on that journey.
“Germany says we need to stop refugees, but then they support the machine of producing refugees.”
While stemming the flow of Africans fleeing to Europe has always been an aspect of Germany’s approach to the continent, the 2015 influx elevated it to an almost singular goal. Aid and development assistance are now increasingly linked to efforts to reduce migration. And Germany has demonstrated a willingness to strike or be party to arrangements with countries on the continent that have abysmal human rights records but can be helpful in curtailing new arrivals. Such partnerships include a German-led European Union initiative in Bahar’s native Sudan to help construct closed detention camps for refugees that was revealed in 2016.
German officials position these efforts as necessary to balance the country’s respect for refugee rights with its efforts to maintain security and protect the social safety net.
Still, critics like Bahar warn that balance is now skewed. They say an administration that won international plaudits for its compassion toward refugees may actually now be helping exacerbate the conditions that are causing people to flee in the first place, while simultaneously throttling their ability to do so.
“Dealing with the Sudanese regime is giving them more power. It means a more stable dictatorship for a long time,” he said, adding that this will translate into more violence against Darfuris and other minorities in the country. “It is stupid that a country like Germany says we need to stop refugees, but then they support the machine of producing refugees.”
Merkel’s Risky Move
Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to a brief surge of refugees was the watershed moment of a third term that will come to an end following this month’s federal elections. Though her popularity plummeted in the months after their arrival, it has since recovered, and she now appears positioned to easily retain the chancellorship. There were repercussions, though.
Her move energized the country’s far right, which is set for the first time to cross the 5 percent electoral threshold necessary to win seats in the national parliament. And whether out of pragmatism or political necessity, it prompted Merkel to take a harder line on immigration.
“The borders were opened [to refugees], and within minutes the process started to keep them away,” said Wenzel Michalski, the Germany director of Human Rights Watch.
Demonstrators hold red cards during a rally for the far-right German AfD party, Berlin, Germany, Nov. 7, 2015 (AP photo by Michael Sohn).
Merkel supported the EU’s 2016 deal with Turkey to close a major migration route and, in exchange, pledged to hasten Turkey’s accession to the bloc. At the same time, Africa started to weigh more heavily in the administration’s foreign policy considerations.
The focus of the European refugee crisis has centered largely on the people fleeing the Syrian conflict, which has produced by far the highest total of first-time asylum seekers across the EU. But Germany is sensitive to the fact that tens of thousands of Africans have also arrived in Europe from an array of nations scattered across the continent’s north, east and west.
Some are fleeing notoriously authoritarian regimes like Eritrea or conflict-ridden countries like Somalia—both in the Horn of Africa. Others are leaving more stable democracies, particularly in the continent’s west, where the main concern is often the lack of job opportunities, especially for overeducated young people.
It is the latter group that vaulted Africa to the top of Merkel’s agenda. Officials say she has maintained an interest in the continent since she first took the chancellorship in 2005, embarking on previous visits to shore up trade opportunities. And outside experts acknowledge that Gerd Muller has had an ambitious African agenda since he took over the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development in 2013. Until 2015, though, he found it difficult to generate momentum.
“Africa was not very much on the agenda of German foreign policy,” Michalski said, “and suddenly the last two or three years, it’s Africa, Africa, Africa.”
At the heart of that policy is a distinction between refugees and migrants. The U.N. refugee agency defines a refugee as someone forced to flee because of persecution, war or violence, while migrants have different reasons for leaving their homes, including the search for better job opportunities. The German government has taken care to emphasize which camp many of the arrivals from Africa fall into.
“Speaking about Africa, most of the people coming via the Mediterranean are migrants and not refugees,” said Gunter Nooke, the personal representative of the German chancellor for Africa. “The refugees are not the majority of the people coming to Europe looking for a better life.”
An African Marshall Plan
True to its focus on migrants, the administration has adopted an Africa policy centered on stimulating employment on the continent. While complicated, creating jobs is a much easier task than bringing an end to intractable crises in places like Syria. And the programs that have emerged—promoting private investment on the continent in a bid to spur economic growth and reduce the incentive to migrate to Europe—are easy to promote to the German public ahead of an election.
Germany used the presidency of the G-20 this year to shine a spotlight on its evolving approach to African development. Ahead of the July gathering in Hamburg, German ministries seemed to be competing with each other to produce strategies to encourage private investment in Africa.
The Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development pulled together the Marshall Plan with Africa, which set up a framework for how Germany could engage with the continent and potentially use development funding to pave the way for private investors.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Finance’s Compact with Africa, which was adopted by the G-20, encourages African countries to work with international financial institutions, like the World Bank, to create investor-friendly policies. G-20 countries then kick in technical assistance and political backing.
Undergirding all of these initiatives, according to yet another strategy—this one from the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, dubbed Pro! Africa—is a promise that any approach should “strengthen the foundations for stability and development and aim particularly to foster good governance, the rule of law, the fight against corruption and educational opportunities.”
In the rush to create the kinds of opportunities that will keep young people away from European shores, though, development experts wonder if the German government is just paying lip service to governance issues.
“The investment is needed, but none of these plans has safeguards or rights-based approaches,” said Sophia Wirsching, a policy adviser on migration and development for Bread for the World, which provides policy analysis on hunger and related issues. “It’s really just to attract business.”
While development cooperation is not designed to transform governments, it can contribute to these efforts, she said, by compelling businesses and governments to introduce policies that would, for instance, protect workers and prevent corruption.
While complicated, creating jobs in Africa is a much easier task than bringing an end to intractable crises in places like Syria.
Nooke is not so certain that is necessary. Better, he said, to try to use development money to achieve tangible results, like increased jobs, while employing technological advances to root out fraud and other forms of corruption. At the same time, the arrival of foreign companies should help spur the creation of legal frameworks.
Nooke said Germany was also cautious about who it was choosing to work with. Rwanda and Ethiopia were among the seven initial countries to join the Compact with Africa, but he said they have not become investment or reform partners from the perspective of the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development “because of human rights issues.” Both countries have been accused of severe human rights violations in recent years.
At the same time, the Marshall Plan pledges to “intensify our cooperation with countries that are reform-oriented and have proven their will to reform, by ensuring reliability, the rule of law and the political participation of all citizens.” This sentiment is undermined by the fact that Egypt is included on the list of countries the plan’s authors consider reform-oriented. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index classified Egypt as an authoritarian regime in 2016.
The myopic focus on migration and the mixed signals from the Merkel administration on its development priorities have left experts less than assured.
The administration “wants to encourage good performers,” said Manfred Ohm, the head of the Africa department at Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German political foundation. “On the other side, because of the migration issue, you go for partnerships with the relevant performers,” which may include countries with questionable records on human rights and corruption. “The migration framework needs cooperation and partnership at any cost.”
The nature of those partnerships has also raised some questions, including from some of the African partners. German officials had few consultations with people on the continent ahead of releasing its proposals, resulting in some African leaders feeling that these strategies are being foisted on them.
This frustration was on display in remarks from Guinean President Alpha Conde, the current chairman of the African Union, at an event in Berlin organized ahead of the G-20 Summit. “We need partners, also from the private sector, but if we want to erect a water reservoir, then we do not want to be a sub-contractor for a German or European company,” Conde said. “We do not want to be beggars opening our hands and asking for money.”
While German ministries have been eager to draw attention to the new models for wooing investors to Africa, the government is far more reticent in talking about the other ways it appears to be cooperating with some of Africa’s authoritarian regimes.
But partnerships with countries like Libya and Sudan, which are key transit points for people trying to reach Europe, underscore the perception that, when it comes to Africa, ending migration trumps any other concern. Because of the remote nature of areas where this work takes place as well as the security concerns involved, governments have been able to keep the details largely under wraps.
In 2016, German media outlets revealed the German development agency GIZ was coordinating an EU project to shore up Sudanese efforts to detect and detain refugees. That included training and equipping border police and helping build two camps with detention rooms for refugees and migrants. The funding for the project comes from the EU’s Emergency Trust Fund.
Nooke said that fund representatives were also recently in discussions with Eritrea to establish a project. The small nation in the Horn of Africa has produced an outsized number of refugees. In 2014, the U.N. refugee agency estimated that as many as 4,000 Eritreans were fleeing the country every month. They are escaping a totalitarian regime that the U.N. Human Rights Council has accused of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, enslavement and torture. Fund officials, Nooke said, were ultimately unable to agree with the Eritrean government on a project.
African migrants who were rescued from the Mediterranean Sea north of the Libyan coast look up from the deck as they approach Sicily, Sept. 1, 2017 (AP photo by Darko Bandic).
German officials have attempted to distance themselves from these initiatives, but the country is represented on the Emergency Trust Fund’s board and has officials who are involved in its operations.
More directly, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel recently committed $3.9 million to help Libyan authorities improve refugee camps. The current Libyan leadership exercises little control over much of the country and has been accused of widespread human rights abuses, including against migrants and asylum seekers.
German officials insist that no money is going directly to prop up these governments, but critics argue that, in a worst-case scenario, some of the security forces trained under these projects could later be called upon to perpetuate atrocities. Even absent such an outcome, the government’s willingness to engage with these regimes helps confer legitimacy on them.
“It might lead to the strengthening of certain forces in those countries,” Wirsching said. “It is really having a lot of damaging impact on human rights situations, which are already bad.”
Bahar is even more critical. He said any German cooperation with Sudan makes the Merkel administration complicit in the atrocities of the Bashir regime.
The government, Nooke said, is aware of these concerns and takes its commitments to human rights seriously. That includes in Sudan, where German officials have regularly spoken out against Bashir’s atrocities. But he said there are also competing priorities, including safeguarding German borders.
Germany’s partnerships with countries like Libya and Sudan underscore the perception that, when it comes to Africa, ending migration trumps any other concern.
“Sometimes it’s a difficult decision,” he said, in terms of deciding how closely to work with a country. However, he said it would be impossible to take any form of cooperation off the table. “We have authoritarian countries where the German and European interest are very clear that we have to speak to them. The problem is not [that we] speak to those countries or leaders. The bigger problem is that we have to avoid that they will receive money for their repressive ruling and government.”
The Politics of Migration
Critics of the government’s approach are pushing the administration to publicly frame the issue of migration differently. They say the government must underscore the inevitability of migration and encourage a rights-based system, while domestically emphasizing the benefits migration can bring to Germany in terms of cultural diversity and skills. And then it must translate those arguments into policy.
“It’s absolutely mindboggling that we actually grant asylum, but before asylum seekers can ask for it, they have to cross dangerous seas,” Michalski said. “That should be completely organized differently, with more humanitarian visas in those countries. More access to embassies and consulates where you can do that.”
At the very least, they say the government should not be working with regimes like Khartoum to introduce new obstacles.
Those positions have not gotten much of an airing during the current political campaign, though. Instead, key members of Merkel’s government have been pushing a proposal that ties development aid directly to a country’s willingness to accept rejected asylum-seekers. The calls are in direct response to the December 2016 terror attack in Berlin, when a truck slammed into a crowded Christmas market and killed 12 people. Officials had previously rejected the asylum claim of the man suspected of committing the attack, but he had not been deported because his home country, Tunisia, had initially denied that he was a citizen.
It is unclear how much of an alternative the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, offers. The party is currently a member of a grand coalition with Merkel’s government and has put forward similarly pragmatic immigration proposals on the campaign trail, including support from some members for tougher measures to deal with countries that do not accept rejected asylum-seekers. A specific policy on Africa has rarely come up.
Meanwhile, the pro-migration arguments took a blow recently. When Merkel opened Germany’s borders in 2015, some supporters had predicted an immediate economic boost. But in a report released in June, the commissioner for immigration, refugees and integration, Aydan Ozoguz, revealed that the people who have arrived in Germany since 2015 were having a difficult time finding jobs—held back by a combination of a lack of skills and language barriers. She told the Financial Times that as many as three-quarters of the migrants and refugees could still be unemployed in five years.
That will gird the position of the political parties that have opposed immigration, including the Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Experts are now watching to see what positions CSU politicians take in a new Merkel administration should she obtain her predicted victory. That will signal what line she is likely to take on immigration—a position that, if the past two years are any indication, will carry significant consequences for Africa.
Nooke said the administration’s course was pretty well set during the current term. Now it is just a question of implementation.
“We are relatively far from a continent of opportunities,” he said, referring to Africa. “But I hope that we are moving from a continent of crisis to a continent of more and more opportunities.”