By Alem Mamo
“We live in the age of the refugee, the age of the exile.” —–Ariel Dorfman
Perplexingly, the United Kingdom, European Union and the World Bank on September 21, 2016 announced their plan to create a $500 million “industrial park” that will create jobs for 100,000 refugees in Ethiopia. Well, in hindsight the news would have been an exciting one for all of us who agonize about the suffering of refugees. However, when one takes a closer look, the proposed plan, the concept as well as operational fallacies, becomes clearer. The proposed scheme doesn’t address the problem from its core. In fact, it may well exacerbate and further complicate the issue.
Firstly, the plan in its administrative and organizational framework is utterly flawed to put it mildly. Let’s first begin with the proposed project’s primary partner, in this case, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) regime in Addis Ababa. Anyone, let alone international policy makers at the highest level, such as the EU, UK, and the World Bank should know the unfolding national political and security crisis in Ethiopia. The country is in the middle of major social discontent that is demanding fundamental and comprehensive political and economic policy change, including the removal of the regime from power. In this context, to make a deal on an issue as critical as this is like betting on a dead horse.
In addition, it sounds like déjà vu from a recent past. Remember Muammar Gaddafi? When he demanded that the EU should pay Libya at least €5bn a year to stop irregular African immigration and avoid a “black Europe”? Although the EU didn’t pay Gaddafi €5bn a year ransom it agreed to pay him €50m for three years. Well, obviously, we all know how that deal went down.
In this context, why is the EU, and the rest of the Western powers, refusing to learn a lesson from history? At least from the recent ones. Are the UK, EU, and World Bank resuscitating a dying regime in Ethiopia against the will of the people? Could this be another discriminatory policy of the EU and its partners against black Africans, as Gaddafi argued, to avoid “black Africa” invading and diluting Europe’s identity? (The issue of prejudice in this case could apply to both refugees and the people of Ethiopia fighting for democracy and freedom.) The former British Prime Minister David Cameron once described the refugee situation as ‘swarm’ like a locust or some kind of disaster. This kind of thinking is particularly focused on the refugees of Calais who almost exclusively are from Africa. In response to the Calais refugees, the former UK Prime Minister also offered dogs and fences.
Ethiopia under the TPLF rule is one of the main refugee originating country. It is not the ideal oasis where refugees could be settled for along term. The reasons why Ethiopians are leaving their country in droves is the same reason as the rest of refugee originating countries: authoritarian rule, instability, human rights violations, corruption, ethnic kleptocracy, and conflict. So, why is a regime that created the circumstances for Ethiopians to leave their homeland becoming a partner in a refugee assistance program. Isn’t the regime itself the problem? Furthermore, the regime has broken all international conventions and rules, including the basic tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) vis-à-vis citizen’s rights of assembly, expression, and organizing, and many other international conventions. Why do we expect that it will respect the international conventions on refugees?
It is obvious the EU and its partners are desperate to find a solution for the refugee problem, especially stopping the flow north via North Africa and the Mediterranean. It is indeed heart wrenching to see desperate refugees, week after week, crammed on dinghy boats facing the elements on unfriendly seas. The stories are harrowing and horrifying to see fellow human beings go through such risk and danger to reach to both physical and psychological safety. However, the solution to this complex problem is not outsourcing or building an ‘industrial park’ governed and managed by an authoritarian regime. By setting up the EU-funded and sponsored scheme, the EU is in fact trying to evade its international obligations to protect refugees and is shifting the responsibility to a country with a dismal human rights record. How would the EU and its partners guarantee the proposed ‘industrial park’ complies with EU labour laws and standards and protection of human rights?
To contemplate this as a solution is an insult to human intelligence, particularly to the intelligence of the refugees themselves. Moreover, the whole scheme has the smell of the old colonial thinking where by the viceroys and the governors appoint a convenient tribal chief to do their dirty work. It is always important to remember the fact that when the colonial powers arrived at the shores of Africa they never asked for permission or consent from the people of Africa or the rulers at the time. In this case, the chosen tribal chief is the TPLF regime with a well documented record of not just human rights violations, along with extrajudicial killings, torture, and mass arrest.
Moreover, the industrial park potentially will be built on land illegally and unlawfully appropriated from citizens, which will further compound and fuel the current uprising, as one of the main grievances of citizens is land acquisition and appropriation by the regime. The issue of land grabbing for foreign agricultural firms, such as European flower farms, is ravaging the country and creating massive environmental and social catastrophes. Millions are displaced, and land, air and water are poisoned by pesticides and other chemicals.
Youth unemployment in Ethiopia is one of the highest on the continent. The regime’s dismal performance in creating jobs both for youth and the wider public is also one of the cornerstones of the rejection of the regime by citizens. In this reality, the EU and its partners’ strategy to create jobs for refugees is like building a sandcastle that subsequently will be swept away when the tide reaches shore.
The refugee problem is real, and it requires a well thought out and comprehensive approach. Refugees shouldn’t be used as a reward or a gift for a regime that doesn’t respect the basic rights of its citizens, let alone being concerned about refugees. In the name of humanitarianism, the EU is using refugees as tokens and sacrificial lambs by a regime known for blackmail. Let’s not use refugees to embolden those who have no respect for human life.
In addition, the regime in Addis Ababa is partially responsible for refugee crisis in Eritrea, South Sudan, and Somalia. Rewarding someone for the problem they have created in the first place and seeing them as a solution is wrong headed. Even if this deal is done with a legitimate government that has the consent of the Ethiopian people (the current regime doesn’t), job creation for refugees means two things: first, permanently settling them in the country, or potentially encouraging others to flee hoping for employment.
Considering all this, what should be the right course of action to address the refugee problem? First and foremost, the EU and its partners should examine their own policy towards the refugee originating countries, including Ethiopia. Instead of collaborating with authoritarian forces, provide practical support to pro-democracy forces. This applies to all refugee originating countries. Falling into the trap of “fighting terrorism” Western policy makers should by now realize the fact that embracing authoritarian regimes doesn’t work. It may give false comfort in a short term, but ultimately the partnership with such regimes often ends in disaster. Again, it is worthwhile to remember Gadhafi.
If the building of an industrial park is a key necessity for the refugee dilemma, it should be built somewhere there is more democratic and inclusive form of governance, such as Kenya, for example (of course this requires the consent of the Kenyan people).
Finally, the practical and durable solution for the refugee crisis is not the building of some industrial park on a land appropriated from citizens who make their daily living on it. The solution is working with citizens who are determined to build a free, democratic, and equitable system in their countries. Economic justice, political freedom, and the building of inclusive and equitable society is the solution not more camps and sweatshops. The EU, UK, and the World Bank are a big part of the problem, and the solution, therefore, should be self-examination of their own policies, not sweeping the problem under the rug.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org