The ‘Jungle’  in Calais, before it was demolished last Monday. The camp had been home to around 6,000 people, many from Sudan, home of the Nuba Mountains. Image credit: malachybrowne.

Even if outright violence has ended, the situation in many places is still so dire that people leave
The ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais, France, was demolished last week. It had been home to around 6,000 people, who had come to Europe to escape conflict and poverty. A political argument over who should take responsibility for hundreds of unaccompanied children left behind is now dominating the headlines, as the migrant crisis has done since it began in 2015.

One person looking at Calais in the broader context is Marije Balt, a former diplomat who spent four years heading up the political section of the Dutch Embassy in Nairobi, and later oversaw a range of work aiming to build peace and stability across the continent. Now based in The Hague with SpringFactor, she helps African countries emerging from conflict to develop inclusive economic growth - with the benefits spread throughout society, in particular the young.

That should be a key goal for European politicians, Balt says: even if outright armed conflict has ended, the situation in many places is still so dire that many leave to work or seek refuge abroad. So I met with her to discuss her views on what can be done to deal with the migrant crisis – to improve the situation both for Europe, and those on their way there.

Dealing with irregular migration: a strategic imperative?

Many African governments are becoming frightened of change
Balt and I meet in a London hotel the day before she is due to speak at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a prestigious location that underlines the importance of migration and refugee issues to the UK and Europe.

And the fundamental strategic fact relating to Africa, says Balt – where many migrants and refugees come from – is how much it is expected to grow.

"The number of young people is expected to double in the next 30 years. It is estimated that there will be 2.5 billion people in Africa, which is an enormous opportunity for the continent as a whole to start playing a key international role. But it is also a cause for concern, if there are not enough opportunities for young Africans to build meaningful lives. This goes beyond earning their next meal. It is about creating more space for youth to participate and play their roles."

But many African governments are becoming frightened of change, she says, and the role of young men in promoting it in particular. This has been especially true since the Arab revolutions which began in Tunisia in 2011.

"There are of course good examples," she says, such as Burkina Faso and Nigeria. "Change can be managed in a peaceful way, and youth can be a force for good."

"The crisis in the Middle East should have taught us a lesson"
But too often, fear rather than opportunity shapes politics and policies. "Many governments are not interested in young people – they see them as the responsibility of local communities."

European policies make this worse, she says, with politicians often looking to counterproductive, top-down responses to complex social problems. "The answers to these questions have been securitised. Many of our policies to fight the symptoms of problems in Africa actually fuel the desire of young people to break out, and leave those problems behind."

"This is the consequence of an attitude of vested interests, and the need for quick political wins in Europe. Often, policy takes the form of training and equipping proxy groups to try and maintain control of insecure areas."

But this is "Incredibly dangerous," Balt says. "The crisis in the Middle East should have taught us a lesson."

"National armies and police forces are often corruption-prone, and have no incentive to protect civilians. Instead, they serve the agenda of this or that politician. As a result, young people are often manipulated by local elites."

Repeating past mistakes

"We need to take terrorism and the migrant crisis as different symptoms of the same problem"
For Balt, all of this means that there is a big gap between "What we say we want to do" in addressing irregular migration, and "What we’re actually promoting. As a result, we’re about to make many of the mistakes in Africa that we’ve made in the Middle East – exacerbating the power structures that undermine young people."

And the stakes are high. Problems, Balt says, are "Coming towards us in great numbers. More smuggled migrants in leaky boats is one of them. If it goes on like this, Africa and the Sahel will provide more difficulties. What is incredibly important is to support and not undermine young people."

In practice, this means breaking the thinking that isolates security programmes and their consequences for development. "We need to take terrorism and migration as different symptoms of the same problem: young Africans wanting to break out from constraining, at times repressive structures. There should be effective migration management, but this needs to go hand in hand with meaningful reform in society."

"I’ve heard many, many young people speak about how they cannot rely on the state to provide them with any kind of future. And they don’t understand why we from the West continue supporting corrupt state structures in order to help. For them, that’s very counter-intuitive."

Young people – a force for good

It should be made very clear that young Africans are intelligent, entrepreneurial and resourceful
Balt says it should be made very clear that when they have the chance, young Africans not only cope, but thrive. They are intelligent, entrepreneurial and resourceful, which is precisely why they want to migrate: it is natural, when there are no opportunities to build a life at home. But when they are trapped, and their frustration builds – if their legitimate demands are ignored, or worse, repressed with force – they may joined armed groups as a way of venting their anger, and literally fighting back.   

"There are multiple reasons why young people look to violence, and every context is different. Many are related to limited access to jobs, land, and economic and social power. And so much of it is political: maybe someone who is young and educated is denied a job because he is from the ‘wrong’ ethnic group."

Complex problems, complex solutions

The best way to reduce the migrant crisis is to support young Africans
The best way for the EU to reduce migration, Balt says, is to support young Africans to live fulfilling lives.

That means not pursuing ‘security-first’ policies that enable weak governments to impose their will at the point of a gun, she explains – forcing young people to migrate or take up arms to deal with their grievances. The links between social problems and violence are clear: "We know a lot of this. But we don’t take it into account because our political masters want the quick wins."

So support to governments should be made dependent on accountability – to their people as well as us. "I’m not in favour of putting in a bag of money to quell these kinds of symptoms, but if we do, we should do it wisely."

There needs to be a call to action, she adds, but "A locally-led, politically smart approach – that takes a lot of effort."

As the chaos in Calais continues, the effort might be worth it.