2nd Oct 2023


Want to stop forced migration from West Africa? Start by banning bottom trawling

  • A fishing vessel trawling. (Photo: EU commission)
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There is a false division between refugees and economic migrants. Refugees are victims of war and persecution, while economic migrants, we are told, have the choice to stay put. But what if their country was destabilised not by bombs but by foreign resource extraction? Surely the rich countries depleting poor countries' resources — causing widespread hunger and misery — should also accommodate the resulting refugees.

EU culpability for forced migration

In a recently published study, I link foreign industrial fishing and the EU's overconsumption of fish to forced migration in Senegal. Since the late 1970s, bilateral fishing agreements between Europe and Senegal have driven extreme overfishing, with little compensation to Senegal. To this day the EU subsidises its industrial fleet in West Africa, making fishing profitable even while fish stocks plummet.

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Historically, the majority of fish exports have gone to the EU. The rise of Chinese consumption is reducing the EU share; however, as late as 2017 Europe was still the largest fish export destination. Fish exports — especially in the form of fishmeal — drastically reduce local fish consumption, threatening Senegalese food security and undermining a centuries-old way of life.

European fish consumption thus drives migration towards the EU. In interviews, undocumented Senegalese fishers living in Badalona, Spain, explained how fish stock depletion made their trade unviable. Influential in their decision to migrate was the deadly impact of bottom trawlers. Bottom trawlers drag massive weighted nets along the seafloor, wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems.

These ships are also known to damage non-industrial fishing gear and occasionally collide with Senegalese canoes. As one interviewee stated: "trawlers are bad. The worst of the sea … when they destroy the sea, we, the poor, can no longer fish. Because the fish that we are catching live hidden beneath the rocks. But if a trawler passes by, that's it. There won't be any fish there for years and years."

The interviewees also talked about working in Spain: in agriculture, dish washing, scrap collection, and even aboard industrial fishing vessels. They spoke of stolen wages, uncompensated injuries, and the terrible irony of scraping half-eaten fish from dirty restaurant plates. From a measly and irregular salary, they sent between €150-250 per month back to Senegal. "I have left my country to make enough money for my mother, my brother", one of them explained — a sentiment expressed by nearly all interviewees. Remittances allowed their parents and siblings to pay rent and for their young children to stay in school, but were not a vehicle for social mobility.

These fishers held no illusions about future prospects in Europe. What drew them to Spain was the possibility of keeping their families afloat as West African coastal conditions deteriorate.

Public debates on migration and policy responses

West African coastal migration is forced migration, of which a root cause is marine ecocide that has benefitted the EU for decades. Yet, in public debates on migration, we Europeans tend to speak of poverty as if it were endogenous to Africa.

Framed as such, European policy responses address a problem born elsewhere. As a result, the public debate — even in left-liberal circles — often centers on the benefits of economic migration for Europe: does migration stimulate growth or take away European jobs? Is migration a net-positive for the revenue of EU member states?

If instead we start by considering Europe's historical role in Africa, then the above questions become irrelevant. The only moral policy would be to grant immediate regularisation for undocumented African migrants.

It is worth noting, however, that regularisation would also benefit most ethnic Europeans. Militarised borders create a racialised two-tier labor market, in which undocumented workers are cheap and flexible precisely because they lack civil rights.

The European Trade Union Confederation has called for the expanded use of regularisation, arguing that employers take advantage of an undocumented workforce for social dumping and union busting. There is little evidence to suggest that regularisation encourages further outmigration. But even if that were the case, it is in the EU's hands to transform its antagonistic relationship with West Africa and thus prevent further forced migration.

In order to regulate the EU presence in West African fisheries there are some low-hanging fruit: enforcing the surveillance of EU fishing vessels, publicising vessel ownership, and defunding fishmeal-fed aquaculture.

More effective regulations would end subsidies to industrial fleets and ban trawling, at the very least along non-EU coasts and in international waters. Crucially, the EU must reallocate money wasted on militarised borders to fund West African coastal nations so they can enforce marine conservation and revitalise sustainable canoe fishing. A stronger Senegalese state could effectively generalise the strict regulations mentioned above to all fleets operating in Senegalese waters. The EU could be a global leader in marine sustainability and significantly reduce forced migration, if only it would challenge those who profit from ransacking African resources.

It is disingenuous to claim that Senegal is itself responsible for signing bad fishing agreements. African states like Senegal have been bankrupted by mounting public debt and the IMF's Structural Adjustment Programs. Africa has been coerced into selling its natural resources cheaply, a pattern that reflects global imperialist appropriation. Europe must heed recent calls to cancel all African public debt held in the EU and establish an authentic reparations policy.

Our discussions and policy recommendations on economic migration should begin by assessing our own states' culpability. If we Europeans do not work to end modern imperialism, then we should expect a cumulative stream of forced migration in the decades to come.

Author bio

Noam Chen-Zion is an independent researcher interested in imperialism, migration, and ecology in Africa and Western Asia.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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