NAIROBI, Kenya — Just as the European Union appeared to stem the flood of Syrian refugees last year, it recognized that it had another, even more complicated problem on its hands: Migration from Africa was continuing to surge.
That realization prompted frantic European efforts to deal with another front in the migrant crisis, culminating in a meeting this week between the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Niger and Chad, along with a senior Libyan official — and a round of proposals that many migration experts consider to be flawed or incomplete.
Since the collapse of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean has soared, as people have taken advantage of a vacuum of authority to set sail from the country’s northern coast. A network of human smugglers who facilitate the traffic has expanded from the tip of North Africa down to countries such as Niger and Sudan. Contacts for smugglers circulate on Facebook and WhatsApp in major cities across Africa. Since 2014, more than 400,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy.
“In many ways, the height of the Syrian migration exodus is behind us, but when you look at the youth bulge and demographic vitality of Africa, you say, ‘Oh damn,’ ” said Demetrios Papademetriou, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based research organization.
Europe was able to reduce the flow of Syrian refugees by making a deal with Turkey, a major jumping-off point for many of those fleeing the war in the Middle East. The agreement allowed Greece to return migrants to Turkey, while the Europeans increased financial support for Turkey’s refugee population and provide greater visa liberalization for Turks. No such solution has emerged to handle the African influx. That has launched European nations on a complicated mission to curb the flow of migrants and refugees.
Much of that quest involves money. The E.U. is rolling out a $1.9 billion plan to “address the root causes of migration” — what many see a quid pro quo for African nations to improve border security and accept deportees.
Mali, for example, was offered $150 million in a deal that would “enable the return from Europe of Malian migrants,” according to an E.U. statement. But when the agreement became public in Bamako, the capital, there was a public uproar, prompting a motion of censure from parliament. The Malian government eventually pulled out of the deal in December.
“The Malian leadership miscalculated the outcry,” Papademetriou said.
Like many African countries, Mali receives millions of dollars in remittances from workers abroad, a lifeline for many families.
During previous surges in migration, European leaders have discussed the need for a “Marshall Plan for Africa” — a development package so big that it would lead to jobs at home for would-be migrants, preventing them from leaving. Such a project never happened. This time around, African leaders are skeptical of such ideas.
“The needs of the continent are enormous, and unfortunately 1 or 2 billion euros will not change the situation,” Hissein Brahim Taha, Chad’s foreign minister, said in an interview with Jeune Afrique, a French-language magazine, published this week.
Many cities along Africa’s main migrant routes also have benefited financially from the flow of people to Europe. In countries such as Niger, the organizations theoretically responsible for policing migration have grown accustomed to accepting bribes from smugglers. In Libya, militias often hold migrants hostage until they receive ransom payments from their families.
Europe has committed to training and empowering the key border security agencies in Africa, including those in Libya, but that has raised alarm about whether they will inadvertently support forces linked to human rights abuses. In Sudan, some watchdog organizations have expressed concern that border security funding could end up in the hands of the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group associated with the Janjaweed, known for mass killings in the country’s Darfur region.
“Funding that should be used for development and security is instead used for migration control,” said Catherine Woollard, secretary general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a network of advocacy groups.
In past months, French President Emmanuel Macron has discussed setting up “hot spots” in places such as Chad and Niger where vulnerable refugees could apply for asylum without risking a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean.
Some of the countries that would host such hot spots have bristled at the idea, arguing that they could draw even more migrants to their countries. Chad, for example, already hosts about a half-million refugees, many of whom are from Darfur.
“We were against the establishment of screening centers in our country,” Taha told Jeune Afrique, referring to the hot spots. “This would have contributed to creating a migration vortex, which would soon become uncontrollable for Chad.”
Macron and other European leaders are now speaking about resettling a small number of refugees already in Chad and Niger. Many experts say that proposal is far from a comprehensive solution.
“If France, Germany, Italy and Spain want to show genuine leadership, they should act to create and expand other safe and legal ways for people to reach Europe, like granting humanitarian visas and facilitating family reunification,” said Judith Sunderland, associate director for the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch.
Unlike Syrians, most of whom have viable claims to refugee status because of the war in their country, a large portion of Africans moving to Europe are economic migrants, seeking better jobs. Even if an improved system for screening refugees was established, it would leave tens of thousands of people who probably wouldn’t qualify for asylum and might continue the journey through the Sahara desert and then across the Mediterranean Sea.
That leaves one other European proposal on the table — using the Libyan coast guard and militias to crack down on the flow of migrants. There are some signs that this approach — the most controversial one — appears to be working.
Since mid-July, about 4,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean, about an 80 percent decrease compared with the same period last year. Italy has taken a number of steps to discourage the migration, including deploying naval ships to help Libyan officials intercept migrant boats off the coast.
The Associated Press, quoting Libyan militia and security officials, recently reported that the Italian government was also working with Libyan authorities to pay militias to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. (The Italian government denied reaching such an agreement).
Some see a repeat of Italy’s 2008 deal in which Silvio Berlusconi, then the prime minister, pledged to provide Libya with $200 million a year in investments over 25 years as reparations for his nation’s colonial abuses in the country. In return, Gadhafi cracked down on migration.
At the time, Human Rights Watch said the deal “resulted in joint naval patrols that run roughshod over refugee and migrant rights.”