Migrant shipwrecks, land grabs and the commons

European governments’ responses to the migration crisis and the resulting tragedies, such as last weekend’s shipwreck in the Mediterranean, often seem to make these assumptions:

(a) it’s simply the natural way of things, akin to a law of physics that cannot ever be changed, that a great many Africans desperately wish to migrate to Europe
and (b) of course we should provide some humanitarian aid to these people, since it’s the decent thing to do, but we’ll also need to convert Europe into even more of a fortress than it is already if we want to deter them from attempting to migrate to Europe.

A different approach is advocated by Afrique-Europe-Interact, which describes itself as ‘a small, transnationally organised network that was founded in early 2010. It consists of grassroots activists mainly from Mali, Togo, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands – many of them self-organised refugees, migrants and people who were deported.’

Network members wish to ‘draw attention to the structural reasons for flight and migration and therefore the demand for fair and self-determined development. The right to global movement and settlement is only one side of the coin. What is equally important is the right to stay – that is, the possibility to live a secure, dignified and self-determined life in one’s home country/country of origin.’

A major part of their focus is land-grabbing in Sub-Saharan Africa, and according to reports, many of those who drowned in the migrant shipwreck last week came from countries where land-grabbing is rampant such as Mali, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia.

Land-grabbing is, as we know, a form of enclosure. In Feasta we’ve tended to focus on the relationship between enclosure and phenomena such as climate change and the financial system, but it’s easy to see how the Network’s views tie in with those of many Feasta members. Indeed, in a chapter of the Feasta climate group’s book Sharing for Survival that was originally published in 2012, Justin Kenrick describes how a commons-based approach to land rights could help alleviate the kind of poverty-induced desperation that leads so many people to undertake such risky journeys.

He then goes on to discuss the effect that a policy such as Cap and Share could have on land rights. With our recent launch of the CapGlobalCarbon campaign (which takes an approach that is similar to Cap and Share) we’re hoping to kickstart a popular movement that will pressurize governments to impose fees on fossil fuel companies and distribute the proceeds in a way that substantially benefits ordinary people worldwide.

The implications of such a scheme for on global poverty and inequality could be staggering. It could very easily provide funding in Africa and elsewhere to obtain legal support for securing land rights and reclaiming the commons.

Could we imagine a world where the packed migrant boats heading towards Europe from Africa were a thing of the past? Where there would, instead, be a leisurely, two-way, more-or-less equal exchange of people, goods and ideas between Europe and Africa? Where the centuries-long wealth gap between Europe and Africa, which has so much injustice at its root, was finally addressed in an effective way? Where young Europeans would regularly go to Africa on work exchanges and educational programmes, and vice versa? Where Africans with a background in managing land communally would be regularly invited to Europe to share their expertise?

Of course, such a world can only ever come about if we dare to start dreaming about it. At present, European governments have locked themselves into a cramped, suffocating hold: their assumptions about the geopolitics of Europe and Africa. They need to free themselves from that hold and start looking up at the sky.

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.