ABIDJAN – German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday stressed the importance of ending smuggling and slavery while creating a legal route for Africans to come to Europe as she faces pressure at home to tackle a migrant influx.
Speaking at an EU-Africa summit in Abidjan, Merkel is seeking to show Germany can take foreign policy action despite still being under a caretaker government two months after an election.
The influx of more than a million migrants since mid-2015, many of them fleeing the Middle East and Africa, was largely to blame for the rise of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the Sept. 24 election.
By taking votes from Merkel’s conservative bloc and others, they surged into parliament for the first time, leaving Merkel facing complicated coalition arithmetic.
She is grappling to form a new government with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) after discussions on forming a three-way tie-up with the pro-business Free Democrats and the Greens failed, in part because of the thorny issue of migration.
“There is a common interest in ending illegal immigration,” Merkel said. “This plays a role all over the African continent now because there are reports that young African men are being sold like slaves in Libya.”
Libya is now the main departure point for mostly African migrants trying to cross to Europe. Smugglers usually pack them into flimsy inflatable boats that often break down or sink.
Merkel, who in 2015 decided to open Germany’s borders to migrants, said legal options should be created for Africans to be able to get training or study in an EU country.
Speaking on the sidelines of the summit, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, from the SPD, suggested that Europe could offer several hundred thousand places each year as long as those people returned voluntarily after three or four years.
But Guenter Nooke, Merkel’s Africa envoy from her Christian Democrats (CDU), was more sceptical: “No interior minister will let hundreds of thousands in if he is not sure that most of them will return,” he told Reuters.
The difference between Gabriel and Nooke suggests that migration will be a contested subject in coalition talks between the CDU and the SPD, but perhaps less so than in the three-way talks that failed as the two parties policies are closer.
More important than creating legal migration options was to create more opportunities for young people at home, Nooke said, noting that Africa’s population could double from a current 1.2 billion by 2050.
“It’s all about creating seeds for growth, with industrial parks and special economic zones. It is a question of jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said.
The summit was due to focus on education, investment in youth and economic development to discourage refugees and economic migrants from attempting the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean.