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Return of the Atlantic Route from West Africa to Europe: Imperialism and Regional (De-)Integration

Refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea on a boat, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016

Refugees crossing the Mediterranean sea on a boat, heading from Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, 29 January 2016. Credit: Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link.

Hannah Cross is a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster, London, and chair of the Editorial Working Group of the Review of African Political Economy. The author would like to thank Hélène Gningue for her research assistance in Senegal and to Amy Niang for comments on the first draft.

There is an ongoing migration crisis for West Africa that has surpassed the losses of the 2006 wave of Atlantic migrations toward the Canary Islands. In 2023, more than 32,000 people reached the Spanish-controlled archipelago, mostly departing from Senegal. While European governments have welcomed unlimited European migration and shown their capacity to support hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine, they have long closed African routes of circulation and restricted African mobility with military force. European policymakers’ fatal focus on controlling relatively small South-North migration flows has escalated distress among people who have been criminalized for a contingent attempt to meet their needs and those of their households. Departures have intensified from coastal zones such as Saint Louis, Senegal, where fishing has become nonviable as a way of life. According to the nonprofit Ca-Minando Fronteras, last year was the deadliest on record for people trying to enter Spain without a visa, with 6,007 deaths on the Atlantic route and 18 deaths daily on all routes to Spain, including those through the Mediterranean Sea.1 Many more were turned back by police patrols, weather conditions, or faulty engines, or became injured or imprisoned and lost their investment, leaving a blow that cannot be measured in statistics.

The 2006 wave emerged amid a cost-of-living crisis affecting access to food and fuel, while Senegalese waters have been dominated by trawlers from Europe and East Asia, limiting access and collapsing stocks available to artisanal fishers. Senegal’s surrender of its resources and industry, which has overwhelmingly benefited European countries, needs to be understood in the context of the austerity, indebtedness, and unemployment that persisted after a drastic currency devaluation induced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) thirty years ago. Migration is an entirely human process based on complex drivers and circumstances.2 On a broad level, if people succeed in reaching Spain and can send remittances like others before them, they can contribute to their households in Senegal with more security.

Since 2012, Macky Sall’s neoliberal presidency in Senegal has created conditions of social abandonment, growing authoritarianism, and hopelessness unmatched in the modern era. When the imprisonment of opposition candidate Ousmane Sonko in June 2023 led to rioting, the state enabled armed forces to kill at least twenty-three people, including three children, in Dakar and Ziguinchor, where Sonko is mayor. Sall’s regime put sanctions on the region of Casamance, cutting off the ferry route from Dakar to Ziguinchor. This political crisis contributed to a rise in departures. Ecological and economic disasters have also diminished people’s ability to get by (se débrouiller), as they had done throughout the demanding circumstances of the past decades. Indicative of this struggle, in 2006, the disappearances at sea were largely of men, including 156 young men who were lost and presumed dead from Thiaroye-sur-Mer, a coastal community in the Dakar region. Now, the national media reports that families are departing together from coastal areas like Bargny, which is fighting climate change, extreme industrial pollution, and land dispossession, and which was a departure point for deadly journeys toward the end of 2023.

In migration policy and much of the academic literature on migration, there is often the emphatic point made that the vast majority of African migrations happen within the continent, and that most migration to Europe is legal. The suggestion is that attention to such outbursts of irregular migration is sensationalist and (oddly) Eurocentric. The facts of migration (as far as we know them) can be an important rejoinder to panicked responses in Europe to African migration and the false, immaterial notion of migrants being predominantly “illegal.”

However, it also serves policymakers well to minimize the significance of such flows, because to do so overlooks the imperial role of Europe and the United States over borders, migration regimes, regional (de-)integration, and national development projects within Africa, and not only at the intercontinental borders. Internal and external migrations inside and outside of Africa cannot be disconnected easily. To give some examples, the NATO invasion of Libya in 2011 disrupted labor regimes that accommodated West African migrant workers; Tunisia and Morocco, to different degrees, have seen increased exclusion and violence toward racialized migrants; and circular migration from the northwest of Senegal to Mauritania has been disrupted by further political division and instability. Attempted journeys to Europe, well-known to have a high risk of failure and death, often follow disrupted migration attempts within Africa.

Migration policy is intimately connected with economic and military imperialism and the chaos of advanced capitalism, all of which risk aggravating the dangerous crossings and increasing the massacres at sea in years to come. Some of these elements of financial, economic, and military dominance have been indicated above and are well-documented elsewhere.3 The focus now turns to the territorial and social divisions that undermine livelihoods and circulation within the African continent.

For V. I. Lenin, the violent redivision of territories after global colonization was an inevitable path of imperialist capitalism, though the focus was on imperial competition over resources and territory rather than migration control. These are not, however, unrelated. Since the War on Terror, borders have become a fixation for U.S. and European forces in the northern parts of Africa. Military interventions have helped secure access to resources, while human mobility has been securitized, creating the social divisions that capitalism relies on to subordinate the working classes. In 2004, Samir Amin wrote in Monthly Review of imperialist polarization, including the divisive Euro-Mediterranean partnership founded in 1995, which would restructure migration from Africa to Europe, further polarize African and European development, and facilitate Atlanticist domination over North Africa and the Sahel.4 The partnership, commonly known as the Barcelona Process, held a meeting in Tunis in 2004 that was hosted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and included as participants Algeria, France, Italy, Libya, Malta, Mauritania, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, and Tunisia. Twenty years on, the trend of xenophobia—which could have been foreseen in policy dialogues and aid relationships aiming to cut off “sub-Saharan” migrants—has taken hold.5 Western intervention into the migration regime recreates the colonial division of the North African countries from the rest of the continent and undermines the Pan-African integration project. Particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, West Africa has seen popular uprisings, military coups, and resistance to foreign domination.6 There is also mounting resistance to the migration regime itself and the emergence of new articulations of sovereign migration policy in Africa that focus on areas such as visa reciprocity and safe routes, or on autonomous regional industrial policy and agricultural development.7

The International Migration Regime and Africa

It is unlikely that any notable migration-related research or policy center in West Africa is untouched by the IOM, though not all centers will accept its funding and intervention. A UN agency since 2016, the IOM was originally established in 1952 as the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration, changing its name in 1989. The committee, composed of Western European countries, was aligned with the anticommunist agenda of the Marshall Plan, as it managed the flows of people displaced by war. The IOM worked with the European precursor to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which positioned itself against the ideas of development sought by the world-majority members of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The postwar migration order they promoted sought to standardize, monitor, and regulate migration for optimal resource allocation under the neoclassical economic model.8

Institutions of the migration order like the IOM and the OECD are comparable to the international financial institutions in the degree to which they have constructed a hegemonic order in their domain, with their intellectual, social, and political dominance sustained in the interests of the capitalist class. They have overseen a world in which free movement has become a utopian demand, yet restricting and controlling the circulation of people who cannot subsist on their own land, on a global scale, is a more difficult feat.

The IOM’s activities include the formulation of global, regional, and national migration strategies; research and knowledge management relating to migration; operations to facilitate and control migration flows; humanitarian assistance; development programs; and information campaigns against irregular migration and trafficking. Directors General on five-year terms have predominantly entered the position from the U.S. government, and the present director general served as Deputy Homeland Security Advisor to President Barack Obama and Senior Advisor on Migration to President Joe Biden.

As Fabian Georgi argues, despite the IOM’s tagline of “making migration work for all,” it mainly benefits the major (Western) donor states and secures its own projects, while refugees, migrant workers, and the dispossessed classes of the Global South are faced with IOM-supported border controls, detention camps, and other deterrents.9 If one reads IOM-linked documents, the world appears to have no contradictions: the European Union is a supportive partner in decolonizing Africa and enhancing integration, the OECD can help African countries with migration data methods in ways that will enhance their development, and free movement in Africa will be encouraged by building “seamless borders,” where migration management, border posts, and relevant information systems are developed with the IOM and international support.10

African integration is a central concept in Pan-African thought and in the formal policy frameworks of Africa’s migration regime as devised by the IOM, African Union, UNCTAD, the OECD, the European Union, and European countries including Germany and Switzerland. Such policies adhere to the Sustainable Development Goals, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, the Migration Policy Framework for Africa, and numerous other global governance instruments. However, as much as migration policy claims to harmonize itself with the idea of African self-determination, the Pan-Africanist idea of integration and the formal framework are a world apart. The institutional form in fact augurs the further disintegration of trade and mobility across the continent. This is unsurprising when we consider a history of the IOM and EU migration policies, which are centered on European states’ need for selective labor mobility and racialized borders, U.S. security interests, and profits from bilateral trade agreements that would be undermined by genuine African integration.

The international migration regime is on board with the African Union’s African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), one such integration instrument established in Kigali in 2018 that seeks to boost intra-African and external trade. Economist Ndongo Samba Sylla explains that foreign businesses stand to gain the most from AfCFTA, while smaller African economies risk losing the public revenues gained from tariffs and could become further dependent on the export of raw materials.11 For United Nations Development Programme economists Hippolyte Fofack and Ali Zafar, the states collectively known as the CFA franc countries (those using the Franc of the Financial Community of Africa), which are in a neocolonial relationship with France, could face further inequality. The free trade area is most likely to benefit the more industrialized countries, while those using the CFA franc, including Senegal, have been financially repressed by the monetary union.12 Finally, it is a conception of free movement that intensifies labor competition and overexploitation, while children as young as 15 years old are formally considered part of the active labor force. Writing for the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt, Jean Nanga argued for an alternative approach: “Equality is necessary between workers over and above the difference in nationalities. This would be at the antipodes of the neoliberal capitalist dynamic of the [AfCFTA], the principle of which is better expressed by the passage in the preamble that speaks of the creation of a ‘single market for goods and services, facilitated by the circulation of people’—people who are at the service of goods and services.”13

As for border management, it is apparent in migration policy frameworks and rhetoric that Kwame Nkrumah and George Padmore’s socialist pursuit of a “United States of Africa” is not part of the integrated vision of globalized regionalism, nor is the free movement found within Europe’s Schengen Area.

A report collated by Fatou Faye at La Fondation Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Dakar shows some of the localized outcomes of the EU outsourcing its border control to countries in Africa.14 Senegal, as an emigration country and recipient of potential migrants in transit from the region, including those from Mali, Guinea, and Gambia, has been prioritized in EU migration policy. The report notes Senegal’s internalization of European migration policy and loss of state responsibility, evident in the government’s acceptance of bilateral agreements with France and Spain that enforce the idea of irregular migration and undermine the free movement protocol of the Economic Community of West African States. The European Union and Senegal established nine new border posts in 2017 at land and river crossings with Mauritania, while negotiating with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX) over sea borders. Against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the Senegalese constitution, people are being prosecuted in Senegalese territory for attempting to emigrate. In the year following a new law on trafficking in 2005, 845 people were taken into custody, only 11 percent of whom were charged with trafficking. The rest were charged with clandestine migration. In the Dakar region, twelve minors were incarcerated soon after the law passed. The report also reveals recurrent detentions of fishers working offshore and of people peacefully gathering on beaches by the Senegalese Directorate of Air and Border Police or Directorate of Territorial Surveillance.15

Beyond the consequences of EU border externalization around sites of mobility, migration agreements also transform the conduct and remit of national security forces, leading governments to further repress their own citizens. A recent investigation by Al Jazeera and Fundación porCausa in Spain identified the role of the EU-funded Rapid Action and Surveillance Group, known as GAR-SI, in state violence against protesters in Senegal, which has included the killing of dozens of people since 2021.16 Implemented by Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and involving training from Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese security forces, GAR-SI units were deployed by the Senegalese state against its citizens far from the border zones for which they were trained. In Europe, a Spanish civil guard general has faced allegations of corruption and extortion in the GAR-SI Sahel project, with accusations of allowing Senegal to gain excessive equipment as aid money was directed to favored business contacts. As also found in Libya, Niger, and elsewhere, irregular migration can be a direct consequence of the upheavals caused by the militarization of the border regime itself. The drive for capital accumulation underpins the politics of migration in reality, eroding the aim of “safe, orderly and regular migration” that is supposed to unite the international community.

Responding to International Migration Policy

The path of late imperialism may be leading us to a future of sieges and massacres of people who are prevented from staying home or circulating regionally as they historically have done. An internationalist class analysis is essential to the response. Attention to human rights helps illuminate the wrongs and contradictions of a migration regime that claims to put universal rights at the center of its policy framework, while criminalization processes and the barbarity of imperial power override its universality and meaning. As demonstrated by court battles that stall such atrocities as the United Kingdom’s Rwanda asylum plan, human rights are incompatible with capitalist militarism and market-driven development. A transformative response beyond this focus requires the rejection of a model of development in which Western states, corporations, and institutions drive accumulation processes that secure national growth in Europe by accelerating resource depletion and externalizing environmental destruction, with processes of dispossession, surveillance, and control over land, resources, and people in African economies.

Households in coastal Senegal that are facing crisis are not surplus to processes of capital accumulation—they provide labor in agriculture and other labor-intensive sectors in Spain and elsewhere. These workers can be regularized or repressed according to the needs of a market that is freed from the costs of reproduction. Project funding for international institutions and profits for military surveillance and data management companies depend on continued human misery. Let us not argue about the usefulness of Global South migrants in the Global North, or care about an oligarchic market, national growth indicators, or cheap labor. Instead, the rationality of socialism would be a more effective source of engagement with the struggles ahead.

This is to say that the people moving from West Africa to Europe or, if they have the means, toward the United States, are not external to the class struggle in their regions of attempted entry. Labor internationalism recognizes that global inequality diminishes the material conditions of all working classes as they are forced into intense competition, and that states are in the business of creating the social and political conditions for this competition to take hold. The most effective resistance overcomes this political division and in doing so, this labor internationalism also extends to a recognition of the sovereignty demands of the laboring classes in migrants’ countries of origin as they interact with varying forms of neoliberal authoritarianism.

When the language of decolonization, free movement, and integration is incorporated in an international migration order led by Western states and institutions that have failed to reckon with their colonial character, such concepts need careful attention. The diversity of monetary, economic, and development policies across the African continent necessitates autonomous social and economic planning to enhance collective liberation, rather than internationally mediated free trade agreements that would reinforce inequalities and weaken the revenues of smaller dependent economies. The question of freedom of movement in both the European and African contexts has attracted capitalist interests as a means of weakening labor power, and its realization is as incoherent and imbalanced as that of free markets. A foundation of international and inter-regional solidarity, freedom, and equality for all workers would support an alternative paradigm. This is exactly what the hegemonic migration regime has struggled against. No socialist future will be possible without these core principles.


  1. Informe monitoreo del derecho a la vida—año 2023,” Ca-Minado Fronteras, December 2023,
  2. See Hannah Cross, “Goods, Labour and Markets: The Politics of Immigration,” Counterfire, November 7, 2022.
  3. See Fanny Pigeaud and Ndongo Samba Sylla, Africa’s Last Colonial Currency: The CFA Franc Story (London: Pluto, 2021); Noam Chen-Zion, “Caught in Europe’s Net: Ecological Destruction and Senegalese Migration to Spain,” Review of African Political Economy 49, no. 174 (2022); Hannah Cross, “Migration, Europe, and the Question of Political and Economic Sovereignty in Africa,” Review of African Political Economy 49, no. 174 (2022).
  4. Samir Amin, “S. Imperialism, Europe, and the Middle East,” Monthly Review 56, no. 6 (November 2004): 13–33.
  5. Hannah Cross, Migrants, Borders and Global Capitalism: West African Mobility and EU Borders (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2013), 102.
  6. Amy Niang, “Coups, Insurgency, and Imperialism in Africa,” Review of African Political Economy, March 8, 2022.
  7. Fatou Faye, ed., Réflexions contributives, quelle politique migratoire pour le Sénégal? (Dakar: Fondation Rosa Luxemburg, 2023); “Solution à la migration irrégulière: Mamadou Mignane Diouf insiste sur le processus d’obtention de visa,” Pressafrik, August 25, 2023.
  8. Sara Bernard, “The Regulation of International Migration in the Cold War: A Synthesis and Review of the Literature,” Labor History 64, no. 4 (2023): 336. See also Franck Düvell, “La mondialisation du contrôle des migrations” in Franck Düvell, Claire Rodier, Élise Vallois et al., Politiques migratoires: grandes et petites manoeuvres (Quercy, France: Carobella ex-natura, 2005).
  9. Fabian Georgi, “For the Benefit of Some: The International Organization for Migration and its Global Migration Management,” in The Politics of International Migration Management: Migration, Minorities and Citizenship, Martin Geiger and Antoine Pécoud, eds. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
  10. International Organisation for Migration and African Union Commission, Africa Migration Report: Challenging the Narrative (Addis Ababa: IOM, 2020); see, for example, chapters 7 and 8.
  11. Interview with Ndongo Samba Sylla,”, March 7, 2018.
  12. Hippolyte Fofack and Ali Zafar, “Competitiveness of CFA Countries and Implications for Convergence in the AfCFTA Era” in Contemporary Issues in African Trade and Trade Finance, Hippolyte Fofack, ed. (Cairo: African Import-Export Bank, 2023).
  13. Jean Nanga, “The African Continental Free Trade Area: What Kind of Pan-Africanism?,” Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt, April 6, 2020,
  14. Faye, Réflexions contributives, quelle politique migratoire pour le Sénégal?
  15. Faye, Réflexions contributives, quelle politique migratoire pour le Sénégal?, 44–45.
  16. Andrei Popoviciu and José Bautista, “How an EU-Funded Security Force Helped Senegal Crush Democracy Protests,” Al Jazeera, February 29, 2024.
2024, Volume 76, Number 01 (May 2024)
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