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Jussi Laine

Border scholars turn their gaze to Africa

What kind of opportunities could partnerships with African countries offer for the European Union? A collaborative project includes decision-makers in the planning of research themes.

Africa is a topic of intensive discussion in the European Union – perhaps more intensive than ever before. Finland’s European Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen is responsible for the EU’s international partnerships, and the portfolio she holds is focused on the development of Africa.   Moreover, one of the goals of Finland's current Government Programme is to forge an increasing number partnerships with African countries.

“For Europe, Africa is a matter of great importance. Previously, Africa has mostly been addressed from the viewpoint of development cooperation, but this approach could shift in a direction of resource-based thinking,” Researcher Jussi Laine says.

He currently leads the collaborative Africa-EU Relations, Migration, Development and Integration project, which brings together researchers, decision-makers and civil society actors to discuss migration both within Africa and between the European Union and Africa.

“There is an urgent need for this type of discussion. We want to include decision-makers in the planning of research early on so that they can tell us what kind of information is needed. “

The first joint conference was held in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, in autumn 2018, and the second one in Joensuu this November. For scholars of border studies at the University of Eastern Finland, the project led by Laine is the first opening in the direction of Africa. Up until now, research as mainly focused on European borders.

The world’s most dangerous external border

Laine’s research has focused on the ethics of borders and the European Union’s border policies, including border-related values, discrimination and inequalities. These questions have become concrete on the border between the EU and Africa over the past years. The International Organization for Migration, IOM, estimates that 19,000 migrants have died in the past six years when trying to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe. This year alone, the death toll is more than 1,000 people.

“Globally, the external border of the European Union is the deadliest in the world, and this is something that should be talked about more.  As investments in border security grow, people trying to get to Europe are forced to take greater risks, and this also creates business opportunities for illegal smuggling of people. This is not in line with European values, which are essentially positive.”

According to Laine, tighter border control doesn’t paint a picture of a safe Europe either – quite the opposite. This creates an image of there being a threat on the other side of the border, one that people should be afraid of.

“For example, building a wall on the border doesn’t remove the causes of migration. These are what discussion should focus on: what causes people to move and to leave their homes.”

New in­ter­pret­a­tions of borders

One of the reasons causing migration from Africa is population growth. While Europe is growing old and grey, more than 60% people living in Africa are under 25 years old. They need meaningful things to do, and are also a tremendous resource for Africa’s economic growth. In the conference held in Pretoria, decision-makers were particularly interested in issues relating to trade and Africa’s internal development.

“The African Union is being reformed in a direction of an economic community. Decision-makers were keen to learn whether the European Union could serve as a model for uniting Africa.”

The conference in Joensuu, on the other hand, focused on research addressing borders and migration. Several young researchers from Africa attended the conference. Their approach to borders was fresh, looking at them through cross-border processes.

“Borders can be examined through different processes, such as trade at the grass root level, environmental projects or poaching, and their role in these processes can be analysed. These are ideas we could make more use of also in our own research.”

Africa’s internal development is a theme that also interests African border scholars.

“They have fate in Africa's own strengths and in making a difference through internal development. We need an alternative framework of interpretation for Africa, one that goes beyond the traditional conflict-centred view. The continent holds great potential and we have experience of well-functioning collaborative projects.”