Science - February 2, 2006

In The News / Dutch bluntness in Africa

Last week the Dutch ministers for immigration and development cooperation visited a refugee camp in Kenya. The Dutch newspapers showed pictures of the well-dressed Dutch ladies among the homeless of the African Horn. The ministers’ main message to the crowd was: ‘Stay in your country, it needs you.’ How does an Ethiopian, raised with the hardship of the region, view this statement?

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Beyene T. Gessesse is from the northern Ethiopian Tigray region. Raised with the almost constant presence of war, hunger and suffering, he is now studying for his MSc in rural development in Wageningen. This is his first time abroad, and in the beginning it was sometimes difficult. But now he has friends from all over the world and Holland feels like home. In his traditional dress he explains why he thinks the Dutch ministers were not completely wrong. ‘To me, being here is like living in a true democracy – something my compatriots and I will have to work for.’

‘I was raised with USAID’s logo everywhere and I really do not want to raise my children with those images of dependency. We ourselves have to work for it, and indeed, the camps the Dutch ministers visited still host Ethiopian refugees who are not doing that. On the other side of the boarder, Ethiopia hosts about 300,000 refugees too, also from Kenya. All those migrants, irrespective of where they came from, left their livelihoods and tasks in their own economy in order to receive help as refugees from the international help organisations.

‘But although the ministers had a good point, I have to say that there are plenty of serious reasons for people to cross boarders. Also, my country is one of the places where even today very terrible things happen. Things that drive people away from their homes, and away from the possibility to make their country a better place. I believe it is essential to understand those reasons. It is a good thing that you want to keep people in their countries, but first you have to understand who is migrating and why.

‘For example, almost all East African refugees in Europe are rich; most of them came here for economic reasons and had the money to travel. Most of them had misguided perceptions of the West and believed everybody becomes instantly very rich here.

'On the other hand, the crowd that was listening to the Dutch ministers probably does not share those reasons for migration. They fled because of war, politics or ethnic violence. If you tell the Somali refugees to go back, everybody knows what will happen to them in their home country, which is ruled by violence. So, aside from the fact that your minister was telling a true thing to the wrong people, I think she should invest more in the region to solve the problems. Ethnic problems and political violence are simply caused by rulers who wants to stay in power in times of economic suffering. More attention to education, infrastructure and health would create more wealth, realistic perceptions and ethnic stability.'

'I understand that the West wants to control migration. If all migration were to become legal, Africans would crowd your roads,’ Gessesse laughs. ‘But if the entire world was rich, borders would not exist, all travelling would be legal and refugees would not exist either. Look at wealthy Europe. Last week I travelled to Belgium and I did not even notice when I arrived in the other country. So if the West had invested more in East Africa, your minister would not have had to order the wrong people to stay in their country; they probably would have loved to stay.’

Martijn Vink

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