ABIDJAN (Reuters) - European leaders under pressure from a far-right revival at home hope to avoid a difficult debate about immigration when they meet their African counterparts in Ivory Coast from Wednesday.
Reports this month of abuses against African migrants in Libya have sparked anger across the continent however, threatening to drive migration to the top of the summit agenda and shine a spotlight on an issue fraught with political risk.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who head the Franco-German axis at the heart of the European Union, will have its next major political test in mind when they sit down with African Union heads of state.
Italy, on the frontline of the campaign to slow illegal migration to Europe, holds elections early next year and the populist 5-Star Movement is leading opinion polls. The anti-immigrant, euroskeptic Northern League is also gaining support.
“We all have our own interests in not turning this into a migration conference,” one EU official said ahead of the meeting to be held in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital Abidjan.
The summit is meant to focus on development, long the cornerstone of EU policy in Africa and tangentially related to migration. The theme of investing in youth, though, is a nod to the rampant unemployment and poverty that drives many young Africans to leave home in search of a better life.
But it now looks increasingly unlikely the EU leaders can avoid hard questions from their African counterparts.
Soon after CNN aired grainy images from Libya this month appearing to show migrants being sold as slaves, African governments began recalling diplomats from Tripoli.
Protests erupted in France, Senegal and Benin. Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara called for Libyan slave traders to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court.
Libyan authorities have promised to investigate the slavery allegations. But the European Union too has been the target of anger and frustration.
“They’re the ones who blocked the way and left us in the hands of these Libyans,” said Cherifou Sahindou, sitting at a make-shift tea stand by a muddy, rubbish-strewn track near a mosque in Abidjan’s Yopougon neighbourhood.
Sahindou and some of the other men around the tea stand said they made it to Libya, but no further. All had heard about the slave markets and all knew someone who had “stayed in the water” - the local euphemism for death on the migrant trail.
Like many African leaders, Ouattara has called for Europe to broaden the legal avenues for migration from the continent using mechanisms such as student and temporary work visas.
“Europe and Europeans ... should not be afraid, because Africa and the African youth can bring a lot to Europe,” he said in an interview with the France 24 news channel this week.
But in the current political climate any proposal for more Africans to enter Europe is a non-starter for many EU leaders.
Merkel herself is the most high-profile victim of an anti-immigration backlash. At the peak of the migrant influx into Europe in 2015 she declared an open door policy for refugees and asylum seekers, allowing in more than a million migrants.
The anti-immigrant far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party campaigned hard against the policy and won some 13 percent of the vote in a September election - complicating Merkel’s efforts to form a coalition government and weakening her position as the leading EU advocate within Europe.
In an indication of how heated things have become, the mayor of a small town in Germany, who won an award from Merkel for his liberal migrant policies, was stabbed in the neck on Monday in an attack believed to be politically motivated.
Other European leaders firmly behind the 28-member bloc are also wary of falling foul to such an explosive issue.
“If you say, ‘I’ve got a right to total access without conditions’ ... I can’t explain that to my middle class, who’ve worked, who pay their taxes,” Macron said during a rowdy exchange with students in Burkina Faso on Tuesday.
“What do I tell them?”
It is those kinds of political calculations that are hindering much-needed policy solutions, said William Swing, head of the International Organization for Migration.
“The heart of the problem is the very toxic atmosphere that’s been fairly widespread for some years now ... That’s not just in Europe,” he told Reuters.
“The drivers (of migration) are there and they’re not going away. So clearly our policies need to change.”
European delegates at the summit, however, are expected to pledge aid, repeating often voiced calls for a “Marshall Plan” for Africa that would create jobs and lift incomes to give would-be migrants a reason to stay at home.
The African security sectors charged with clamping down on migrant flows will also get their share of European money.
EU support for the Libyan authorities, including Italian assistance for its coastguard, has helped halve the number of migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean this year.
Though lauded in Italy, the programme, which has led to massive detention centres being created in Libya to hold intercepted migrants, was denounced by the United Nation’s human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
Abdoulaye Dosso, another man at the tea stand in Yopougon, said he crossed the Sahara desert, played dead to survive as rebels shot other migrants, and then spent weeks in one such camp awaiting repatriation to Ivory Coast.
“There have been too many deaths,” he said. “There must be a change.”
(This story has been refiled to fix typo in French president’s name in paragraph 3.)
Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Editing by David Clarke