The story that 1 million African migrants are ready or in ‘the pipeline’ to reach Europe from Libya is nothing new and Joseph Walker-Cousins’ claim reported in the Daily Mail has previously been aired by other allegedly well-informed people. It resurfaces periodically in the media (2015, 2016, 2017), but repetition is no proof of validity; rather it is an example of how charts and figures play a significant role in how we understand and debate the so-called refugee crisis and in shaping European policy responses to boat migration. This despite it has been showed (see, for example, Frontex double counting, UK’s alleged generosity vis-a-vis unaccompanied minors, and Frontex again) how the figures being circulated are often inaccurate and partial, or even systematically inflated to serve a range of different purposes, not least to legitimize growing expenditures in border infrastructures and policing, trigger donations by key donors and the public, and feed anti-immigration rhetoric for political gain.
The ‘1 million migrants ready to reach Europe from Libya’ story is exemplar of this phenomenon. On the one hand, it encapsulates the power of numbers in firing up public and political debate and sustaining the ‘crisis mood’ that pervades policy responses to boat migration; on the other, it shows the lack of scientific rigour and yet resilience that often characterizes the numbers of the ‘crisis’ that circulate so widely in global media and among policy makers; impermeable to attempts being made to show how baseless they are (see Cristina Del Biaggio’s piece).
While one can question the motivations of Frontex director who has referred to this figure over the years, there is also a broader question that needs to be addressed: what makes this figure so resilient? In Destination Europe? we argue that European responses to Mediterranean boat migration are based on the false assumption that all African migrants in North Africa aim to reach Europe, this despite evidence of the significance of intra-African migration (see also this report on a 2014 Danish Refugee Council study) . The resilience of “1 million migrants” story is exactly in this: it serves as validation for this assumption, while paradoxically being the very product of it. In other words, because we assume that every foreigners in Libya want to come to Europe – oblivious of evidence that say that Libya has a long history as an immigration hub for migrant workers (similarly to Morocco now) – we count all foreigners in Libya and the region as potential boat migrants. As Simon McMahon and I will demonstrate in a forthcoming article, this assumption then affects how European leaders engage with African states and the development of European policy of border externalisation.