In Search of Sustainable Approaches to Migration, EU Strives for Partnerships

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivers his State of Union speech, where he announced an Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs between Europe and Africa. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

Last month, president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker proposed a new program that would aim to bolster economic growth in Africa as part of the European Union’s (EU) efforts to reduce irregular migration. Such a measure stands in contrast to others taken in recent years where, for example, Italy worked to stem the flow of migrants—with EU backing—by engaging local intermediaries, who have allegedly paid armed groups to cease smuggling. Avoiding the extreme flows of migrants as experienced in 2015 remains a top concern irrespective of the measures employed, not least to contain the rising tide of populism rooted in anti-migrant sentiment in Europe.

Three years ago, over one million people arrived irregularly in Europe. By 2016, the number had dropped to 382,000 and fell again in 2017 to approximately 186,000. This overall downward trend is largely due to fewer migrants and refugees taking the Eastern Mediterranean Route from Turkey to Greece, mostly as a result of the European Union’s intensified migration cooperation with Turkey and the near closure of Western Balkans Route. As a result, the Central Mediterranean Route, largely from Libya to Italy, has become the main gateway into Europe. The last two years have also seen a revival of the Western Mediterranean Route, mostly from Morocco to Spain. Between the Central and Western Mediterranean routes, the majority of recent migrants and refugees to the EU are from North, East, and West Africa.

Current Migration Measures

The impact of irregular migration is of course predominantly on the southern EU states, not least because of the way the EU assigns responsibility for processing asylum claims. Under the Dublin regulations that form a key part of the Common European Asylum System the first country in which an asylum seeker arrives is usually responsible for processing that person’s asylum application. Revising these rules to facilitate fairer burden-sharing is proving difficult. Central European EU members are opposed to any mandatory redistribution of asylum seekers from so-called frontline states, like Italy—while Italy itself would like to see a more fundamental overhaul.

With intra-EU disputes hampering reform, stemming migration further has required increased cooperation and strategizing with third states, though so far with mixed results. For example, although the EU might have liked to strike a deal with Libya, governance issues have meant that cooperation has remained restricted to training the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard with the aim of improving their capacity to tackle people trafficking and smuggling in Libyan waters through operation EUNAVFOR Med Sophia, and to the gradual scaling up of its border management mission, EUBAM Libya.

The EU does, however, endorse and partially finance Italian efforts to engage Libyan actors to crackdown on irregular migration based on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by Italy and the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord in early 2017. Under the MoU, Italy pledged to work with Libyan institutions tasked with combating irregular migration and strengthening the country’s borders, as well as helping to create alternative revenues for communities dependent on people smuggling and trafficking. From this baseline, cooperation has extended to engagement with other local intermediaries, including tribes and mayors.

The resulting increased control of Libya’s maritime border has led to a reduction in departures from Libya to Italy since mid-2017, leading the EU to hail this approach as a success. However, the measures have also increased the vulnerability of migrants and refugees in Libya by extending the period of time they spend holed up in “safe houses” along the coast, increasing their risk of being kidnapped or subject to extortion or abuse in detention centers.

In an effort to further reduce transit through Libya, the EU has also been engaging other origin and transit countries in Africa over the past two years. It has concluded country-specific, non-legally binding arrangements or “compacts” with Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. The aim is to improve readmission rates of their nationals irregularly staying in the EU and to solicit their help in curbing irregular migration. To maximize leverage on these countries, the EU is employing positive and negative incentives linked to a range of policy areas, including development, trade, security, education and mobility.

So far, the compacts have led to some improvements specifically related to combating people smuggling and trafficking, as well as border security. But they are generally failing to increase readmission rates. Many citizens in sub-Saharan African countries tend to rely on remittances from relatives residing in Europe, making their governments reticent to follow through on promises to readmit their nationals. At the same time, the imposition of penalties by the EU for lack of cooperation could be counterproductive and could ultimately undermine longer term goals of encouraging migrants and refugees to stay closer to home.

The EU has sought to broker similar types of agreements—called Mobility Partnerships—with North African countries, under which partner countries agree to readmit their nationals as well as third-country nationals who passed through their territories, as well as strengthen their borders, in return for visa facilitation for their nationals and more legal pathways for labor migration to the EU.

But Mobility Partnerships have generated little enthusiasm on the part of North African state governments. As in Sub-Saharan African states, the issue of readmissions remains politically sensitive. In addition, there is a sense among North African policymakers that it would be fundamentally impossible to repatriate all third-country nationals whom they might be obliged to take back from the EU. At the same time, the promise of greater legal possibilities for labor migration to the EU have also failed to transpire. The EU is hoping that new funding streams will boost cooperation, but it is unlikely to be enough to radically alter the equation.

Looking Ahead

Beyond partnerships and compacts, if the EU wants to successfully cooperate on migration with African countries it needs to do more to take into account local contexts, as is the case with the European Commission’s initiative. If not, cooperation will deliver disappointing results, while worsening the plight of those in need. Ultimately, the EU needs a more sustainable and sound approach to migration, which takes the migration interests and capacities of its partners seriously, and places the protection of migrants and refugees higher up the agenda. At the same time, it should be under no illusion that doing so can act as a substitute for developing a more effective way of dealing with irregular migration within the EU itself. The two must go hand in hand, if Europe is to avoid a repeat of extreme flows from years past.

Lisa Watanabe is Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich.