Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

After the 'migration crisis': African responses to the EU's agenda

12 May 2020
The bus depot in Kampala, Uganda.
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QueenstownLocal/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-sd)

What is Africa’s position on migration?

Politics in Africa is a thorny issue and migration is not always at the top of the agenda for a number of reasons. Some countries in the Sahel see migration as a relief to the pressures of the labour market. Other countries like Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire do not have adequate statistics and cannot provide planners with up-to-date information on migration flows. I have also found the responses of African states to vary along the lines of the old colonial regimes. In Francophone countries, for example, the migration issue is largely influenced by France. This is true when it comes to their philosophy, technical capacity and policy-making. That is why you find that migration from Francophone West Africa is almost uniformly routed towards France.

More generally, African states have adopted a laissez-faire approach to migration. This was evident in the attitudes of the African officials attending the Euro-African Dialogue on Development and Migration, as well as in the failure of African states to develop a comprehensive migration policy. Nigeria first devised a migration policy in 2007, but only ratified it in 2015.  It was only then that other countries like Rwanda, Ghana, Liberia, Uganda and South Africa started to develop their own migration policies and programmes.

The problem with many of these policies is the lack of sustainability and ownership by African states. Indeed, many of these programmes were funded by the EU through the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The same goes for the meetings organised to discuss this issue. As a result, we tend to get policies that are Eurocentric and emphasise the destination point of view of migration, whereas Africa should be focusing on the country-of-origin perspective of migration. This is what is needed for migration to become a win-win process.  

The term ‘migration crisis’ is used a lot by the EU. How is migration perceived by east African states?

There are two sides to it. I think the creation of the narrative around the ‘crisis’ does not correspond with the African understanding of migration. This is because African migration is more regional than between continents. The International Labour Organisation estimates that over 80% of African migration occurs within the African continent. This is highest in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region, which has had the longest history of free mobility as a result of the Free Movement of Persons Protocol adopted back in 1979. It’s also true for the IGAD states in the East and Horn regions of Africa.

In 2015, there were many pockets of conflict across the globe and in Africa as well. So, the ‘crisis’ itself was largely defined in Eurocentric terms. As numbers were increasing in the Mediterranean, countries in the East and Horn of Africa we were responding to regional conflicts and related disasters. For example, Uganda registered almost a million refugees in 2015. And that is just one country. Ethiopia saw large increases in refugee flows from South Sudan. The same for Kenya. States could not close their doors. And no country in the IGAD region did close their doors to refugees from South Sudan or Somalia. Those borders have remained largely open. I know Kenya threatened to close Dadaab refugee camp in 2016. But even then, a solution was found where only those who were willing to return were helped to return. So, both in their perception of migration flows and their response, states in the IGAD region were not part of this narrative of ‘crisis’.

If anything, more countries in the region have revised their refugee management policies to provide refugees with more opportunities for inclusion particularly in education, livelihoods and health.

We do not see migration as a crisis. In fact, in IGAD we’re currently negotiating a protocol on free movement of persons that is intended to promote the circulation of people within the region. Why? Because if you go into the border areas between IGAD countries, basically the same ethnic communities are living on both sides of the border. Mobility is a permanent feature of cross-border community life and trade volumes are high in those areas. Is there a ‘security’ crisis? Yes, there are some security challenges. But I would not call it a threat to the national sovereignty of IGAD member states. I think for us, mobility and migration will still remain a permanent feature.

Does IGAD have a position on the European response to the supposed crisis?

We have to go back to the African Union-European Union continental dialogue of 2015. The 2015 Valletta Summit adopted the Joint Valletta Action Plan and established the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa to operationalise it. The action plan identified five priority domains: development benefits of migration and addressing root causes of irregular migration; promoting regular channels for migration; protection and asylum; preventing irregular migration, migrant smuggling and trafficking; and return and admission.  However, if you listen carefully to the dialogue, I think the summit was fundamentally divided. The African group was keen on expanding regular pathways for migration while the EU was keen on addressing irregular migration flows, trafficking and smuggling – mainly through securitisation and development support.

In terms of support for development, research indicates that up to a certain level of development migration tends to increase. So, there is a fundamental misconception on the part of the EU that supporting development will lead to less migration.  I also think that we should not aim to do away with migration, but rather deal with the challenges associated with irregular migration. In my opinion, the best way to address irregular migration is to expand channels for regular migration. If migrants have the means, but don't have expanded pathways for regular migration, they will find smugglers to facilitate their movement.

When it comes to securitisation, of course, a lot of EU money has been spent to address irregular migration. If you go to the trust fund’s website, you'll find that the Horn and West Africa are the largest recipients of funding. However, it’s unclear how effective some of this programming has been. For example, border security has been emphasised and guards have been trained to more rigorously check documents at the border. Some people have been arrested because they were not carrying the proper documentation, but most of the time they have turned out to be from states with free movement or labour movement bilateral agreements. In other words, they were travelling legally, they just didn’t have the right papers. This is quite common. I can give you the example of Kenya and Ethiopia, which have a bilateral agreement dating back to the 1970s. Ethiopians trying to cross into Kenya are now being arrested because they don't have the correct documentation, and not because they've committed any offence. So on the one hand you can say that the trainings have had their intended effect: border guards are now performing their jobs to a higher standard. But on the other hand, you can rightly ask if this money has been well spent if the majority of people getting caught turn out to be false positives. People’s legal rights are being infringed upon because the training programme didn’t adequately account for the documentation issue.

We are seeing this more and more: migrants are ending up in detention because they don’t have the right documentation. And this comes down to incompetent bureaucracy in African states. Mobility frameworks are negotiated but then don’t function properly. So, in my view some securitisation measures are misplaced. They need to offer real security, not create barriers to beneficial labour mobility.


How have governments and civil society in the Sahel responded to the EU strategy?

Migration is a contested issue in Africa-EU relations. African governments do not tend to have much interest in stopping migrants from travelling to Europe beyond attracting EU aid monies conditioned upon it. On the contrary, remittances from the diasporas in Europe are crucial for these states and generally bring in far more revenue than development aid does. Travelling migrants also spend money and create livelihood opportunities for local communities along the routes. Moreover, intra-African migration has been a longstanding and vital strategy of survival, especially in the semi-desert and semi-nomadic region of the Sahel. This divergence in interests is perhaps most explicit in the negotiations around readmitting expelled migrants. Some African countries have outright refused to cooperate – as doing so would make governments very unpopular at home.

It is, however, a bit different when it comes to penal aid, which seems to be much more welcome to African governments. In fact, aid for internal security always comes at the request of the beneficiary. The willingness to actually implement projects and to change the penal sector, however, varies greatly. It seems to depend on whether the project aims at a comprehensive restructuring and reforming of criminal justice institutions or merely the enhancement of security and intelligence capabilities and equipment to fight crime. While the former is notoriously difficult, and state apparatuses often ‘lack willingness’ to transform, support for enhancing security capacities is often welcomed. It also seems that EU aid and Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions are increasingly geared towards the latter: building border security and short term, ad hoc capabilities to more effectively fight crime. A sort of ‘state-building lite’.

African states are not just passive recipients of EU aid, nor are they forced into becoming the EU’s border guards – although that task tends to come with a financial benefit and the EU increasingly relies on conditionality to make African governments cooperate. Some state leaders actively seek out security assistance to build their state’s internal security capacity and thus their ability to govern territory and populations. This aid inevitably ends up serving state leaders’ interests whether aligned with that of a majority of their constituencies or not. Researchers have noted that in countries such as Niger, police and security forces have not only taken bribes from and harassed traveling migrants, but they have also been used to crack down on civil society and political opposition. Some civil society members have been repeatedly arrested and falsely accused of terrorism and coup attempts. This adds to the critique of the EU’s longstanding strengthening of the security capacities of governments with questionable human rights track records.

It should also be noted that civil society organisations in Niger and Mali are very much opposed to the criminalisation of mobility, which has been crucial to the region for centuries. They accuse their governments of being more accountable to the EU as a donor than to their own populations. Niger’s crackdown on migrant smugglers, for example, violated the ECOWAS Protocol on Free Movement – to which Niger is a party – as most of the migrants are from other ECOWAS countries and should in principle be able to travel freely. This, civil society claims, shows how pleasing EU security interests is prioritised by their governments over respecting regional legal frameworks.

To sum up, an increasing amount of EU funding is channeled towards penal aid. This is aimed at strengthening the short-term and ad hoc capabilities of African states to more effectively fight ‘crimes of mobility’, and includes intelligence-led policing, risk assessments and border management infrastructure. Conversely, less aid seems to be channeled to the victims of trafficking or to building an accountable criminal justice chain that is responsive to human rights. This is a trend that should be carefully monitored, as there is a risk that the EU’s re-direction of aid may contribute to creating African ‘security states’ – entrenching elites in power by bolstering their internal security capabilities rather than protecting human rights of populations, migrants and victims of trafficking.


How do you interpret the response of African states to the EU strategy?

Migration is seen as less of a problem in Africa. There's a strong culture of migration. I think originally, it was seen as a way of contributing to development. The idea of migration as a security threat is more recent, a response to European pressure and, to an extent, increased global concerns about the security implications of migration. This has changed the perception of migration, certainly in some African countries. For example, in Kenya, Somali refugees suffer recriminations as a result of al-Shabaab terrorism.  And South Africa has witnessed a rise in virulent anti-migration and anti-foreigner sentiment at the grassroots level.

I think there are also African politicians following the money. Some leaders and policy makers recognise that there is money to be made out of migration. There is the danger of a slippery slope as far as ‘migration diplomacy’ is concerned with refugees and migrants used as bargaining chips to attract donor funding. Qaddafi was a good example. He threatened to ‘turn Europe black’ if the EU or Italy did not increase financial assistance to Libya. The EU strategy based on development funding in return for enhanced securitisation provides an incentive for African leaders to talk up the migration issue in the expectation of receiving a share of the trust fund’s financial assistance.


What is the role of African NGOs in helping to address the challenges of mass migration and human trafficking?

My charity AFRUCA works with victims of human trafficking from Africa to the UK. Over the past nineteen years the charity has supported over 500 children and young people trafficked for different purposes including domestic slavery and sex trafficking. Even though we work with victims trafficked from different parts of Africa, the majority of our users have been trafficked from Nigeria. This has enabled us to build up a strong expertise in UK-Nigeria human trafficking intervention. In addition to our direct victim support services, AFRUCA conducts nation-wide community education programmes focusing on specific areas of human trafficking and exploitation. Based on our long-term involvement in the UK anti-trafficking sector, and in recognition of the relative lack of involvement of many affected diaspora communities in helping to address human trafficking, we established BASNET – the UK Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Anti-Slavery Network to help improve diaspora engagement in UK anti-trafficking work.

My experiences of delivering an array of services at AFRUCA over the years and the impact we have made demonstrate that efforts to tackle human trafficking and mass migration at the source in Africa would achieve a lot more success if local NGOs were at the forefront of this work. The reasons are not far-fetched. Just like AFRUCA in the UK, local anti-trafficking NGOs in Africa have considerable knowledge and understanding of the local issues at play. Those leading the NGOs might have related personal stories motivating them and driving their interventions rather than pecuniary gain. In particular, the general desire for change driven by the negative images of Nigerian women as victims of sex trafficking on the streets of Europe is a key motivating factor for many anti-trafficking NGOs in Nigeria. Despite this, the capacity of local NGOs to tackle both subjects is very much reduced due to a lack of financial support from the government as well as a lack of capacity.

In particular, there is very little funding available for local NGOs to help address the human aspects of mass migration to European countries. The EU-IOM Assisted Voluntary Return Programme provides moderate support for migrants from countries like Nigeria and Senegal rescued from the detention camps in Libya. But aside from this, the bulk of European funding directed at African countries is to address human trafficking and not migration as a whole. In Nigeria, NGOs are usually given short-term funding for anti-trafficking work, often as sub-contractors to the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), the anti-trafficking agency in Nigeria partly funded by the EU. Their task is generally limited to providing shelters for victims or to conducting community awareness programmes. Experts have questioned why an intermediary is necessary for this, when money could be paid directly to those performing the role on the ground.

These constraints have limited the capacity of local NGOs to tackle human trafficking and irregular migration. They also put NGOs in a difficult position, as in order to attract income they must contend with a top-down approach to address issues that may or may not be priorities for the beneficiaries. Sometimes local organisations must compete amongst themselves for service delivery contracts from international organisations, thereby fostering competition rather than collaboration and partnership. There is a similar approach in the UK as well – some agencies seeking to ‘engage’ with diaspora organisations like AFRUCA on anti-trafficking matters come to us with a top-down way of doing things. These agencies impose their views upon us while ignoring the ideas we or other partners put forward. They often insist on doing things their way even when it is clear to partner organisations that the intervention will not work. Such an approach to community engagement is of course counter-productive. Rather than helping to address the subject of human trafficking, they actually alienate the communities who are essential to creating the change we seek.

Despite these challenges, some NGOs continue to offer certain services such as public education programmes, shelters for victims, employment and vocational training programmes, counselling and psychosocial support as well as policy advocacy. They can claim some success in helping to raise awareness of the dangers associated with mass migration and human trafficking, as well in pushing for government action.

How are the EU’s interventions affecting African NGOs’ work migration and anti-trafficking?

Within Africa itself, Europe’s anti-trafficking and anti-migration interventions are at best intertwined or focused mainly on ‘fighting human trafficking’. Significant funds are going to countries like Niger or Nigeria where many of the victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation in European countries either originate or transit. Yet the bulk of these programmes are focused on short-term interventions, such as awareness raising or small scale, low-skill training programmes like hair dressing or soap, bead or hat making. This is the sort of thing offered in the NAPTIP shelters in Nigeria. Such programmes do not systematically tackle the root causes of irregular migration and human trafficking or provide returning victims with long-term support and sustainable employment options.

In Niger, a transit country to Libya, the EU Emergency Trust Fund has provided millions of euros in funding to the government to help stop the flow of migrants. Unsurprisingly, the Nigerien government recently enacted a law forbidding anyone from facilitating the movement of migrants into or out of the country. But they haven’t been trying to encourage other sorts of economic activities in its place. Investments in social re-integration programmes for those formerly in the ‘migration business’ are grossly inadequate in comparison to the huge incomes previously derived from transporting mass numbers of migrants to Libya. Unless attractive alternatives are created it is unlikely this new policy will prove sustainable.

Local NGOs in Nigeria have questioned why the EU’s intervention on human trafficking has centred solely on addressing sex trafficking, while other forms of trafficking and exploitation like domestic slavery and forced labour prevalent across Nigeria are ignored. In the UK, for example, while government statistics on human trafficking from Nigeria show a high number of victims of domestic slavery, UK/EU intervention in Nigeria has never sought to address this issue – despite the advocacy work by AFRUCA and other diaspora organisations. Again this demonstrates that the opinions of small local or diaspora NGOs do not matter when the donor agency has its own agenda to fulfil.

At present, while it might seem that the EU’s top-down intervention to address human trafficking and mass migration in Africa is working, based on the reduced number of migrants to Europe via Libya, there is no evidence at all that these changes are sustainable. The root causes of human trafficking are not being addressed and the important role of local NGOS is being ignored. Both are necessary for real progress to be made.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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