The EU’s strategy is to trade development assistance for secure borders within Africa. Do you think this strategy can work?
By externalising the securitisation of migration, the EU is essentially extending its borders, and the problems that come with them. A good example is in West Africa. Free movement exists within the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). This means there's no financial incentive to smuggle someone between Benin and Nigeria, for example, because people can move themselves. Meanwhile, attempts to secure Niger’s northern border with Libya and Algeria, which are not part of ECOWAS, have created big business for smugglers.
European policymakers need to take the realities of African migration into account and understand that externalising its borders will not reduce migrant numbers. It just criminalises the migrant journey and makes it more dangerous. That’s not ideal. Europe needs labour, and that labour should be allowed to migrate to Europe by legal means. The securitised approach also means that Europe is less likely to receive the kind of migrants it needs.
Please don't get me wrong – there is nothing necessarily wrong with Europe wanting to protect its territorial integrity. Not at all. The issue comes in when the protection of that territorial integrity stretches into other territories. Europe’s borders end at the edge of continental Europe and not on the African continent. They definitely don’t divide Niger from Libya, and by attempting to extend its reach Europe inadvertently contributes to instability in Africa. The situation in Libya is a case in point. The extent of human rights violations against migrants in the country would not be as great if the EU had not co-opted the Libyan coast guard – if we can call them that – into managing migration on its behalf. This short-term policy will have long-term consequences. If we don’t address these issues in a sustainable way then it will be more difficult to rebuild the Libyan state and advance security and stability in the Sahel and North Africa.
There are ways the EU can encourage safe, orderly migration while discouraging the criminalisation of migration. It’s a careful balance that needs to be struck, but that would be more sustainable and have a better impact on stability, security and development than current approaches.
In terms of the development quid pro quo, Niger is a good example. The Nigerien state collaborates with the EU in some areas, but Nigerien society isn’t necessarily involved in the processes nor do they agree with this approach. As such, there is a disconnect between the state, which is meant to serve the people, and the population. Likewise, the Rwandan government has agreed to act as a third-party return country – where non-Rwandans are being repatriated to Rwanda from Europe. Questions have been raised as to whether Rwanda allows this out of altruism or because of the political mileage this generates with Europe.
Will development assistance effectively lower migration?
I will try to give you an African perspective on migration. I want to undercut some of the assumptions about migration into Europe that are not grounded in Africa’s empirical realities. Migration from Africa to Europe – it has less to do with ‘underlying drivers’ than with the choices made by individuals. The choice to try for Europe or to stay in Africa. Until you understand that you're not going to effectively address migration into Europe from Africa.
The rationales behind the EU’s strategy are misguided. For example, the assumption that people migrate because they are poor. This is not necessarily the case. Take Nigeria. Nigerians who have been detained in Libya are mainly from southern Nigeria, where there is much less poverty than in the north. Also, there has been serious insecurity in the north over the past ten years, but again you struggle to find refugees from the north travelling to Libya. If migration was caused by poverty then this would be different.
This can be explained by the simple fact that migration isn’t cheap. Talking to migrants who made the journey, the trip from Nigeria initially costs on average about $2,000. The migrants need to pay for transport and they need to pay to be smuggled across the border into Libya. Many of them have to send home again for money after crossing the border because they were shaken down somewhere en-route. So, the cost goes up to $4,000. That’s a lot of money for an ordinary Nigerian. And it is why the wealthier southern Nigerians make the trip and not the poorer northerners. There is a minimum income or asset threshold that is necessary to migrate. If you don't have the money, you can’t make the journey.
We’ve seen the EU intervene to try to secure the borders between African states, including by providing funding and equipment to ill-defined militias in Libya. And we've seen what the outcome of that has been. Some of those militia are actually part of criminal networks. Most specialise in smuggling or, for a fee, they’ll take bribes to let migrants through. There have also been some cases of migrants being detained and sold into slavery. We've seen all of it. We've seen the unintended consequences of poorly thought-out intervention. The EU needs to do something, or at least look like it’s doing something.
African states may accept money for training border guards or for biometric fingerprint scanning at borders. Yet, whilst states are happy to accept funding, it doesn’t fundamentally alter their policies. That has always been the reality of bilateral, or even multilateral, engagement in Africa. And it’s important to note that while criticism of the EU is often muted, Africa leaders do speak up against the EU’s strategy in Africa. For example, there was robust pushback at the African Union-European Union Summit in Abidjan in 2017, where African leaders accused the EU of funding the Libyan detention centres at the heart of a scandal in which detained migrants were being sold as slaves. Yet even when leaders articulate positions on migration that more authentically reflect the African reality, the EU sticks to its own particular assumptions about the issue.
No matter how much the EU pumps into African countries to mitigate migration flows, I doubt it will be enough. It's not going to be a game changer. Because, you cannot stop migration. It is a fact of life. Also, migration cannot be isolated from broader national realities. Most migrants are in their late teens and twenties. Nobody wakes up and decides to go to Europe. There are effective social networks that enable migration, sell the vision, inform people how to go about it, explain the costs and how to raise the money and all of that. EU-funded entrepreneurial skills training for a few hundred people a year is not going to outweigh the influence of these networks.
Do African states buy into the EU strategy or do they treat it instrumentally?
Well, there could be an element of opportunism as it is difficult to turn down funding when it is offered. That said, it is a not as clear as black and white. Over the recent past, there has been a growing momentum towards integration. In 2018 the Continental Free Trade Areas and the Continental Free Movement of Persons Protocol were adopted by the AU summit. While the CFTA has been ratified by 28 states and is now in force, the Free Movement Protocol is lagging behind with just four ratifications: Mali, Benin, Rwanda and Sao Tomé and Principe. This could in part be because of the influence of the migration crisis narrative or perhaps there is less political will in Africa for free movement of people than free trade.
The EU also prefers dealing with specific states or specific Regional Economic Communities (RECs) rather than the continent as a whole. If you look at the projects funded by the EU Trust Fund, you'll see that countries of strategic interest to the EU in ECOWAS, MENA and IGAD are benefitting the most. Countries in the East African Community and SADC receive almost nothing. Yet, some countries are increasingly hesitant about accepting EU funding. My understanding is that a number of West African states are more and more disappointed with how the EU is delivering its side of the bargain. Majority of African countries for example have refused to sign agreements on return and readmissions despite funding incentives.