Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

After the 'migration crisis': putting development in the service of migration control

12 May 2020, 12.01am
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

How has development work changed since 2015?

The so-called refugee crisis in 2015 reframed the narrative around migration to Europe. Migration was no longer a phenomenon that had to be managed but a crisis that needed to be solved. Political discourse in Europe at the time made it seem as if there was an avalanche of migrants coming from Africa. It highlighted population growth and presented this movement as an unstoppable invasion.

Within this context of paranoia European leaders called the Valletta Summit in late 2015. The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa was born there, as were other measures designed to enrol departure and transit countries into the effort to counter this perceived crisis. This was set up a bit like a political framework for cooperation with these countries, but in fact it was an EU migration agenda that was imposed on African states. It took little account of African interests and was designed to externalise the EU migration agenda.

The focus on migration has reshaped development work in Africa. Migration is no longer part of development programming but a centrepiece. For example, traditional development programmes like income creation or rural development – some of which have been implemented for a long time – must now have a migration component because that’s how you get funding.

Take a job creation programme in a rural area. In order to get it funded, we will argue that it addresses the root causes of migration by creating jobs. This will reduce the rate of immigration. But it’s well known that such programmes, for a variety of reasons, usually encourage migration rather than discourage it. The justification no longer holds water even though such programmes remain core to development work. It’s just one example of how European phobia is diverting development aid in service of this EU migration agenda.

For the same reasons NGOs that never used to have anything to do with this have suddenly started speaking in the language of migration.

Should the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa be considered a development programme?

The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa is more balanced on paper than in practice. On paper it combines elements of development, managing legal and safe migration, and addressing root causes with elements to reduce irregular migration. But in practice it’s bent towards migration governance, migration management, reducing irregular migration, and reducing migrant smuggling.

It’s also not new money. The trust fund’s money all comes out of the European development fund, so it was already allocated to development. It has now simply been relabelled as a trust fund for addressing the root causes of migration. One can be pragmatic about that and say, ‘if it leads to properly designed, effective, and well-functioning development projects then who cares how it is labelled’. But for me this is problematic. The issue is that money will increasingly go towards countries of relevance from a migration point of view, yet important countries of origin or transit are not always where development is most needed. For example, the development money that used to go to low-income countries like Malawi now goes to middle-income countries like Tunisia. This is because the former is not as important from a migration point of view as the latter. That’s a big issue.

Is the EU’s focus on migration at least leading to effective programming?

The answer to this will depend on how one defines effectiveness. As my colleague Idel Hanley has put it, these programmes frame migration – rather than the causes of forced displacement, the loss of life or human rights violations – as the ‘problem’ to be addressed. Any assessment of effectiveness is therefore starting from the wrong premise.

The EU’s primary goal is to stop people from coming in, and the main way it does that is through its relationship with Libya, Turkey, and other places. A few things are worth noting here. First, these agreements have themselves been in violation of international law including the principle of non-refoulment. Second, they’ve made Europe vulnerable to ‘threats’ by regimes in these states.  

There’s also the European Union Emergency Trust Funds, which, cynically, pays other countries to stop people from departing to Europe. It doesn’t really matter if a country does that by improving economic prospects and thereby reducing the need for people to leave, or by closing their border. To an extent it is up to them, as long as it results in people not coming to Europe. There is a significant focus within the funded programmes on measures to stop onward migration towards Europe.

I find this problematic. We're not necessarily funding what we think a country needs to sustainably enhance the livelihoods of its nationals, but rather what we think they need to do to stop people from leaving. In some cases these two overlap – if you have better employment prospects in countries that are relatively safe, then migration might also reduce (although this is not a linear relationship). In other areas, like border management, these factors obviously don't relate. It often feels as if the EU has gone in two seemingly opposite directions at the same time. One seeks to deal with the root causes of migration while the other tries to stop people arriving now. I think initiatives that help make countries of origin safe and developed are critically important. However, they must focus on issues of under-development, insecurity and conflict rather than curbing migration as their main goal. Of course, this is not something that will be done within a few years. In the meantime, Europe (and other regions) must abide by their obligations including non-refoulment and the right to asylum.

Some of the measures that have been implemented do not, in my view, reflect the reality of the situation. Take awareness campaigns. There was a large one in Niger recently about the dangers of crossing the Mediterranean by boat. But do we really think that anyone believes this is safe and that somehow being told it’s unsafe will stop people from wanting to leave? These measures assume a lack of knowledge of risks and ‘willingness’ or agency to migrate, both of which are inaccurate. Other measures, such as the return of people – including, for instance, victims of trafficking from Libya to other states of origin, without adequate access to assessment of protection claims – raise very serious concerns about the EU’s (and its member states’) adherence to their international obligations and their responsibility, albeit indirectly, for violations of human rights. 

The programming that has been taking place is about externalising migration control. This has implications in terms of framing it as an ‘over there problem’ and in terms of shifting responsibility (although not absolving EU member states completely) to other countries. This is the wrong priority and the wrong frame of mind if we want effective humanitarian and development programming.

Moreover, programming that takes ‘migration’ as the problem rather than the root causes of displacement (human rights violations, conflict, under-development, climate change) or indeed the loss of lives will result in the wrong things being prioritised. That sort of short-term thinking will never address the real root causes of displacement, just as long-term thinking will never create instant results. Addressing root causes will not reduce arrivals now. Maybe in ten or fifteen years, but not now. That is where the contradiction lies. To have any sort of lasting results we need to think about long-term development solutions. But because that won’t have an immediate effect, many politicians prioritise blocking people from coming in instead (not least in response to short term political / vote-related priorities.  

On this question, another issue that is worth mentioning is the way programmes and projects are monitored and evaluated. Adherence to and promotion of human rights standards ought to be included in the measurement of success of programmes and projects in this field.  

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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