European migration policy in Africa: Moving Europe’s borders to Africa

Europe wants to “fight the root causes of migration“ by providing more aid to Africa. A cynical game: they are effectively paying for people to be detained.

Ein Mann zwischen Decken, die Hände vor dem Gesicht

A refugee rescued in the Mediteranean: the individual fate is of no interest to the EU Foto: dpa

Between 2010 and 2015, over 700,000 African asylum seekers entered EU countries. Every year the numbers are increasing rapidly. Over the same period, this figure has risen by 260 percent. In its most recent report on migration flows to Europe, the International Organization for Migration wrote that in 2016 “ the number of migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan is decreased and the number of migrants from Africa […] increased“.

The population of Africa is set to more than double by 2050. Germany’s Development Minister, Christian democrat Gerd Müller, recently stated that migration from Africa could “increase dramatically“.

At this week's EU summit, migration from the African continent was top of the agenda. The EU wants to avoid another refugee crisis, such as the one witnessed in 2015, at all costs, not least for the sake of the union’s future and to counter pressure from right-wing populists. A repeat of 2015 “cannot, should not and must not“ be allowed to happen, Merkel stated recently at the conference of her Christian Democratic Union party.

When it comes to setting a new EU-Africa agenda, Germany is leading the charge. This past October, Merkel returned to Africa for the first time since 2011. Her trip was then followed by a stream of African heads of states and delegations visiting Berlin. A similar scene played out in Brussels. Not even the Ebola crisis generated this much interest in the African continent. On 1 December, Germany assumed presidency of the G20 group, declaring that one of the pillars of the federal government’s programme would be: ‚Accepting responsibility – especially for Africa’.

The EU launched its new approach to EU-Africa relations at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. On 11 and 12 November 2015, the EU invited the African Union (AU) to attend a migration summit in Valletta on the Mediterranean island of Malta. There member states set up a €1.8-billion ‘EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa’. The Valletta Action Plan states that the aim of this fund is to address “the root causes of destabilisation, forced displacement and irregular migration“ by boosting economic growth and development in Africa.

Misleading funds

In Valletta, Africa’s governments pledged to undertake joint efforts “to fight against irregular migration“. However, they rightly saw the billion-euro trust fund as misleading: the lion’s share had long been earmarked for development spending within the EU budget. And African leaders weren’t too eager to comply with all of the EU’s wishes. Remittances sent back to Africa by migrants in Europe are too crucial and deportations unpopular among the electorate at home.

As such, very little happened initially. But six months later, the EU began to tighten the screws on their African 'partners’. “All policies and instruments at the EU’s disposal,“ the EU Commission stated in a paper published on 7 June 2016, should be used “to achieve concrete results“ in “managing migration“.

Vor „dramatischer“ Migration aus Afrika warnt die deutsche Regierung, von einem „Marshallplan“ ist die Rede. Doch die Milliardensummen, die Europa in Afrika ausgeben will, dienen nicht nur dem Kampf gegen Armut. Erklärtes Ziel der neuen EU-Afrikapolitik ist es, Flüchtlinge und Migranten schon tief im Innern des Kontintents aufzuhalten. Die taz berichtet seit Mitte November in einem Rechercheschwerpunkt darüber, zu finden unter

Die Recherche wurde gefördert von Fleiß und Mut e. V. (cja)

On the same day, social democrat EU Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, a Dutch politician, told the EU Parliament that the new Africa policy would be a “mix of positive and negative incentives“. Third countries that “effectively“ worked together with the EU would be “rewarded“; there would be “consequences“ for those that didn’t, i.e. the carrot and stick approach. For those who participated, the EU promised a total sum of €8 billion by the end of the decade. Their goal: “to bring order to migration flows“.

Negative incentives

The EU's approach is twofold: firstly, decrease the number of migrants arriving on the continent, and, secondly, subject those who do make it to faster deportation. When the new policy was formally adopted on 28 June, the European Council demanded “specific and measurable results in terms of fast […] returns of irregular migrants“, a request it reiterated on 21 October. If African partners did not deliver “concrete results […] in managing migration better“, they would be ready to adapt “engagement and financial aid“.

Those who don’t produce the desired outcomes are set to lose not only aid payments but access to markets. The policy is referred to as creating and applying “the necessary leverage, by using all relevant EU policies, instruments and tools, including development and trade“.

One such instrument is the mobilisation of private investment. The EU plans to set aside €3 billion from its development budget, a sum member states are expected to match. This fund should enable European businesses to invest an additional (and rather spectacular) €62 billion in Africa by 2020 – at least in the countries that agree to help boost border security. Back in June, Timmermans called it an “ambitious External Investment Plan [for third countries] to help create opportunities and tackle the root causes of migration“. This investment should help create jobs and keep people in Africa.

„These are development funds that are now being re-diverted to promote business,“ criticises Inge Brees from NGO CARE in Brussels. She says that the EU does not check whether these projects actually aid development or whether employees and human rights are respected. Most importantly, however, this aid is concentrated in countries that are key for migration control – and absent in nations that aren’t. “This money didn’t just appear out of nowhere,“ says Brees. “Otherwise they would have made funds available to tackle other crises.“

EU-Turkey deal: the new model

The same is true of the Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), which has since grown to €2.5 billion. This pot is also mainly composed of EU development budget funds yet to be earmarked for spending. Now the Council plans to top it up.

Money in exchange for stopping refugees: this is the new policy approach embodied by a billion-euro deal between the EU and Turkey. Brussels not only seems happy to turn a blind eye to the fact that the majority of Africans that migrate to Europe are fleeing regimes at home – it even goes one step further: the EU not only offers support to democratic governments but to dictatorships as well, all with the aim of stopping the streams of refugees.

Taz calculates that between 2000 and 2015 the EU and its member states paid at least €1.913 billion to African countries to stop refugees. This doesn’t include Berlusconi and Gaddafi’s 2008 refugee deal whereby Italy promised Libya €5 billion (even though only €250 million of this actually swapped hands).

The actual sum is, in all likelihood, much higher: relevant agreements almost never explicitly state that their aim is to prevent refugees. Most of the time, a familiar pattern can be observed. Take the example of Spain and Mali: in January 2007 Spain’s King Juan Carlos invited the president of Mali Amadou Toumani Touré to lunch. Until that point, Spain had more or less paid little attention to the Sahel state. But as more and more West Africans began entering Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s African enclaves, as well as the Canary Islands, via Mali, Touré agreed to sign two agreements, which he did at the meeting’s close. The first promised Mali €103 million in development aid by the end of 2011. In the second, Touré pledged to “effectively co-operate“ to manage the country’s borders – and promised not to hamper Spain’s attempts to deport Malians.

Harmonised blackmail across the EU

That was how Spain’s government bought half of West Africa. And it was a strategy that worked: in the years that followed, hardly any African refugees managed to reach the Canary Islands. Other countries tried to follow their lead. In 2007 the Netherlands cut roughly €10 million of development aid for Ghana because the country’s government refused to readmit deportees.

These were just one-off actions. Then, in 2010, the EU founded its External Action Service (EEAS) creating countless Delegations, even in the isolated dictatorship of Eritrea, the country that produces the highest number of African refugees in Europe. The EU’s assured foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who hails from the country most affected by African migration, Italy, wants the EU to set out foreign policy as if it were a single state. Migration control is one of her key objectives.

For months, the EU has been engaged in intense negotiations on 'compacts’ – bespoke deals with individual countries. So far compacts have been arranged with Lebanon and Jordan along with five “priority states“ in Africa: Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Niger and Ethiopia. Exactly what these frameworks entail is unclear. On 11 December it was reported that Dutch Foreign Secretary Bert Koenders had signed a readmission agreement for rejected asylum seekers from Mali with his Malian counterpart Abdoulaye Diop on behalf of the EU. Mali would thus become the first state on the African mainland to agree to such a deal with the European Union (previously the only other African state to sign a similar agreement was Cape Verde).

Mali’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Abdoulaye Diop, quickly denied the claim, stating that no readmission agreement had been signed and that any reports to that effect were “lies“. He claimed the agreement only concerned nine projects (totalling €145 million) that had been agreed for Mali as part of a migration dialogue with the EU set to continue the following September. Back in February, in a strategy paper marked 'confidential’, the EU’s External Action Service noted that the Malian Government was “against readmission agreements“.

Negotiations at a price

Discussions concerning further agreements are currently ongoing with Nigeria and Tunisia, as well as Ethiopia, Niger and Senegal. Whether additional countries will be added to the list and under what conditions remains to be seen. According to an internal paper written by the German government in the run-up to this week’s EU summit, which taz has been able to obtain, the EU’s External Action Service is of the opinion that “in any case, the acquisition of further countries as partners must be accompanied by the provision of additional funds“. However, it seems Berlin remains sceptical. The government feels an approach that involves linking assistance with money in this way is “too general“; instead, it would be wise not to “put a price on negotiations with third countries“ before they begin.

What matters first and foremost is what the EU wants to get out of these African nations. In a strategy paper concerning Ethiopia released in March 2016, the EU demanded that the government in Addis Ababa reduce “secondary movement from refugee camps in Ethiopia towards Europe“. In a paper released by the Commission in February 2016, Nigeria, a hub for passport counterfeiters, was instructed to take more comprehensive action against smugglers and document forgers as well as to speed up the introduction of biometric ID cards, which until that point had been sluggish.

When Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari visited Berlin in October 2016, Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that “anyone who has not been granted the right to remain in Germany – this affects 92 percent of arrivals in this country from Nigeria – will have to return.“

Deportations are always the most pressing issue. As far as Europe is concerned, they don’t happen often enough. In 2014, 470,000 people were issued with an order to leave the EU, but, over the same period, a mere 169,000 were deported. More recent figures are not available.

Bypassing parliament

What is the reason for this substantial gap? The answer: most individuals don’t hold passports. A lack of documentation is “still the most significant issue in quantitative terms“ with regard to deportations. That was the evaluation of the German federal/state working group on expulsion. In such cases, immigration authorities have to establish the individual’s nationality and obtain a passport from the relevant embassy, but the embassies often don’t comply.

Previous bilateral readmission agreements signed with some African countries have done little to resolve the issue. These new deals are set to change the situation. In order to avoid the European Parliament, which tends to be sensitive to human rights issues, slowing processes down, the EU prefers to pursue informal agreements which do not require parliamentary approval.

Of the 60 agreements regarding deportation that Germany, the UK, Italy, France and Spain have signed with African countries, only eight are formal readmission agreements. The rest comprise opaque arrangements, usually between national police authorities, such as Italy’s memoranda with Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Niger that have not even been disclosed to the nation’s own parliament.

The EU aims to include a strategic weapon in its fight to boost deportations as part of compact negotiations: the ‘laissez-passer’. These permits are travel documents that are valid for a single deportation. The trick? The passport isn’t issued by the suspected country of origin but by the EU state that wishes to deport the individual in question. The EU first ‚recommended’ the laissez-passer in 1994, but until now hardly any African nation has agreed to acknowledge them. The Commission now hopes to change their minds. It is demanding that African states agree to allow the EU to designate individuals’ nationalities and thus to surrender some of their national sovereignty.

This carries its own risks for partners that agree to such terms. Refugees in Europe whose applications have been rejected could easily find themselves being declared citizens of a country that accepts laissez-passers, irrespective of where they actually come from. At the end of October, the European Parliament adopted a regulation which enables the mandatory introduction of laissez-passers. It will enter into force on 8 April 2017.

Keep borders open but with more controls

This means the question of who belongs where is now tinged with controversy. Throughout large parts of Africa, it has until now been relatively easy for citizens to travel between neighbouring states. ‘African integration’ is a stated aim of all African governments and regional organisations. Officially, the EU also supports this objective. But its policies are having the exact opposite effect. Now an ever-tighter web of control mechanisms is being created that is gradually restricting freedom of movement on the continent.

The EU Commission states that it has absolutely no intention of closing Africa’s internal borders; it simply wants them to be better policed, adding that those who can provide identification will be allowed through. But this is only half of the story.

There is a key trans-Sahara route that crosses the north east of Mali. West Africans can move freely across the border to Niger. But Niger’s police situated at the Yassan border post have recently been turning away an increasing number of travellers. “This affects citizens of Mali and, to a much greater extent, individuals from other West African countries,“ says Éric Alain Kamden, who has been working on the ground for NGO Caritas since 2009. For those from countries such as Ghana, Sierra Leone or the Ivory Coast, it is assumed that Europe is their ultimate destination. According to an inspector in Yassan, guards are instructed not to grant these individuals passage. There are reports of similar practices along other borders in the region. Thus traditional migration routes in West Africa, which are crucial to the region, are being restricted.

Trying not to give the wrong impression

So what might a well-designed migration corridor from West Africa to Europe look like? In 2008 the former EU development commissioner Louis Michel tried to implement a plan to create the ideal migration set-up. He opened an EU job centre in Mali’s capital, Bamako. There Malians in search of work were able to apply directly for job openings in Europe. If they were successful, a visa would be granted. The project was a spectacular failure. The EU itself is not allowed to issue work visas – and member states had no desire to.

The situation remains unchanged to this day. Even though all the papers published on the new Africa partnership speak of “creating legal routes“, the 'compacts’ contain little to no mention of them. The drafts once included references to “more places for students, researchers and lecturers“ in “Erasmus+“ scholarship schemes. This is no longer the case. The European Council wants to avoid anything that may give the impression that countries want more migration. Anyone wishing to work in Europe must now almost certainly face the prospect of having to take the perilous journey across the sea and then pretend to be an asylum seeker upon arrival.

If they even get that far, that is. The simplest way to keep refugees and migrants in Africa is to fence them in. According to the Geneva-based Global Detention Project, there are currently 33 migrant detention facilities in Libya, 16 in Morocco, five in Senegal, two in Tunisia and one in Mauritania (the last of which was built by Spain).

Torture and forced labour

According to a report issued jointly by the UN Human Rights Commission and the UN Mission in Libya in mid-December, “severe overcrowding, lack of light and very little ventilation“ are commonplace in many of Libya’s camps. The report also highlighted the frequent lack of sanitation facilities, claiming that diarrhoea and respiratory illnesses were widespread and that there was a lack of water, food and medical care.

“We black-skinned Africans, we are called animals and we are treated as animals,“ a 16-year-old Eritrean boy, who in the summer of 2016 spent six weeks in a windowless metal hangar with around 200 others in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, told UN investigators. Others spoke of torture, forced labour and sexual violence.

Ransom demands are constantly on the rise, Meron Estefanos, Director of the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights, an NGO run by the Eritrean exile community in Sweden, explains. Kidnappers can demand up to $15,000 per person from the individuals’ families. Payments are made by mobile transfer.

This practice of detaining migrants was first used during the period of the Berlusconi/Gaddafi deal. When the Libyan leader was toppled in 2011, militia took over the prisons. According to a UN report, the responsible department at the Libyan interior ministry currently runs 24 detention centres with between 4,000 and 7,000 detainees. The report states that further camps run by other authorities and militia also exist. According to the EU’s estimates, an astonishing seven percent of the over one million migrants and refugees in Libya are being held in camps. This equates to roughly 77,000 people. At present, the EU is trying to ascertain which camps can be upgraded to be in line with EU standards.

The horrors of migrant prison

Egypt, a country that Germany has prioritised as a key EU partner in its new approach to migration, has a stunning 64 migrant jails in operation. At the same time, it is also a partner in the 'Better Migration Management’ project organised by German development agency GiZ (German Agency for International Cooperation). The aim of the project is to advise border police on “applying practices that respect human rights“. Apparently, GiZ is unable to put pressure on Egypt to force the country’s military to close its refugee jails.

However, that didn’t stop GiZ from proudly stating that it had refused a request for military equipment and the construction of detention cells made by Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, a man currently under an international arrest warrant for his involvement in suspected genocide in Sudan’s western Darfur region. Otherwise, the EU seems to have no qualms about co-operating with Bashir. It is contemplating cancelling all of the country’s debt, is willing to lobby the US government to drop Sudan from its terror list and will ask the WTO to consider a fresh round of talks.

Sudan isn’t the only dictatorship the EU has become involved with for the purpose of migration control. Ethiopia, a country where hundreds of people have been killed this past year by forces quashing protests, was promised 110 million euros worth of projects in the first (and recently completed) round of allocations from the EU Trust Fund for Africa.

Eritrea, one of the world’s worst dictatorships, may not be Germany’s development partner like Ethiopia, but it is still able to benefit from the 'Better Migration Management’ Programme. According to GiZ, the training of Eritrean officials may not be allowed in Eritrea, but they are being trained in neighbouring countries. The head of the EU delegation to Eritrea, Christian Manahl, told taz that training may at some point be carried out in Eritrea. The option hadn’t been ruled out.

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