Migration policy of ECOWAS: Open borders: an ambitious vision

Free movement and free trade within the region form the foundation of the West African economic community. But freedom of movement isn’t granted without the documentation of citizens and increased co-operation between police forces.

2015: Heads of state and gouverntments at an ECOWAS meeting in Abuja Foto: imago/Zuma Press

“We need to completely rethink our migration policy: a paradigm shift is required,“ explains Tony Elumelu, head of migration at ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. Europe needs to understand that mutual interests are what unites the European and African continents, he says. Demand for workers there, an oversupply of labour here, as well as opportunities for investors willing to take risk. Europe is also awash with capital looking for an investment opportunity, he summarises.

Elumelu’s focus is the link between migration and development. Many West African families are reliant upon foreign remittances. In some member states, this inflow of money can account for up to 20 percent of GDP. In West Africa, many countries are seeing an exodus of qualified professionals. However, these individuals rarely have the qualifications required on the European job market or the skills needed to expand industrial production in West Africa. “By 2050 roughly 600 million people will be living in the ECOWAS region, the majority of them young adults. If you keep people inside a cage for too long, they will reach a point where they can no longer tolerate it,“ explains the ECOWAS migration specialist.

Today the region has approx. 8.4 million economic migrants. That equates to roughly 2.8 percent of the entire population. Most have migrated within the region, but some have headed for North Africa or Europe. Thanks to measures to improve integration, e.g. the ECOWAS passport, citizens’ right to visa-free movement and a currency union in the Francophone countries of the UEMOA, the West African European and Monetary Union, today many West Africans are able to look for work across borders.

It isn’t by chance that the ECOWAS Directorate for Freedom of Movement and Tourism is located within the Commission for Trade and Transport. As it stands, ECOWAS does not see migration as a security issue or a matter for the police, even though the responsible commission is becoming increasingly involved in the areas of peace and security. This is because in the Sahel Region, the strip of land in the north of West Africa that borders the Sahara, the issue of economic migration is compounded by another element.

The toppling of Colonel Muammar al Gaddafi’s regime in Libya led to a huge influx of returnees and weapons into the region, particularly into Niger, from Libya, which in turn has enabled Islamist groups to gain ground in Mali and Nigeria. In recent years the role and influence of security forces have changed dramatically. In the 1990s, the Nigerian army was still the proud backbone of West Africa’s peacekeeping force ECOMOG (the ECOWAS Monitoring Group), bringing peace to Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Fast-forward 20 years and the Nigerian army suffered defeat in its own backyard. They stood no chance against militant Islamist group Boko Haram, who are active in northern Nigeria, due to funding for soldiers’ pay and military equipment being siphoned off. This has also meant that ECOWAS has no effective military power with which to combat the mobile, decentralised terror group who are present across an area covering Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon, or to take on the fighters of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali.

One of the aims of free movement, according to the founders of ECOWAS, was to break down the borders drawn by former colonial powers. Peace, of course, remains high on the agenda, but territorial conflicts are no longer the main priority, despite Boko Haram’s desire to establish a caliphate in northeastern Nigeria. Today security issues in the region are focused on cross-border Islamist groups such as Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), as well as cross-border crime such as piracy, drug and people trafficking.

“Border surveillance makes no sense,“ explains Friedrich Birgelen, desk officer for the refugees and migration section of the German embassy in Nigeria. On this issue he is in agreement with ECOWAS. He argues the region is too large and the green borders too long. The EU’s project to improve border administration (Better Border Management), which also involves ECOWAS, is based alongside the German Agency for International Co-operation (GIZ) and the African Union in Addis Ababa. The aim, according to the project’s website, is to survey the land and to demarcate borders, but its remit does not include border control.

Border surveillance is a tough sell in a region that takes pride in having dissolved its borders. ECOWAS became involved in the project through the African Union (AU) and is surveying the borders between Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso. At the same time, a border database is also being created: the African Union Border Information System (AUBIS). For many years this international partnership was less visible at green borders and more present at airports where its main focus was investigating drug trafficking and counterfeit goods, as well as fighting terrorism. People trafficking and smuggling are also two of the many forms of organised crime that international police co-operation is required to tackle. This is where migration policy and combating crime overlap.

In 2001, with its Migration Dialogue for West Africa (MIDWA), ECOWAS was initially focused on internal migration with the aim of boosting regional integration. Five years later, in 2006, European partners saw their expectations regarding the second pillar of the ECOWAS migration policy realised with the Euro-African Dialogue on Migration and Development (otherwise known as the Rabat Process). Now in its third phase, the protocols and agreements are currently focused on data exchange for evidence-based policy-making (Dakar, September 2013), border management (Madrid, November 2013) and migrants in a crisis context (Paris, April 2014). The process uses a two-pronged strategy: 1.) increasing the link between migration and development using a multi-dimensional approach: environmental, economic and social factors through involvement of the diaspora; 2.) preventing irregular migration: border security and expulsion as well as voluntary return.

The third pillar of the ECOWAS migration policy is the Migration, Mobility and Employment Partnership (MME) which promotes co-operation between West African nations and EU member states. A further regional forum is the Mediterranean Transit Migration Dialogue (MTM). Since 2002, six countries have participated: Cape Verde, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.

There have been plenty of agreements and there is clearly no lack of political will. “The process really picked up pace with the summit in Valletta,“ explains Eleni Zerzelidou, Project Officer for Migration and Drugs Operations at the Delegation of the EU in Abuja. Ever since the summit that was held in the Maltese capital, ambassadors and aid organisations have been meeting at the EU Delegation, the EU’s diplomatic mission in Nigeria, to discuss further arrangements. Their objective is to put the Common Agenda on Migration and Mobility (CAMM, signed in 2015) into action. “Never before have I seen so much desire to move a project forward and to commit to achieving our goals,“ says Zerzelidou.

Alongside an array of development projects, which, since the Valletta Summit, have been financed by the Trust Fund for Africa, West African border control has mainly been focused on combating drug trafficking and cross-border crime.

One such example is the United Nations Organisation on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) which began in 1997 with small-scale awareness and information campaigns designed to combat the international drug trade. When West Africa became a hotspot for drug trafficking in 2004, the organisation added the region to its list of active areas, which included Latin America and Asia. The UNODC passed an additional protocol on people trafficking back in 2000. In Senegal the United Nations agency focuses specifically on the Sahel zone and the Lake Chad region, where crime and terrorism go hand in hand.

The UNODC has no involvement with equipment or technology, their representative, Cristina Albertin, confirms. Their staff are tasked solely with training and raising awareness among police officers and border guards, she explains. The projects are fully funded by the EU, but carried out in Nigeria in close co-operation with the paramilitary law enforcement agency, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP). The UNODC’s Better Border Management project (not to be confused with the GIZ’s project of the same name) is essentially an initiative to combat people trafficking, the UNODC representative explains. This project is also funded by the Delegation of the EU.

ECOWAS, for its part, delegates the implementation of its projects to the IOM, the International Organisation for Migration, which holds observer status at the United Nations and supports migrants and refugees worldwide. In order to reflect the values of the Rome Declaration and the Rabat Process, a new structure was launched in 2015: FMM West Africa (FMM stands for Free Movement and Mobility). The project deals with the collection of data from migrants, border management, economic migration and the fight against people trafficking in West Africa. The project is joint funded by ECOWAS and the EU, implemented by the IOM and is taking place in partnership with the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD).

Headquartered in Vienna, the ICMPD is also an implementation partner for the Rome Declaration, which stipulates how the Rabat Process is to be put in place. Also involved is the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The FMM is now the body responsible for developing strategies and basic principles, planning how the joint border surveillance programme will be designed, how the uniform ECOWAS visa can be introduced based on the Schengen visa system, and how joint border controls might work. Training courses on how to collect data on migrants’ movements or on the rights and responsibilities of economic migrants will also be organised. FMM West Africa will also ultimately become the institution that will implement the ECOWAS Plan of Action to Combat Human Trafficking.

High on the priority list for the Directorate for Free Movement are biometric passports and the ECOWAS visa. The ECOWAS Agenda 2063 promises to deliver border-free travel to the citizens of the region as well as a common currency. The ECOWAS passport already exists and there are plans to expand the currency currently in use in the Francophone countries to English-speaking member states. Senegal and Benin introduced the new ECOWAS identity cards in 2016. Ten million Senegalese already have one and biometric data was collected for each holder. Tony Elumelu, ECOWAS migration specialist, is certain that this will guarantee straightforward travel for all citizens in the region and, above all, safe travel. This is because digital ID cards would allow criminals to be stopped at the border and their movements could be more easily traced. In order to do this, ECOWAS wants to collect data for all citizens and to digitalise co-operation processes between police forces.

The West African Police Information System (WAPIS) is a partnership between the European Union and Interpol. In 2014 an office was set up at the ECOWAS headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. Originally financed by EU development aid funding, in 2016 it appeared on the project list of the Trust Fund for Africa with a budget of €5 million. The list also features the Rapid Action Groups – Monitoring and Intervention in the Sahel (GAR-SI SAHEL) with a budget of €41.6 million. This police unit was set up by the Spanish Civil Guard with the aim of creating an integrated solution for territorial surveillance, migration management, cracking down on people smugglers and the improved identification of individuals whilst simultaneously promoting their return and reintegration. A pilot project for the Rapid Action Groups is currently taking place in the G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad) as well as in Senegal.

The G5 Sahel states originally came together with the aim of fighting Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Based in Mauritania, the G5 Sahel will receive an additional €7 million to build the Sahel Security College (CSS) which will be set up in Mali within the Peacekeeping School in Bamako. Implementation will be carried out by the G5 Sahel, ECOWAS, the Lake Chad Basin Commission, UEMOA (West Africa Economic and Currency Union) and the AU (African Union). This security college will not only teach border management but the observance of human rights and international standards as well.

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