The EU’s migration policy in Africa: five ways forward

The European Union is not helpless in the face of migration flows from sub-Saharan Africa. Here is how it can act.

After the closure of the Balkans route, the ‘new/old frontier’ of the European Union’s migration policy is the Africa and central Mediterranean route that passes through Libya. Europe faces a longstanding challenge here. The question concerns how to manage flows which: have consistently been above 150,000 per year in the last three years; are mostly composed of migrants rather than refugees; stem from dozens of countries of origin; and have no prospect of winding down in the coming decade given the absence of a vigorous, coordinated European policy.

The EU is not completely unprepared for this, and several policies have been implemented in the year since the Valletta summit in November 2015. Ultimately, while a lot has been done in the last 12 months, the main goal and the main rationale supported by the vast majority of EU member states is to contain the flows to Europe by funding countries of origin and transit so that migrants stop there rather than cross the Mediterranean. But the EU and its member states need to be more ambitious in their goals by managing flows and stimulating growth and mobility beyond the typical development aid approach. This memo aims to explore what has been done so far while also proposing new policies which the EU should adopt.

Migration policy post-Valletta

At Valletta, the EU and representatives of numerous African governments gathered to shape a new migration policy with the aim of stemming a global crisis that was escalating in the Mediterranean Sea and on the Balkan route into central Europe. The main outcome of the meeting was the launch of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, whose stated target is the eradication of the root causes of migration, alongside measures on remittances and the promotion of voluntary returns to the countries of origin. Since then, the EU has been working on agreeing Migration Partnerships with countries of origin and transit. These are due to be discussed in the forthcoming European Council, while a follow-up Valletta summit senior officials meeting is set to take place in Malta in March. Malta itself will hold the EU’s rotating presidency and Mediterranean migration will be top of the Maltese government’s agenda.

Europe’s new Migration Partnerships

The last 12 months have seen a flourishing of new initiatives, starting with the EU Trust Fund, which focuses on three specific geographical areas: Sahel and Lake Chad region, Horn of Africa, and northern Africa. Other economic measures have been established with the European External Investment Plan, in order to fight the root causes of migration in countries of origin and transit on the African continent. Along with these economic initiatives, the EU has launched new Migration Partnerships with some priority countries identified by a Commission report in October, including Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Niger and Ethiopia.

These agreements are defined as ‘partnerships’ rather than as comprehensive deals because there is no single document but a series of provisions and exchanges between the European side and the African side. One goal is to decouple readmission agreements and legal migration to Europe so that the domestic problems connected with the two issues do not block each other: ‘readmission agreements’ is legal jargon for forced returns. These are, of course, not very popular in the countries of origin. On the other hand, broadening legal migration to Europe, even for just a few thousand people in each EU member state, can be highly problematic given the increasing popularity of anti-migration parties. Yet both elements are needed: any regulation on migration is not credible without a system of forced returns, but the system as a whole is dysfunctional if it does not provide credible legal routes to the EU.

Walls are more effective when there are gates through them, otherwise too many people resort to illegal means.

Ultimately, walls are more effective when there are gates through them, otherwise too many people resort to illegal means. Usually, the EU offers visa liberalisation in exchange for illegal migration containment, as this year’s EU-Turkey deal demonstrated. But visa liberalisation is not an option with sub-Saharan Africa for political as well as practical reasons. Many of these countries do not have the same kind of travel documents or credible civil registries that would allow for some degree of freedom of circulation with Europe. This is why part of the Migration Partnerships includes projects to upgrade civil registries, create ID missions to identify migrants so that they can be returned to their home countries, or efforts to create similar travel documents for parts of Africa that have freedom of movement, like the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS).

Some African countries have demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with Europe on migration issues, for two reasons. Firstly, the connection between migration and security is important for them as well as for the EU. Controlling the borders and who enters the country is particularly important in the light of the spread of jihadist ‘foreign fighters’. Secondly, in private contacts with European officials, some African countries with large diasporas in Europe have shown understanding of the relationship between containing the flows of migrants, helping to tame the wave of anti-migrant populism and thus protecting their diasporas from racism and discrimination.

Has Europe changed its funding priorities?

Alongside the establishment of bilateral Migration Partnerships, the main focus of the EU has been to eradicate the root causes of migration in Africa, as indicated in the first point of the Action Plan agreed at Valletta. The Trust Fund was one of the main announcements on the European side in Valletta. It is up to individual projects financed by the fund to identify concrete outcomes to achieve, acting on creating jobs and economic opportunities, strengthening internal resilience, migration management, and improved governance.

The geographical distribution of resources reveals the rationale of the fund, whose strategy reflects a more pragmatic approach, similar to Migration Partnerships focusing on key origin and transit countries, despite other negative points (political instability or overlapping with previous European cooperation initiatives). It is not too astonishing, therefore, that the first beneficiaries have been the priority countries recently indicated by the European Commission: the main recipient is Niger, the archetypal transit country and the only state receiving more than €100 million in allocated projects for 2016. It is followed by Ethiopia (€97 million) and Mali (€91.5 million). Despite problems there, Addis Ababa remains one of the most important EU partners in Africa, as shown by the size of its projects: it receives 26 percent of funds available in the Horn of Africa region with only three projects agreed on in 2016. Another example is Mali, which is both a country of origin and transit: like Niger, it is crossed by important migratory routes towards the Mediterranean. At the same time remittances account for 6.8 percent of its GDP, demonstrating the importance to the local economy of Malian migrants to Europe. Other recipients are concentrated in the Sahel and Lake Chad region (Senegal, Chad and Burkina Faso). Nigeria, one of the first priority countries identified by the Commission and partner of the EU in a bilateral compact, receives just €36 million.

A brief comparison of the distribution of allocated funding with the provisions of the 11th European Development Fund, the most significant European source of money for many African countries in 2014-2020, show Niger, Ethiopia and Mali, the first three recipients of the EU Trust Fund, appear among the leading five beneficiaries of the 11th EDF: Ethiopia receives €745 million, Mali €615 million, and Niger €596 million. The EU had already identified these countries as top priorities for the coming years: the migration crisis has just accentuated this trend.

What else can Europe do?

The risk, despite good intentions, is that the current conditionality, based simply on the exchange between money and keeping flows as close to zero as possible, risks creating the circumstances for violations of the human rights of migrants and refoulement (the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they are could be subjected to persecution).

To this end, the EU can work on the following five baskets of recommendations:

Increase intra-African mobility and support local absorption capacity

Migration in Africa mostly takes place inside the continent: in west Africa, 84 percent of movements are intra-regional. If these flows, which are mostly legal in western Africa, increased only in small fractions this would mean that a smaller percentage would come to Europe. An integrated EU migration policy should deepen the economic support to free circulation, particularly in the ECOWAS region where freedom of movement is already a reality.

Supporting regional free circulation in west Africa would reduce migratory pressure towards the EU.

ECOWAS adopted a Common Approach on Migration in 2008, which declares free regional circulation as a priority. Helping ECOWAS apply this non-binding agreement would realise an EU priority: supporting regional free circulation in order to reduce the migratory pressure towards the EU. This policy would adhere to the new EU Global Strategy, which dictates support for regionalism “where possible and when in line with our interests”. At the same time, one goal of European policy should be to increase some north African countries’ capacity for absorbing migrants. Libya, even in the post-Gaddafi chaos, has taken in almost two million African migrants. Relatively small improvements in governance and security can do a large amount to increase this capacity.

Work towards processing asylum requests in third countries

The European Commission has pushed for the introduction of European migration liaison officers located in various African countries. While their main goal is to coordinate European actions with host countries, some EU member states, including Italy, agreed to scale up direct processing of asylum requests in third countries. To achieve this, liaison officers could form the basis for a future stronger presence on the ground. To guarantee an approach as broad as possible, liaison officers should not be established only in top priority countries identified thus far, considering that, especially in west Africa, almost all states can be considered either origin or transit countries.

Allow for some legal circular migration to Europe

This is the politically hardest sell in the EU right now, but it is nonetheless a crucial component of a realistic and sustainable migration management system. At the moment, the only two real ways in which an African can come to Europe are if they are recognised as a refugee or through a student exchange or high-skilled workers programme which, at most, involves a few thousand Africans. Circular migration would allow for a higher number of Africans to come temporarily to Europe, send remittances back home and then go back without creating a permanent strain on public services – a key concern of many EU citizens. This would also ultimately mean drawing a large number of ‘clients’ away from the people smugglers.

Use remittances to promote development

Worldwide, remittances from migrants are several times bigger than any ‘Marshall plan’ that budget-stretched and politically constrained western countries would be able to put in place for Africa. The Valletta summit Action Plan included measures to reduce commissions on remittances from money transfers, which is a good policy. But the biggest goal should be to mobilise this vast sum of money so that it becomes a real multiplier of wealth. One idea would be to allow migrants to use financial products created through their remittances as collateral to ask for loans in their home countries and therefore start or support a local business. The Italian Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (a government-owned fund) is already working on this. Can this experiment be extended further?

Support voluntary rather than forced returns

Forced returns are naturally part of any set of migration regulations, otherwise there is no punishment for those who violate those regulations. Nevertheless, they are never a panacea. Voluntary returns are much more realistic, as they are based on the willingness of the migrant and offer them protection and financial support to go back home. The EU is funding the International Organisation for Migration in this area. If the programme works it should be extended, increasing the capacity to “extract” migrants from dangerous situations.


Mattia Toaldo is a Senior Policy Fellow on the European Council on Foreign Relations Middle East & North Africa programme

Luca Barana is a pan-European Compagnia di San Paolo Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Senior Policy Fellow

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