Treating migration as a security threat won’t make it go away

Migration,Peace & Security21 Dec 2016Mark Furness

Treating migration as a security problem that can be defended against will fail. One thing that everyone should have learnt from the recent migration crisis is that people will risk everything for a better life for themselves and their families, especially when they are fleeing war. Refusal to accept this fact will have terrible consequences for relations between Europeans and Africans, and for people who attempt the dangerous journey though the Sahel and North Africa, across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Europe needs a long-term migration strategy, but policymakers are preoccupied with short-term initiatives, which will cause more problems than they solve.

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In November 2015, the EU launched its ‘Emergency Trust Fund for Stability and Addressing Root Causes of Irregular Migration and Displaced Persons in Africa’ (EUTF) at the Valetta Summit on Migration. It is no coincidence that the fund has been set up at a time when irregular migration from Africa to Europe is increasingly being framed as a security threat by the EU and its member states. Despite official efforts to portray the trust fund as an instrument for addressing the development-related ‘root causes’ of migration, its use of development aid and its focus on ‘migration management’ represent a clear case of the securitization of both development and migration policy, which will end up serving neither.

Furthermore, from a development point of view, measures that target economic growth in Africa in order to provide people with an alternative to migrating are likely to backfire in the short term. There is evidence that poverty reduction actually drives higher levels of migration as people acquire the means to pay for their journey. This does not mean that the focus of development aid should not be poverty reduction, but it is clear that subordinating development cooperation to preventing migration and making aid conditional on measures such as readmission agreements are counterproductive.

Whither the EU’s migration trust fund

The EUTF is scheduled to run from 2015 to 2020, and longer if needed. It finances activities in three sub-regions: North Africa, the Sahel and Lake Chad area, and the Horn of Africa. The total fund currently stands at nearly EUR 2 billion, with an extra EUR 500 million to be channelled through the fund to finance five African migration compact countries, Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Niger and Ethiopia. Of this, around 1.4 billion has been allocated from the European Development Fund, another 400 million from EU budget instruments, and around 200 million from the EU member states and other partners.

The EUTF is based on the premise that irregular migration can be prevented by providing African governments with targeted development aid and technical support for controlling migration. Its aims are defined broadly as: to improve stability and development in Africa, to foster a more inclusive political and economic environment, and to create employment opportunities for local populations. These are, of course, unrealistic expectations for a trust fund, which will never be able to achieve what several decades of development cooperation have not managed to do. Furthermore, the notion that the fund’s core objective – addressing the complex socio-economic and political ‘root causes’ of migration – can be addressed through a short-term instrument is fundamentally flawed. African leaders were quick to point out that this level of funding will not be sufficient to address migration across the whole of Africa, especially without accompanying measures to reform the governance of how people, goods and capital cross borders.

Recent research by the German Development Institute also found that the fund represents a problematic trend in EU development policy, as it diverts aid away from long-term programmes towards migration management, ignoring long-established aid effectiveness principles. The EUTF allocates funds based on levels of cooperation on migration, rather than on development needs, and does not emphasize ownership by the recipient country or a partnership between the donor and recipient. So far, project selection has been based on lobbying for funding by implementing agencies, rather than on the best fit with the fund’s objectives.

In its current form, the fund resembles a political gesture to buy African cooperation to control migration, in the same way that the EU purchased Turkish cooperation to control Syrian refugees. This kind of cooperation with authoritarian governments in North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel makes Europe vulnerable to blackmail. Such cooperation is also highly problematic from a human rights perspective. Proposed detention centres in Sudan and the return of migrants to Eritrea have been criticized by human rights groups.

Europe and Africa need a comprehensive migration policy framework

The scale of the migration phenomenon that faces Europe and Africa is already massive and will increase in the next decades. According to the UN, Africa’s population is likely to double from around 1.2 billion currently to 2.5 billion by 2050. The EU’s population is predicted to stay roughly as it is, at around 500 million. The growth in the working age population in Africa creates enormous political, cultural and economic challenges, which cannot be ignored and have to be faced up to. It also represents a massive opportunity for both Africa and Europe.

Europe needs a comprehensive migration policy framework based on long-term planning and an honest assessment of the complex realities of the migration phenomenon. This would include a global migration accord that opens up more legal avenues for migrants, labour laws that protect migrants from exploitation and European workers from being undercut, trade policies that promote African development rather than European business, development aid conditional on transparent and accountable governance in Africa, and security measures that are functional and meet international human rights standards.

All of this will be very expensive, not to mention highly sensitive in the current European political climate. Efforts to achieve a comprehensive migration policy framework will spark controversial public debate, and intense late night negotiations will be needed. Nevertheless, the EU and Africa need to start working on it now. Migration is not a threat to be contained, but a phenomenon that cannot be stopped with walls, camps and surveillance. In the absence of a broader policy framework that aims to harness migration for good, the EUTF will be a waste of EUR 2.5 billion – funds that should be spent on sustainable development.