Missing the point on migration: The EU-Africa summit

As the migration crisis in Europe drags on, European governments are facing growing pressure to pick up the pace on finding solutions. To that end, representatives of the European Union and African governments are meeting this week in Malta to discuss migration and economic development issues. But the summit likely won’t address the root causes of the migration crisis, many of which lie on the African continent itself.

[T]he Valletta summit will likely issue bold statements that are broadly beside the point.

Don’t just contain and return

A first challenge has to do with the fact that the Valletta summit will overwhelmingly focus on containing migratory pressures and repatriating migrants who have already made it to Europe. This is a priority that has been slowly creeping up the EU’s political agenda for a number of years. The magnitude of the recent migration crisis, however, has now concentrated minds and pushed European authorities to operationalize their policy proposals. 

Regional Development and Protection Programmes (RDPPs) are one key tool. With a focus on North Africa and the Horn of Africa, they are aimed at offering support and protection to migrants and refugees in their host or transit countries. RDPPs do not, however, foster long-term development opportunities. Even worse, they risk turning temporary local host communities into permanent resettlement centers. 

Another key tool is repatriation. EU member states are keen to make use of this instrument not least to address the rise in xenophobic sentiment across Europe. Sensing the opportunity to gain some political traction with member states, the European Commission has presented an EU Action Plan on Return. A significant part of that plan focuses on containing migrant flows and on repatriations—but that cannot and should not be the core of a comprehensive EU-Africa relationship.

Who’s there and who’s not

A second problem is that only a few countries on both sides of the Mediterranean are really engaging with the migration agenda. On the European side, Italy and France have undertaken important diplomatic initiatives to date and are members of the steering committees of both the Rabat and the Khartoum Processes. These provide a framework for a dialogue between the EU and Africa on migration issues. The former focuses on West Africa while the latter concentrates on East Africa.

On the African side, Morocco and Ethiopia play a prominent role. On the one hand, Morocco has been offered an ambitious Mobility Partnership that, once implemented, would regulate regular migration flows between the country and the EU. On the other hand, Ethiopia is to sign up to a Common Agenda on Migration and Mobility with the EU in Valletta: This is a preliminary framework that should, in due time, lead to a Mobility Partnership, by which the EU would offer legal migration opportunities to Ethiopia in return for Ethiopia’s cooperation on preventing irregular migration.

Unfortunately, within this context, two key actors are missing: Algeria and Libya. The former is for now only an observer to the Rabat process while the latter’s participation is on hold due to domestic unrest and lack of an effective government. Algeria is pivotal due to its geographic positions between West Africa, the Sahel and the Mediterranean. Libya is the main point of departure for African migrants trying to cross the sea. Without these two players on board, it will be difficult to find sustainable solutions to the daily tragedies of the southern Mediterranean. 

A gap between east and west

Started in 2006, the Rabat Process has given birth to an array of operational measures aimed at stopping illegal migration flows, opening regular migration channels, and institutionalizing cooperation between key stakeholders. Launched in 2014 and only in its early stages, the Khartoum Process provides the first framework to operationalize systematic cooperation on migration between East African countries and the European Union. Unfortunately, the good progress on these two initiatives doesn’t address the root causes of Africa’s migratory movements. 

As a reservoir of desperation, the Sahel is the real story behind African migration.

Between east and west Africa, the Sahel Regional Action Plan is trying to contend with some truly exceptional challenges: an EU training mission following the wrapping up the French-led Operation Serval in Mali, the EUCAP mission in Niger, and Operation Barkhane across the whole region. As a reservoir of desperation, the Sahel is the real story behind African migration. Until it is peaceful and reasonably prosperous, migrants will keep travelling through it to reach the southern shores of the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, it is also the region least likely to see short-term improvements. 

The upcoming migration summit risks wasting a critical moment. The agenda of the EU-Africa Valletta summit this week shows that it is unlikely to address the root causes of the ongoing African dimension of the migration crisis. An excessive focus on containment and return policies, limited political engagement on behalf of too many stakeholders, and too little attention to the Sahel region might undermine efforts to address the migration challenge. In the end, the Valletta summit will likely issue bold statements that are broadly beside the point. In the midst of a crisis that threatens the cohesion and solidarity of the Union, the EU can hardly afford such a missed opportunity.