Isn’t it a bit early to condemn the EU Migration Partnership Framework?

These are the kind of scenes that the Framework hopes to make a thing of the past. [Anjo Kan/Shutterstock]

The EU’s Migration Partnership Framework is meant to help third countries better deal with irregular migration and, hopefully, save people from making the often fatal journey across the Med. Solon Ardittis argues that it is too early to have the knives out for the plan already.

Solon Ardittis is managing director of Eurasylum and a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labour (IZA). He is also co-editor of Migration Policy Practice, a bimonthly journal published by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

The EU Migration Partnership Framework that was adopted in June 2016 and that aims to involve key African countries of origin and transit in the prevention of illegal migration to Europe, has been generating considerable criticism from numerous NGOs and migration policy experts.

One of the main points of contention has been the notion that third countries with a poor human rights record and an often discretionary use of rule of law should be entrusted with a major component of the EU’s border security policy.

While potentially well-founded in principle, such concern might be somewhat reductive and not reflecting the more nuanced picture and initial outcomes that were discussed in the first progress report on the implementation of the Migration Partnership Framework, published on 18 October.

Launched initially in Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and Ethiopia, the Framework consists of specific partnership agreements with important countries of origin and transit, backed by tailor-made financial support and technical assistance packages, to help these countries improve their means and procedures for managing irregular migration directed to the EU.

The Framework’s stated objectives are to save lives in the Mediterranean Sea; increase the rate of returns to countries of origin and transit; and enable migrants and refugees to stay close to home and to avoid taking dangerous journeys.

In particular, the Framework aims to help partner countries improve their legislative and institutional framework for migration; provide concrete assistance for capacity building on border and migration management, including providing protection for refugees; increase rates of return and readmission with a preference to voluntary return and a focus on reintegration; and stem the irregular flows while offering legal migration channels, including increased resettlement efforts.

A key feature in the scheme is the posting of European Migration Liaison Officers in the relevant EU Delegations, to act as dedicated focal points and to liaise and cooperate with the partner authorities.

While still in its initial stages, the first progress report on the implementation of the Framework suggests that it may have already contributed to a noticeable decrease in the outgoing flows as well as to a significant increase in voluntary returns and arrests of suspected smugglers.

This is in addition to a range of technical assistance initiatives designed to improve migration management, security and border control procedures. In Ethiopia, a number of livelihood opportunities for refugees are also being supported, including through the creation of two industrial parks that aim to provide some 100,000 jobs to refugees.

While it is of course legitimate to question the EU’s decision to resort to the outsourcing of parts of its border security policy to third countries, the number of largely aborted policy attempts to manage the EU’s external borders unilaterally since 2015 must also not be forgotten.

The truth of the matter is that the levels of migrant and refugee flows which the EU has experienced over the past year, despite having often been qualified as the largest exodus since World War II, are in fact perfectly manageable for a bloc of countries of this size and wealth, not least relative to the much higher levels of flows which less privileged third countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have had to deal with since 2015.

However, the adequate management of an influx of this magnitude still requires that each and every member of the bloc is committed to contributing its share of the collective responsibility. To date, only a handful of member states have fulfilled this condition and the poor track record of the EU Relocation and Resettlement schemes is of course a reflection of this.

A subjacent condition is that all the members of the Union should share a similar policy vision and ambition, while in actual fact there has never been such a range of disparate national immigration policy doctrines being expressed within the EU, not to mention the growing populist narrative ahead of a number of major national elections over the next 12 months.

The selective outsourcing of some elements of the EU’s immigration policy to third countries must therefore be viewed as a necessary evil to help reduce some of the current tension at the Union’s external borders and to enable the EU executive and the member states to gradually engage in a more appeased scrutiny of their immigration policy.

The performance of the newly established European Border and Coast Guard Agency over the coming months, which as the conclusions of the European Council of 20-21 October 2016 have pointed out, should provide a major impetus to the strengthening of the EU’s ability to control its external borders and to re-establish a fully functional Schengen system, is also likely to guide the scope and reach of future migration partnerships with third countries.

Until then, the strategic importance of mobilising efforts and resources on the external and multi-stakeholder dimensions of the EU’s border security policy, while at the same time applying all the necessary vigilance and strict monitoring mechanisms to review the Framework’s unfailing compliance with adequate human rights standards, the principle of non-refoulement and fair access to asylum procedures, should not be underplayed or condemned ex facie.