EU seeks deal with Africa to stem migrant flows

Pro-EU, but not press freedom: Malta. [Derbeth/Flickr]

EU leaders hope Thursday (12 November) to clinch an aid-for-cooperation deal with their African partners to tackle an unprecedented migration crisis and rebuff fears a “fortress” Europe is emerging.

The concerns were aired at a rare EU-Africa summit in Malta, as Sweden and Slovenia became the latest member states to tighten their borders in response the biggest influx of refugees since World War II.

EU leaders on Wednesday (11 November) offered African counterparts aid and better access to Europe in return for help curbing chaotic migration across the Mediterranean and promises to take back those Europe expels.

Action plan

EU leaders intend to sign an Action Plan with their African counterparts on Thursday, aimed at providing funds to tackle the root causes of migration, such as poverty and conflict.

As a carrot, the European Commission is setting up a €1.8 billion “trust fund” for Africa and has urged member states to match that sum ? although European sources said it was not sure that they would.

The 17-page plan sets out dozens of initiatives. Many build on decades of stuttering cooperation between the world’s poorest continent and wealthy but ageing Europe, where many leaders are uneasy about their proximity to Africa’s booming population.

Some are newer, including a European pledge to drive down costs for sending money home from Europe to Africa ? a nod to African governments’ concerns that curbing migration could crimp remittances from expatriate citizens that are estimated to bring twice as much to Africa’s economy as foreign aid donations.

And EU officials highlighted renewed offers to ease visas and other access for African business and other travellers from countries that agree to take back citizens whom EU states want to expel as illegal aliens. Barely a third of Africans ordered deported from Europe actually leave at present, EU data shows.

Under a pilot scheme, African states will send officials to Europe to help identify those of their citizens whom they would accept. Many destroy documents to thwart efforts to expel them.

Meeting amid the ramparts that put Malta, the EU’s smallest state, at the heart of power struggles across the Mediterranean for centuries, European leaders insisted, despite African claims to the contrary, that they would not build a “Fortress Europe”.

“Mobility between our continents is a driver for growth on both sides,” European Council President Donald Tusk told fellow leaders. Legal migration routes to Europe would remain open, promised Tusk, a former Polish premier who has been critical of what he sees as Europe’s failure to defend its own frontiers.

Costs, benefits

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker renewed appeals for member states to match the €1.8 billion funds put forward by Brussels while urging Europeans to see the crisis as an opportunity for young migrants to replace an ageing population.

But the assistance will come at a price. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, under ferocious pressure at home and from her EU neighbours after accepting up to a million asylum-seekers this year, said the aim was a “comradely” relationship with Africa.

“But at the same time,” she added, “A relationship which includes, besides assistance, clear demands and expectations.”

Tusk made it clear that African states had a legal obligation to take back citizens being deported and that Europe, while preferring to persuade people to leave and offering help with building a better life at home, would force out the unwilling.

“Non-voluntary return is a prerequisite for a well managed migration policy,” he told the assembled national leaders.

African reservations

African officials and leaders made clear they welcomed the offer of cooperation but voiced reservations on some issues.

Macky Sall, the president of Senegal, said he had to consider those who had “braved death” to cross deserts and seas to reach Europe and those who died on the way. He called on Europeans to regularize the status of those who had made it.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former South African minister who runs the African Union executive, pointedly reminded Europeans it was they who had migrated and colonised much of the world and that most African migrants did not leave Africa.

“The problem we are facing today is because some countries in Europe have taken a fortress approach,” she said. “There is no country in the world that can be a fortress.”

She hit out at what she called plans for migrant “processing centres” in Africa that she said would in effect mean detaining Africans in poor conditions, subject to abuse and radicalisation. EU officials insisted the planned centres will offer migrants only information and an initial assessment of asylum claims.

Her call to modernise Africa to employ its fast-expanding legions of young people and break dependence on selling raw materials was echoed by French President François Hollande.

“If we don’t understand that we must invest massively in the development of Africa, then in the coming years we will keep on always having these flows of migration,” he said.

Mini EU summit

After African delegations depart on Thursday, EU leaders will hold an emergency summit of their own, to review slow progress in implementing measures to control the flow of refugees through Greece and negotiations with Turkey to get Ankara’s help in slowing departures of Syrian refugees.

But EU countries appear as divided as ever. Sweden’s decision to reinstate border controls for 10 days from Thursday and Slovenia’s move to roll out razor wire on its border with Croatia underlined again the tensions within the 28-nation bloc over how to respond to the crisis.

Austria and Germany, both Schengen countries, have in the past months reinstated border controls as they struggle to cope with the flow of asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

Germany warned that it could send Syrian refugees back to other EU states, prompting Hungary to insist on Wednesday it would take none. Denmark also said it was tightening immigration rules.

>> Read: Germany to toughen restrictions on Syrian refugees

EU leaders and officials have expressed fears that unilateral decisions to stop migrants will lead to the collapse of the borderless Schengen zone, a pillar of a united Europe.

The European Union has agreed on a plan, resisted by Hungary and several other ex-communist members of the bloc, to share out 160,000 refugees among its members, a small proportion of the 700,000 refugees the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates will reach Europe's borders from the Middle East, Africa and Asia this year.

The EU is also courting Turkey with the promise of money, visa-free travel, and new accession talks if Ankara tries to stem the flow of refugees across its territory.

In the frontline of the refugee influx this year, Greece has been criticised for failing to implement EU law on registering new arrivals. Now, the EU plans to persuade refugees to wait in Greece for paid flights to other countries offering asylum, rather than risk dangerous winter treks through the Balkans.

During a mini-summit with Balkan states on 25 October, Athens committed to hosting 50,000 more refugees by the end of this year. Another 50,000 places should be made available in countries further north along the Balkan road. The EU has promised funds to Greece and the other countries to provide emergency help.

>> Read: Leaders clash at migration mini-summit

  • 11-12 November: Valletta summit on migration

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