Northern Africa: Europe’s new border guard?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Dozens of immigrants climb on to the fence at the border between Morroco and Melilla in another mass attempt of crossing into the Spanish enclave in northern Africa, 01 May 2014. [EPA/Paco Guerrero]

As another EU summit gets underway, Leïla Bodeux and Davide Gnes wonder what values Europeans are willing to give up in order to stop migration.

Leïla Bodeux and Davide Gnes are policy officers on asylum, migration and development at Caritas Europa.

As a new European Council meeting gets underway, European leaders remain obsessed with sealing European borders. In promoting cooperation on migration management and border control with countries of origin and transit, including those with authoritarian regimes and problematic track records on human rights, the EU is willing to trade core European values for the sake of short-term political gains.

If recent Council statements are to give us any indication of what is to come, Egypt is next in line and willing. The European Council President Donald Tusk triumphantly praised Egypt for having stopped migration to Europe and announced enhanced cooperation with the country, notably through an Arab League Summit in February 2019.

In fact, EU engagement with countries of origin and transit for the purpose of stopping migration is nothing new. Propositions to enhance cooperation on migration management and border control in order to prevent departures of irregular migrants and to re-admit those returned from Europe have for long been sugar-coated with promises of economic investment, trade cooperation or development aid.

Never mind, of course, that irregular migration is largely a response to the fact that reaching Europe through legal channels has been made virtually impossible.

The latest EU proposals on a “regional disembarkation mechanism” or “platforms” recycle old concepts aimed at externalising Member States’ responsibilities on asylum and border control to neighbouring countries.

Several EU countries even dream of creating Australian-style offshore processing centres outside of Europe, despite the fact that a comprehensive study by the European Commission in 2002 identified serious moral, political, humanitarian and legal obstacles to that idea.

'Disembarkation platforms' outside EU considered to end migrant row

The EU is considering setting up “disembarkation platforms” outside the bloc to process migrants, according to draft summit conclusions seen Tuesday (19 June) by AFP, as Brussels tries to solve a political crisis over immigration.

Since the Libyan coast guard has started to return people to detention and misery in Libya, thanks to EU and Italian support, Spain has become the first destination for migrants coming from Africa.

Consequently, the EU is now putting pressure on countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to crack down on migration by discouraging people from migrating and by stepping up border surveillance.

This can reinforce violent state practices against migrants, particularly in countries that are often plagued by widespread racism and discrimination against sub-Saharan Africans.

For example, local Moroccan NGOs have raised the alarm about the forced internal displacement of more than 5,000 sub-Saharan African migrants since this summer, who are now stuck in the south of the country.

It is deeply worrying that the EU is increasingly turning a blind eye on human rights infringements and partnering with authoritarian regimes that are cracking down on civil society, such as Egypt.

Besides the consequences for the rights of migrants and refugees, the path taken by EU leaders is likely to have a far-reaching impact on Europe’s credibility as a global champion of human rights and human dignity in its external relations more broadly.

Political and good governance prerequisites, typical of trade and economic agreements throughout the 1990s and the beginning of the new millennium, are now hastily replaced by migration clauses.

As a result, EU cooperation with northern African countries risks to legitimise regimes that are lacking democratic accountability and to seriously undermine the EU’s role in promoting and defending human rights worldwide. Turkey is a case in point, with the EU and its Member States substantially toning down criticism of Erdogan’s government out of fear that the Turkish regime may reconsider its position.

The focus on short-term political gains is also likely to lead to very unpredictable outcomes in partnerships with non-EU countries. In theory, African governments appear to have little to gain from engaging in an EU agenda that would likely threaten their internal stability, particularly when it comes to cooperation on forced returns.

Negotiations are difficult because many of these countries cannot do much to counter high emigration rates, due to demographic imbalances, rising youth unemployment and stagnating economic growth. For them to therefore engage in a potentially poisonous partnership with the EU, the financial rewards need to be very significant.

African leaders set up migration body, reject EU migrant 'platforms'

African leaders have announced the creation of a new body to help coordinate national policies on migration, but rejected EU plans to set up migrant “disembarkation platforms” on their soil.

By describing the EU-Turkey deal as the blueprint for future agreements with non-EU countries, EU decision makers have set the bar high and raised financial expectations for other partners.

Besides, acutely aware that migration continues to dominate the political agenda in Europe, neighbouring authoritarian and undemocratic regimes are now skilfully leveraging their position at the crossroads of migration routes to fulfil their political and economic strategic interests.

Morocco, for instance, is alleged to have “let” more migrants reach Spain in order to increase its political leverage in discussions with the EU on the thorny issue of Western Sahara. Similarly, Egypt is suspected of having used the closure of the Egyptian maritime border as a bargaining chip in the 2016 negotiations on the financial support from the IMF.

The long-lasting obsession with the security aspects of migration and border control policies stands in the way of a more balanced and sustainable partnership with non-EU countries.

Such partnerships must be based on a comprehensive agenda on migration that matches the needs and objectives of both sides of the negotiating table and that reflects a longer-term strategy.

There is still a great lack in the provision to partners of labour migration measures, such as visa liberalisation or mobility schemes and safe and legal pathways to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable.

Without seriously discussing human mobility as a sustainable long-term option, the cat and mouse game against smugglers and traffickers will continue, as no wall will be high enough to stop people’s determination to reach wider opportunities or protection.

Finally, European leaders should truly consider the consequences that empowering non-democratic regimes will have not only on the rights of migrants and refugees but also on the EU’s role as a champion of human rights worldwide.

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