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The EU Africa migration agenda – driving a new migration partnership forward

Expert comment

Written by Claire Kumar

Image credit:A flock of starlings fly in the Netherlands. Image license:Albert Beukhof/Shutterstock.com

ODI Europe together with the European Think Tanks Group, ECDPM and The Nordic Africa Institute held a recent event in Brussels – 'The EU-Africa migration agenda – realising a new partnership'. Ahead of the new European Commission and the 3rd AU-EU ministerial summit, the panel aimed to explore challenges and concerns around migration and gather recommendations for charting a new path in future.

The event recognised the continents’ diverse starting points: though migration represents a polarising theme across Europe, discourse around migration in Africa is more strongly oriented towards the opportunities it offers. And while the EU has directed significant efforts to reduce irregular migration, increase returns and to sign migration cooperation agreements, African countries remain strongly invested in expanding legal pathways and developing migration partnerships that deliver clear mutual benefits.

Charting a course through these complexities, we benefited enormously from the expert chairing of Shada Islam and the contributions of a high level panel of African and European speakers. Here we share our key takeaways from the event – which is also available to watch below.

Human rights violations of migrants top the list of concerns

As deaths in the Mediterranean continue to reach record highs and pushbacks from countries such as Greece continue, the view from Africa was firmly communicated by Ambassador Negm of the African Migration Observatory: European countries are not doing enough to protect migrants and specifically ‘do not honour the principle of non-refoulement.’

The impact of Europe’s externalisation approach was also highlighted: efforts to outsource responsibility for refugees and migrants outside of Europe have resulted in multiple human rights abuses beyond the EU’s borders.

Improvements are not necessarily expected. Catherine Woollard, the Director of ECRE, explained ECRE’s analysis of the EU’s Pact on Migration and Asylum, including that it will lead to ‘more people being kept in detention at the borders,’ more people having asylum applications examined in ‘sub-standard border procedures’ and potentially ‘more people in situations of destitution’ if reception conditions are withdrawn for people who move on to other countries.

Returns and reintegration – still a sticky subject

Returns remain a key priority for the EU under the new Pact. This is well known as a difficult area with ambition far surpassing reality: across the EU only 19% of third country nationals were returned following an order to leave in 2023.

While the EU remains committed to improving this and to investing in reintegration programmes, successful reintegration was acknowledged by panel and audience alike as a complex area. African governments were viewed as seriously engaged on this issue, but the effectiveness of these programmes remains in question.

Whether returns take place to someone’s own country of origin, or to a third country, was also highlighted as key. One panellist made clear that third country reintegration, even with financial support, is simply not sustainable.

New MIGNEX research gives further insights: while return migration can have positive or negative impacts depending on the socio-economic conditions in the community, forced returns have been assessed as representing a risk to development in origin communities. As such, deportations from Europe to Africa should not to be presented as of benefit to African countries and development funding should never be used to forcibly send people back.

Points of convergence

There was no disagreement between the panellists over the likely impact of ageing trends in Europe. The EU’s demand for labour – already significant given record vacancy rates – will inevitably grow. All agreed there is an immediate need to create more legal pathways and everyone welcomed any and all efforts in this direction.

Linda Oucho, Executive Director of the African Migration and Development Policy Centre, reminded us though that we ‘need to expand the focus’ of these efforts ‘to include other skills… a mechanic or a plumber…. will there be pathways to include these skillsets?’ This is a highly salient point for Europe, given the widespread and severe labour shortages in technical trades.

Brain drain was raised as a shared issue of concern. DG Home noted that the EU’s Talent Partnerships initiative is part of a serious attempt to both manage brain drain risks and to contribute to brain gain via these skills partnership models.

Our panellists also tackled brain waste, a major concern for Europe (as illustrated by recent research) but also a huge challenge in Africa where the talents of highly qualified citizens who return are often wasted.

Communication with migrants themselves was seen as critical: migrants are not always well informed about migration policies or the risks on the journey. Efforts to communicate better with migrants were welcomed, but with a strong dose of realism on how effective such information campaigns have been.

The cautious tone taken by the panel on the effectiveness of current efforts is backed up by evidence. Analysis of extensive MIGNEX survey data finds that 'warnings rarely have an impact on migration aspirations and that when they do, they are most often associated with a higher desire to leave.' Clearly this is not a straightforward area.

We received an important and timely reminder that for many ‘migration decisions are not a choice’ and people migrate – and indeed re-migrate even ‘after being captured on a boat in the Mediterranean’ – because the ‘level of desperation is so high.’

Ambassador Negm also explained that people are aware that ‘there are many who were able to find jobs in Europe while they came as irregular migrants….. They know the success story.’ This observation is, of course, in line with one of the most well-established facts in migration research: the most important root cause of migration is persistent labour demand.

We urgently need a more comprehensive and balanced approach

Possibly the clearest point of consensus emerged around the need for a more comprehensive and balanced approach. For DG Home this means working to address root causes (though this remains a contested term), increasing border security, improving returns and readmission, as well as enhancing the visa offering.

DG Home also reminded us that we should look at the EU’s migration deals in their entirety. The Egypt deal is a substantial package that ‘goes way beyond migration’. Indeed the deal includes, amongst other elements, €5bn in concessional loans and €1.8bn to support investments in renewable energy and digital connectivity. While many in Europe have focused on the migration aspects of the deal, this linkage ‘was made much more in Europe than in Egypt’, highlighting how perceptions on these agreements can diverge.

We were reminded by ECRE’s director that the credibility of the EU is diminished by an ‘obsession with preventing migration’ and that this has imbalanced the EU’s foreign policy. We should do more to ensure that migration has ‘its proper place’ and is not ‘dominating EU-Africa relations.’

Further reflections

A strong feeling emerged – both from panellists and our audience – that an ‘alternative relationship is long overdue.’ And mindful of the devastating death toll in Gaza, Ambassador Negm explained how the EU’s credibility as a stakeholder that respects international law is being substantially eroded given ‘we are not doing anything to protect civilians in Gaza and we are not doing anything to protect migrants at sea,’ a sobering statement.

Our chair concluded by reminding us of the power of narratives. The far-right already has a ‘very simple and compelling narrative’ and indeed ‘a solution – to keep them away, fences, borders, moats, pushbacks…’ But this discussion has shown that we do have alternative narratives. For progress to be made, we need courageous leaders who are unafraid to come out openly to discuss these and to offer both ‘more humane and more practical policies.’