Focus on migrant returns threatens AU–EU negotiations

Europe’s New Pact doesn’t bode well considering that forced migrant returns have stalled talks between the continents before.

Last month the European Commission unveiled its New Pact on Migration and Asylum (New Pact). The pact’s goals of rebuilding trust and developing workable compromises within the European Union’s (EU) 27 states could well be achieved at the expense of external partnerships.

The increased emphasis in the New Pact on migrant returns is contrary to Africa’s position and could affect negotiations around the Post-Cotonou Partnership Agreement (ACP) and the Joint Africa–EU Strategy.

Overall, irregular arrivals to EU countries have dramatically decreased since 1.03 million people arrived in 2015. So far this year, 66 133 migrants entered Europe by land or sea; 9% from sub-Saharan Africa and 30% from North Africa.

As irregular arrivals have dropped, EU institutions and states have increased their focus on returning migrants who don’t have legal rights to remain. Migration is deeply divisive among EU member states and enforcing returns is one of the few unifying topics.

Much of the pressure to accept and facilitate returns has been directed at Africa. Thirteen of the 16 priority countries under the European Commission’s 2016 New Partnership Framework are in Africa. According to the New Pact, an average of 370 000 asylum applicants are rejected each year and a third are returned home. Five percent of total returns are to sub-Saharan African countries.

The increased emphasis in the New Pact on migrant returns is contrary to Africa’s position

The New Pact aims to increase returns through strengthening border control, signing returns agreements with third countries and allowing EU member states to choose between resettling refugees and sponsoring returns.

A proposal for a ‘one-stop asylum’ system applies mandatory pre-entry identity, health and security screening. Those likely to receive asylum would be designated to an EU country responsible for their application. The rest enter a ‘fast track’ application process in border facilities, based on their country of origin. If rejected, they would be returned to their country of origin.

Both of these processes would take 12 weeks. Overall, this approach erodes refugee protection regimes, raising many procedural and human rights concerns such as eliminating the chance to appeal if rejected.

The New Pact adopts a ‘mandatory yet flexible system’ that allows countries to choose between accepting refugees and sponsoring returns. It says all available tools should be used to enforce more returns. These include offering an additional 10% in development assistance to countries that cooperate and applying restrictive visa measures for those who don’t.

EU development aid should be spent on helping those in need, while visa measures should remain bilateral. This proposal deepens the 2019 EU revised visa system of shifting to a multilaterally binding instrument.

Migration is deeply divisive in the EU and enforcing returns is one of the few unifying topics

The African Union (AU) and most African countries have resisted intensified returns policies, maintaining that returns must be voluntary. The overwhelming majority of African migration is intra-continental and the continent is working towards free movement, free trade and regional integration.

The Eastern Route to the Middle East and Gulf via Yemen is considerably bigger than the Mediterranean passage, with 138 000 Africans using the Eastern Route in 2019. Between 2006 and 2016, over 800 000 African migrants and refugees crossed to Yemen.

Accepting returns is politically difficult for many African countries. In December 2016, Mali was offered US$160 million to cooperate on migrant returns but it withdrew from the deal due to a public outcry.

After The Gambia signed a similar informal agreement in May 2018, media images of deportees arriving in The Gambia from Germany in handcuffs and shackles at a time of massive youth unemployment resulted in mass protest. The government eventually stopped cooperating on returns.

To date only Cape Verde has signed a formal return and readmission agreement with the EU, while Ethiopia, Guinea, The Gambia and Côte d’Ivoire have concluded informal agreements. There is however no evidence that a country’s willingness to accept forced returns will result in a high number of returns or deter future arrivals.

Africa’s resistance to forced returns is driven by the significance of remittances to local economies

The resistance of African governments is driven by the significance of remittances to their economies. Remittances are the most important source of external financing in low- and middle-income countries; in most cases they are larger than development aid and foreign investment combined. 

Returns are one of the key factors behind the existing EU-ACP negotiation deadlock. The current Cotonou Agreement includes a non-binding clause for countries to readmit nationals whose asylum applications are rejected. The EU wants to include a legally binding provision forcing states to accept non-voluntary migrant returns.

The existing EU–ACP Cotonou Agreement expired in February 2020 and hasn’t been replaced. African signatories – comprising 48 of the 79 ACP states – strongly oppose forced returns. The disagreement on returns has contributed to this deadlock. The New Pact’s focus on returns could further compromise negotiations.

Enhancing returns and readmission is also included in the migration and mobility priority area of the European Commission’s Joint Communication and Council Conclusions related to the Africa–EU Strategy. Negotiations on this deal were postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19. As it stands, the Communication and Council Conclusions don’t sufficiently reflect Africa’s priorities, as they  reiterate security-heavy approaches towards African migration.

African negotiators have consistently resisted forcing states to take back their returned nationals and failed asylum seekers, including throughout the Global Compact for Migration. Notably, this compact isn’t mentioned in the New Pact. Nor are its principles on safe and dignified returns that respect the rights of returnees in line with international laws and norms.

The New Pact reflects the EU’s priorities, underscoring that returns are one of the key unifying factors among its member states. The AU and its member states should remain focused on their key priority – Africa’s regional integration agenda that includes implementing the African Continental Free Trade Area and expanding the free movement of people on the continent.

Tsion Tadesse Abebe, Senior Researcher and Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo, Senior Researcher, Migration, ISS Pretoria

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Photo: Lucas Chandellier/IOM – Returnees arrive in Conakry, Guinea

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