On 17 October 2016 the Peace and Security Council (PSC) held its second meeting this year on forcefully displaced persons and the implications for peace and security. The PSC was briefed by humanitarian agencies that called upon the African Union (AU) to use its unique position to protect the rights of migrants.
The ordeals described recently by 11 Eritrean women who had been captured by the Islamic State in Libya while trying to flee their country once again highlighted the vulnerability of African refugees, especially in Libya, one of the main transit countries to Europe. The women were freed from captivity on 24 October.
Meanwhile, the Mediterranean Sea is claiming tens of thousands of migrants’ lives, many of them from Africa.
Forced migrants from Africa are clearly in grave danger. Once they get to Europe, many Africans are also often not considered to be forced migrants and are deported back home. The movement of large numbers of forced migrants has blurred the lines between refugees and economic migrants. Arbitrary refugee determination processes in host countries have led to limited protection of the rights of genuine asylum seekers from Africa.
This is particularly concerning for the AU, which, together with the United Nations (UN), should advance the robust protection of migrants.
This is particularly concerning for the AU, which should advance the robust protection of migrants Tweet this
AU policies and initiatives on migration
The AU has made some effort to address the challenges of displacement and irregular migration through policies and a number of initiatives. The African Common Position on Migration and Development of 2006, for example, underscored the positive implications of all forms of migration on development, as well as the challenges in terms of human resources (the ‘brain drain’), security and human rights.
The Migration Policy Framework for Africa goes further to provide non-binding guidelines to enable governments and subregional organisations to develop concrete plans of action on migration. But, as with all policies, the challenge is in the implementation.
In 2009 the AU Commission launched the Initiative Against Trafficking to create momentum around member states’ responsibility to combat human trafficking. The AU also launched the Horn of Africa Initiative in October 2014 to tackle human trafficking and smuggling, especially within the Horn of Africa. However, the success of these initiatives remains questionable in light of the continued large-scale irregular migration from and within the continent.
The tightening of border controls in a number of countries further encourages the use of illegal and dangerous routes for migration, thereby enhancing the role of human traffickers and smugglers. It is clear that large-scale irregular migration will remain a contemporary phenomenon until constructive solutions to insecurity, bad governance and poverty are found.
The tightening of border controls further encourages the use of illegal and dangerous routes Tweet this
As interveners in conflict settings, the AU, the UN and international partners need to advance the robust protection of civilians in conflict regions to raise the confidence of vulnerable populations who will otherwise flee for fear of attack. This involves facilitating humanitarian access to civilians.
For those seeking refuge elsewhere, the AU plays a critical role in defending their rights in light of the recent migration crisis.
Need for coordination between the AU and Europe
Speaking to the PSC on 17 October, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Peter Maurer insisted that ‘the African Union, as a continental organisation and as the beholder of legal and humanitarian affairs on the continent, is in a unique position to shape policies in response to the migration dynamics we are witnessing today’.
In recent years the European Union (EU) has launched a number of efforts to stop more migrants from entering EU countries. The latest EU initiative is conceptualised within the EU Migration Partnership Framework of July 2016. The deal intends to commit €8 billion to a five-year development plan in Africa and some countries in the Middle East, including Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Libya, Jordan and Lebanon.
Running parallel to the EU–Turkey deal, which has seen thousands of migrants from Syria sent back to Turkey, the aim of this framework is to get origin and transit countries in developing regions to collaborate with the EU on returning migrants and engaging in effective border controls. Recently, the World Bank, Britain and the EU also announced plans to assist Ethiopia to create 100 000 jobs. Of these, 30 000 will be reserved for refugees in the country.
Regardless of the need for development in countries of origin, developed regions remain focused on relieving European countries of their responsibility to host forcefully displaced persons, who should be of shared concern among member states of the international community. Despite limited resources, African states already host 26% of the world’s refugee population – more than any other region in the world.
The AU needs to develop coordinated responses to the EU plans for African refugees and migrants Tweet this
Moreover, the principle of non-refoulement – enshrined in Article 33 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as well as the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and Article 3 of the 1984 Convention Against Torture – requires that ‘no contracting state shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his or her life or freedom would be threatened’. This raises concern about the determination process and the grounds for the possible return of African refugees, who make up a significant part of the forced migrants attempting to enter Europe.
The AU needs to develop coordinated responses to the EU plans for African refugees and migrants in Europe, who face uncertain fates. This is key to ensuring a genuine determination process for asylum seekers and that their rights are well protected.
Europe desperate to impose deals on returnees
The new EU deal, announced in July this year, also stipulates that countries that do not cooperate with the EU on tackling migration into Europe could face a reduction in EU funding. This puts pressure on a number of developing states that need this EU funding. These extreme measures highlight the fact that the EU is struggling to address the concerns of its people, as noted in the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) report ‘How the world views migration’. It observed that public opinion is more favourable towards migrants than commonly perceived, except in Europe.
The new EU deal stipulates that countries that do not cooperate could face a reduction in EU funding Tweet this
Within the return deals between developed and developing states, the AU has a role to play in ensuring respect for the human rights and security of those asylum seekers and migrants who could be repatriated.
Building on the outcomes of the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants as well as the US-led Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in September, the AU should sustain the pressure to ensure collective burden sharing in terms of forcefully displaced persons, along with highlighting the need for the longer-term structural prevention of situations causing forced migration.
Curbing the brain drain
In Africa and beyond, the AU should also advance the need to safeguard and actualise the skills and potential of Africa’s displaced persons to avoid a brain drain in the continent. Research has shown that many economic migrants and refugees possess significant skills and qualifications but are forcefully displaced by economic, political and social insecurities. Many African migrants are held in refugee camps in remote areas on the continent and in Europe with restricted access to meaningful work, as well as limited hopes of either returning home or being assimilated into host countries.
Research showns that many economic migrants and refugees have significant skills and qualifications Tweet this
Commendably, the AU established the African Institute for Remittances (AIR) in 2014 to help reduce the transaction costs of remittances from migrants. The project is supported by the World Bank and the European Commission, and operates in cooperation with the African Development Bank and the IOM. But for refugees in remote areas, the question of remittances remains a non-issue.
In January 2015 the AU also adopted in the Joint Labour Migration Program (JLMP), which was developed jointly by the AU Commission, the IOM, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) to facilitate development through the free movement of labour and skills within Africa. This requires a great deal of political will on the part of states and a shift from a nationalist stance to a position of shared humanity.
The question of forcefully displaced children
Children constitute half of the world refugee population. The PSC held two meetings this year on the right of refugee and internally displaced children to education. It was emphasised that the limited education opportunities in refugee camps produce young people who are often uneducated, unskilled and vulnerable to radicalisation and conscription by armed groups.
More practical efforts are needed to foster the education and training of forcefully displaced children, for the security and development of the continent.