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EXCLUSIVE. EU-Africa: Valletta, the summit of dissent 0

Brussels – The EU and its African partners are meeting on November 11th and 12th in Valletta (Malta), for a summit on migration that has very uncertain political outcomes. Afronline.org reveals here the latest draft of the agreement between the two parties that contains an Action Plan in which return arrangements and the fight against irregular migration take precedence over mobility.

On November 11th and 12th, the EU and its African partners are meeting in Valletta, for a summit on migration and mobility, as a follow-up to the 2-3 April 2014 Fourth EU-Africa Summit in Brussels. Malta will host the Heads of state of 28 EU Member states, 35 African countries, and representatives from the African Union, ECOWAS and the United Nations. The summit is called upon to demonstrate that the EU and Africa share a joint will to strengthen dialogue and cooperation on migration issues. Concretely, this means fighting against migrant smuggling and human trafficking; improving cooperation with regards to return arrangements and readmission of the irregular migrants in their African countries of origin; promoting legal channels for migration and mobility, and protecting migrants and asylum seekers. Last but not least, a top priority remains addressing the root causes of irregular migration, by supporting any initiative in favour of peace, stability and sustainable development on the African continent. This is the official agenda.

EU-Africa dialogue, or EU monologue?

On an operational level, the Valletta Summit is preceded by a series of high-level preparatory meetings that took place in Brussels (18 September), Rabat (14 October), and Sharm El Sheikh (29 October). The choice of these last two African cities is not accidental. The dialogue initiated by the EU with the African countries on migration follows two geo-political trajectories: the Rabat Process, launched in July 2006, whose focus has progressively shifted onto the Sahel region and Western Africa, and whose leadership is undertaken by Morocco on behalf of the African countries; and the Khartoum Process, officialized in Rome in November 2014 between the EU and some twenty African countries (including Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia), in order to reinforce cooperation between countries of origin, transit, and destination, from the Horn of Africa to Europe, and passing through Egypt. Cairo heads the African delegation in this Process.

Yesterday in Egypt, European and African high-level officials met for the last time before the summit. Afronline gained access to the draft agreement that has been discussed yesterday in Sharm El Sheikh, and will be further reworked in the next week with a drafting committee.

Barring any surprises, which are always a possibility, this draft agreement will be broadly adopted in Malta. It contains both the final declaration, as well as a five-point Action Plan on which the EU and its African partners are trying to reach a definitive agreement. However, tensions are running high. A high-ranking African Union figure who closely follows the dossier said to Afronline that “there is no dialogue. What we are seeing from the EU is a monologue that seeks only to impose its own agenda.” Member states such as Austria, Poland and Lithuania in particular want to place conditions on development aid that are directly related to the effort African governments will make to strengthen collaboration with the EU, on the topic of irregular African migrants’ returns from the EU into their countries of origin. It’s the logic of “more for more, less for less”, which adapted to the Valletta context translates as: “more efforts on returns, more aid; less efforts, less aid”.

This approach goes against the spirit of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that these same European Member states ratified in last September at the UN General Assembly: aid should not be made conditional in circumstances such as these. In a joint statement on the Valletta Summit, Caritas Europa and Caritas Africa ask the EU and its member states to “refrain from using readmission and return clauses in bilateral and regional agreements, ‘punishing’ African countries for non-admittance of African nationals by reducing development aid”. However, not everyone agrees with this. During the reform of the Italian cooperation adopted last year, the Minister of Home Affairs, Angelino Alfano, attempted to insert conditional terms for Italian aid to the migrant crisis into the new Law 125: an attempt which failed.

Mobility in the eye of the storm

The policy adopted by many European governments is primarily focused on the necessity to stop the migration fluxes from Africa at all costs, as well as the acceleration of returns processes. In a previous draft dated 26th August 2015, the comments from EU diplomats leave little room for doubt: there are many indications of support for the “more for more” approach, the strengthening of policies of returns and readmission to countries of origin, and the increasing action against migrants trafficking on the African continent.

The ‘mediators’ between the most resistant Member states and African countries are the European Commission, the External Action Service led by Federica Mogherini and Pierre Vimont, and the personal envoy of the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, whose task has been to lead preparations for the Valletta Summit. Their work seems to have been at least partially fruitful.

Notwithstanding the will of some EU Member states to reshape the promotion of legal migration channels and mobility, in the latest draft this last crucial issue features as the second point of the aforementioned five points on the Action Plan. “It’s an encouraging sign”, says Anna Knoll, policy officer for the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) – one of the most influential European think tanks on EU-Africa relations. “The other positive sign concerns the recommendations and commitments that appear for the first time at the end of each point on the Action Plan. Nonetheless, the commitments are still too generic”. If not downright disappointing.

In the case of mobility, by the end of 2016 the EU will only “double the number of scholarships for students and academic staff through the EU supported Erasmus programme in 2016 compared to 2014”, and will also “launch pilot projects that pool offers for legal migration (e.g. for work, study, research, and vocational training) by some EU Member states or associated countries to selected African countries as an element of the comprehensive logic of the Action Plan”. In turn, this will facilitate the issuing of visas, but also symbolises the non coherence of European Policies on migration “In this last case, contradictions arise with the negotiations the EU is trying to carry forward with Turkey, which is an associated country, as well as a country of transit for migrants,” underlines Knoll. “In fact, recently Brussels has asked Ankara to greatly limit the issuing of visas to Africans,” who then risk landing into the European zone.

One agreement and many contradictions

However, in its dialogue with Africa, the EU cannot limit itself to building walls around its borders. Not by chance, the first point of the Action Plan gives priority to the positive aspects of migration (for example reducing “by 2030 to less than 3 percent the transaction costs of migrant remittances”, whose amount in Africa outweigh Western aid) and the necessity of tackling the root causes that fuel irregular immigration and forced displacement of Africans (conflict, poverty, natural disasters). With a budget equal to 1.8 billion euro, the new EU Emergency Trust fund for Africa aims to “strengthen stability on the African continent and the fight against the structural causes of African irregular migration”, says Alexandre Polack, European Commissioners’ Spokesperson for Humanitarian Aid and Development cooperation.

The decisions adopted this week by the European Council for Foreign Relations (Development) on this Fund have created concern amongst European and African NGOS. Oxfam is particularly disappointed that the Trust Fund, intended to address migration, risks being used more for border security purposes, rather than fighting poverty and social inequalities. “The EU is mixing up objectives aimed at helping people who have been displaced from their homes through development cooperation, with those aimed at stopping them coming to Europe through security cooperation,” said Natalia Alonso, head of Oxfam’s Brussels office. “Similarly, development aid and trade agreements with developing countries should not be subjected to the acceptance, on their part, of restrictive border controls, readmission agreements or other migration control measures,” the NGO confederation CONCORD Europe stated.

In the third point of the Action Plan draft agreement, the main goal is to “reinforce the protection of refugees and other displaced persons, uphold the human rights of all migrants, refugees and asylum seekers – especially those who remain trapped for years in the refugee camps similar to that of Dabaab, in Kenya, that has hosted over 300,000 people fleeing from war and poverty. Among the commitments, “Regional Development and Protection Programmes in the Horn of Africa and North Africa should be up and running by mid-2016”. Watch this space.

The fourth point is dedicated to the “prevention and the fight against irregular immigration, migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings. In contrast to the political agenda carried forward by the EU in Europe against the economic migrants who want to enter European territory, in Africa, the EU (with the consensus of the African governments) want to protect and assist “vulnerable migrants in difficulty”, independent of their reason for migration.

Raising awareness on migratory situation in Europe

Another surprise: there is a clear will “to raise awareness of the general public and potential migrants on the dangers of trafficking in human beings and smuggling of migrants, including through public broadcasting services programmes about the migratory situation in Europe”.

If, in the first instance, making clear the risk of going up against death in the Sahel or Mediterranean Sea is appropriate, it is far more difficult to convince a potential migrant who wants to flee poverty or war that Europe is no longer an El Dorado. Even worse, this approach implies that it is best not to disseminate success stories in Africa of the current Africans diaspora in Europe, to the detriment of those in these diasporas who feed the remittances and so the development of the African continent, by contributing to the filling of European states’ coffers through taxes.

If there is a logical approach in this agreement, then why not insert in the very first point of the Action Plan the promotion of information campaigns to raise awareness in Europe and Africa on the added values of diaspora in both regions? Last but not least, the actual draft ignores the fact that, faced with a dramatic demographic decline, Europe will need 42 million “new Europeans” by 2020.This is a reality that only the arrival of new migrants can render possible.

Head-on collision on returns and readmissions

The best is saved for last, with the final point concerning returns and readmissions of irregular migrants from the EU to Africa. Here, the clash with African partners has been head-on. Not only for the blackmailing attempts by a few European member states who tried to apply the “more for more, less for less” logic (which, by the way, disappeared in the last draft of the agreement), but also for the feeling that many African countries are being backed into a corner. In an attempt to “strengthen the capacity of authorities of countries of origin to respond in a timely manner to readmission applications”, Brussels had originally asked its African partners to recognise an EU laissez passer that would allow for the return of an irregular migrant, without giving the time to these African countries to carry out the necessary verification identification processes. Even worse, rumours are circulating that at one point the EU wanted to proceed with returns to bordering countries of the migrant’s country of origin, in case the readmission phase took too long. In the draft, it’s clear that the identification of migrants is a necessary condition for the organisation of returns. Many African countries ask for this to be voluntary, but Europeans say no.

What is surprising however is the commitment from both parties to organize “missions by immigration officials from African countries to European countries in order to verify and identify nationalities of irregular migrants who are not in need of international protection with a view to being returned.” The first identification missions are scheduled to take place in the first quarter of 2016, with at least 10 African countries.

And what if Eritrea was included amongst these countries? Eritreans are desperately trying to flee the dictatorship of Isaias Afeworki, a regime which is close to being Africa’s equivalent of North Korea. In this case, it seems difficult to imagine the presence of Eritrean officials in Lampedusa, to verify if the migrants that pretend to be their countrymen are in fact so. What would happen in the case of an Eritrean migrant who was fleeing for economic rather than political reasons? In this case, return risks becoming dangerous. For a while now “European NGOs disapprove of the EU’s treatment of the Eritrean regime as a partner, when it is, in fact, a dictatorship,” says Francesco Petrelli, spokesperson for Concord Italia.

However, in Asmara someone knows how to make the most of the dialogue with the EU. As a diplomatic source in Brussels told to Afronline,”by making political opposition and human rights activists flee, Afeworki kills two birds with one stone: on the one hand he weakens internal dissent in his country, and on the other the exiled Eritreans feed the remittances into Eritrea.”

The Eritrean case summarizes the level of complexity that characterizes the dialogue between the EU and Africa on migration. The risks of clashes are present at every step. “Fundamentally, the Europeans and Africans seem to be speaking in two different languages”, claims a United Nations source in Brussels. “The EU Member states want to concentrate most of the efforts on improving border security and returns agreement, whilst the Africans are asking for more cooperation with regards to mobility, both internally on the continent, as well as externally from Africa to Europe.”  Furthermore, the Europeans would establish “reception centers” in Africa, in order to select the migrants and start the international refugee recognition procedures, however the Africans are opposed to this. This opposition is also echoed by the NGOs, who recall the inhumane treatment of Libyan migrants during the Gadhafi era, in the not-so-distant past when Berlusconi (supported by EU leaders) made a pact with the dictator to block migrants on the Libyan coasts.

Still an uphill battle

Another debated issue is the choice of the organization that will lead the Secretariat of the Khartoum Process. Europe has imposed the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), an intergovernmental organization set up by 15 European countries in 1993. Yet Egypt, which is currently leading the African side, accuses ICMPD of having no presence in sub-Saharan Africa and therefore no legitimacy in this role. Could this be the reason why the Egyptian regime has not yet confirmed its presence in Valletta? So far, out of the 35 African countries invited to participate in the Summit, 24 will attend. Many Presidents are expected with numerous delegations (e.g. Sudan will send its Minister of Foreign Affairs and four other Ministers). The summit is in two weeks, but there are two more African states missing from the picture in addition to Egypt: Nigeria and Morocco (according  to the European External Action Service, the latter has not yet found an agreement on whom to send to Malta).

In short, the road to Valletta and beyond is still uphill. “It is surprising to read in the draft agreement that the first senior officials meeting to assess the implementation of the Action Plan will only take place in 2017,” notes Anna Knoll of the ECDPM, reminding that “a three-year action plan had already been adopted during the EU-Africa Summit 2014 in Brussels.” Since then, little or nothing has been done, also due to a lack of will on the part of EU Member states. Italy could play an important role in this new Action Plan, however information gathered in Brussels shows that Rome is not particularly responsive at the moment. A missed opportunity, if we take into consideration that the Italian government had a leading role in the launch of the process of Khartoum. On the African side, governments should stop coups (Burkina Faso), the persisting human rights violations (from Burundi to Zimbabwe, via Eritrea), and improve their level of governance: this is the feeling amongst many European governments, who are increasingly anxious to justify to the EU taxpayers all the money spent on development and political stability on the African continent.

Click here for reading the Oxfam position paper for EU-Africa migration summit and here for the African and European civil society joint statement on Valletta Summit.

By Joshua Massarenti (Afronline.org)

Translated by Kimberley Evans.

Photo credit: Masimo Sestini/Polaris

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