Europe's attempt to stop migration from West Africa


In the wake of widespread panic surrounding the unexpected arrival of huge numbers of Syrian refugees in Europe in 2015, the European Union and its member states have been rolling up their sleeves to avoid a repeat of such scenes. Their efforts have been focused mainly on West Africa, as a potential source of new and unwelcome irregular migration flows.  The central tenet of the EU’s work has been the idea that more regional development will result in less migration.

In this essay, I hope to make it clear that there is of course a good case for combating poverty and stimulating economic growth in West-African countries. The problem, however, is that current European policies on West Africa show a glaring lack of consistency, political courage and any sense of reality. These policies have fuelled an exaggerated sense of expectation and any progress is undermined by incoherent EU policies in other areas — but the main thing that remains in short supply is political courage. By political courage, I mean the acknowledgement that opening up avenues for legal migration and agreeing a coherent EU policy is the only way to prevent hundreds of thousands of West Africans from upping sticks, moving to Europe and hoping for the best.


In 2015, Europe was caught off guard by the sudden crossing of almost a million Syrian refugees from Turkey to Greek islands near the Turkish coast. Most of these refugees continued their journey to other European countries, with Germany in particular being a destination of choice. Overwhelmed by these huge numbers and under pressure from populist parties on the right in several countries, the Balkan route was shut down. Then, in March 2016, the EU heads of state and the Turkish government reached an agreement with the intention of holding back most Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Against this background, the EU decided to set up its Emergency Trust Fund for Africa in November 2015. The fund was given access to almost 3 billion euro, 2.7 billion of which originated from the European Development Fund. The purpose of the fund was to tackle the root causes of instability and forced, irregular migration, and to contribute to the better management of migration flows. Six months later, the EU introduced its so-called Migration Partnership Frameworks with several African countries. The short-term aim of these agreements was to tackle people-smuggling networks, to repatriate greater numbers of African migrants who had no entitlement to stay in Europe, and most remarkably, to secure a safe and legal route for refugees from Africa. In the long term, these bilateral agreements were also intended to contribute to the removal of the root causes of migration through promoting political, social and economic development in the countries concerned.

A quick glance at the statistics on the countries of origin of African migrants arriving in Italy in 2016 and 2017 makes it abundantly clear why the EU is prioritising West Africa in the implementation of its two new policy instruments — four of the top five countries are in that part of the world: Nigeria, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Gambia. Consequently, it is obvious why, out of the 1.9 billion euro spent by the Emergency Trust Fund so far, 1 billion has been invested in projects and initiatives in West Africa and a few surrounding countries. Four of the five Migration Partnership Frameworks concluded so far are with West-African countries (Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and Niger, the latter two of which are major transit countries).

Current predictions confirm that migration pressure from this part of Africa is only set to increase in the coming years as a consequence of continued population growth. The guiding principle behind both the Emergency Trust Fund and the Migration Partnership Frameworks is that European investment in West Africa will ensure that the desire of West Africans to search for a better life in Europe will decrease. To put it briefly: more development means less migration.


Few people object to attempts by the EU to stimulate the economic development of West-African countries. Most of the states in this region are among the least developed on the African continent, and they can certainly use all forms of stimulus and development to tackle poverty and create more opportunities for their largely youthful populations. Still, criticism is increasingly being levelled against the manner in which the new agreements are being implemented and the expectations created by European politicians.

Looking at the way in which the money from the Emergency Trust Fund is spent and the types of projects launched under the Migration Partnership Frameworks, it quickly becomes clear that those lofty claims about eradicating the root causes of migration are worth less in practice than the need to counter migration within West Africa — and mainly from West Africa — quickly, through repressive means and in any way possible. Over the past year, the biggest expenditure was on strengthening border controls, training border guards and breaking up smuggling networks.

In other words, at the behest of the EU, most efforts are devoted to short-term measures that have just a single purpose: stopping people who want to leave their country, whatever their reasons may be. As a consequence, regular migration between West-African countries — which has always existed — is being severely hampered. In the past, this type of migration often served as a way to swap despair and crisis at home for a better life in a neighbouring state. What’s worse, in stopping and reversing the flow of people who want to make the journey to Europe, no distinction is being made between economic migrants and genuine refugees who use the same routes and networks.

Most West-African people seeking to travel to Europe are doing so to build a better future for themselves and their families, and not because they are being persecuted or repressed in their home countries. Around 85 percent of African refugees who are forced to leave their country because of war or violence seek protection in immediate neighbouring states, and only a small minority try to make it to Europe. On their journey to Europe, this latter category merges with migrants who have other motives to leave, creating mixed migration flows in which it is difficult to differentiate between different types of migrants.

The European emphasis on quickly stemming the flow of irregular migration creates a situation in which the contribution of the fund and the partnership frameworks to the structural improvement of economic and political stability in the region remains extremely limited.

The mantra behind European involvement — more development equals less migration — leaves itself open to a much more fundamental point of criticism. Even if the majority of EU funds were spent on boosting West-African economies, improving socio-economic security in the region and increasing the incomes of its citizens, it is unclear at best whether this would actually reduce the number of people seeking to leave. In fact, past experience and the majority of migration research suggests that bigger incomes lead to more migration from most poor countries: growing salaries simply mean that more people can afford to make the expensive journey to Europe. It is only when income per capita reaches a certain level (around $7000) that increased prosperity starts to act as a damper on the desire to up sticks and leave. This conclusion is backed up by the fact that most African migrants who have recently made it to Europe did not originate from the poorest countries, and are not from the most deprived sectors of society.

This poor assessment of the consequences of growing prosperity is more than just a regrettable and inaccurate analysis. By suggesting that European money will be able to reduce migration pressure in the short term, a significant number of European politicians are attempting to take the wind out of the sails of their populist or downright xenophobic critics. If the connection between more development money and less migration does prove to be fictional, this will only serve to damage support among the population of Europe for development aid to Africa. In addition, it is likely that this will also strengthen anti-immigrant politicians in their conviction that the only way to stop the flow of African migrants is to pull up the drawbridge.


Another major element in the mix of European measures to make migration from West Africa as unattractive as possible is the signing of so-called readmission agreements. Under these agreements, the countries of origin of migrants who do not have the right to remain in an EU member state are obliged to readmit their subjects. However, these plans have little effect in practice, for obvious reasons. Countries in West Africa stand to benefit hugely from the money sent back home from Europe by migrants residing in the EU either legally or illegally. In Nigeria alone, these types of transfers accounted for almost two percent of Gross National Income in 2014. Reducing this source of income runs counter to the interests of those citizens who remain in their home countries. Consequently, governments in the region are only prepared to readmit people if alternative, legal avenues for West-Africans to work or study in Europe are created simultaneously. However, providing such opportunities is currently taboo in the EU.

For years, migration experts have been stressing the need to provide alternatives to simply stopping the flow of migrants alone. Countless proposals have been put forward for the provision of temporary work permits or scholarships that would encourage experienced and well-trained Africans to return home to their countries of origin to boost further development. In fact, this may be the only way to prevent brain drain from those countries.

Efforts should be made to ensure this legal avenue is attractive and accessible enough to prevent greater numbers of potential migrants from being tempted by smugglers. The problem with this concept is that opening European migration offices in West Africa to enable interested citizens to apply can only happen once all EU member states agree a common European migration policy that transcends all current national differences in visa, work permit and scholarship rules. At the moment, the prospects of all 28 member states coming to an agreement on this point seem rather bleak. A more obvious channel — and one which is possible under European treaties — is for a group of countries who are in broad agreement on the subject to take the lead through so-called ‘enhanced cooperation’. However, this requires political courage in our current climate, where smart and effective measures often stand little chance in the face of quick fixes and hysterical discourse.


On top of this, we must contend with the fact that the export of (often heavily) subsidised European agricultural produce has a severely negative impact on the growth prospects of countries outside of the EU. The same applies to European fishery policies, which for a long time consisted of little more than emptying the waters near the African coast at the disadvantage of local fishermen. Add a few trade agreements that ensure beneficial import tariffs and quota for European products to the mix and we end up with an overall policy of Europe abusing its (economic) power, together with an incoherent stance in which the objectives of European development initiatives are largely undermined by trade, agriculture and fishing policies that mainly benefit major European producers.

This policy incoherence means that what the EU gives to West Africa in development aid with one hand, it claws back with the other. Over time, this justified criticism has slowly led to minute adjustments to European policies. Officially speaking, there has been recognition of the fact that the EU should strive for a coherent stance in which its trade, agriculture and fishing policies contribute to the realisation of the developments goals it has set for counties in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. For several years now, clauses have been included in European treaties that force the EU to become more coherent in its policies towards development countries, and that explicitly confirm fighting poverty as an objective of EU policy.
In practice, this means that price support for European farmers has been replaced by income support, and that across the past few years, the oft-maligned export subsidies have been scrapped or are being phased out for most products. Since 2014, fishery policies have also gone through a process of change that has at least partly eased the most common criticisms.

However, this has by no means led to a fully coherent European stance towards Africa that exclusively benefits Africans. Even in 2017, plenty of aspects deserving of criticism remain, and if these stay unchanged, the EU’s best intentions on sustainable development and tackling the root causes of migration will not be taken seriously by most Africans — and rightly so.

To start with, there is the first of a new series of trade agreements the EU intends to secure with (associations of) African countries. In 2014, the EU concluded a so-called Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with fifteen countries who had joined forces under the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Following the 2015 migration crisis in particular, the EU stressed that this deal would not only boost the economic development of the region, but would also reduce migration to Europe.

However, plenty of Africans and European development organisations have their doubts on whether the results will be quite so positive for the population of West Africa. According to these critics, the gradual scrapping of import tariffs in particular will lead to a situation where indirectly subsidised European products, sold below cost price, will flood the African market, which will only serve to put local farmers subsisting around or below the poverty line at a disadvantage. Around sixty percent of the population of West Africa works in agriculture. Even though a share of their basic needs is exempt from complete market liberalisation, there are significant and legitimate fears that African farmers will be unable to compete with their European counterparts on most products.


A few concrete examples quickly illustrate that despite these promises on coherence and development support, it will be European countries and businesses who stand to benefit the most.

The export of milk powder by European businesses to West-African countries is a growing problem, for instance. In 2009, the amount of skimmed milk powder exported from the EU to the rest of the world stood at 229,000 tonnes. By 2015, this had increased to 691,000 tonnes. This rapid growth took place despite the loss of the Russian market as a consequence of sanctions and reducing demand from China, meaning the European white stuff has increasingly had to find its way into more easily accessible markets. A major share of these increased exports has been destined for a number of West-African countries (Nigeria and Ghana, in particular), who are unable to produce sufficient milk to independently meet national demand. For as long as the price of imported milk lingers significantly below that of local milk, indigenous production is likely to remain suppressed. In Burkina Faso, for example, a litre of locally produced milk costs 650 CFA franc, while milk produced from imported European milk powder only costs 225 CFA franc — a third of the price. Another factor to consider is that under the new Economic Partnership Agreement, West-African countries are not permitted to charge more than five percent in import duties on European milk powder. In the last few years, an increasing number of major European dairy producers, including Nestlé, Danone and Friesland-Campina, have started producing milk and other dairy products on location in West Africa, using imported milk powder. They have been able to do so by taking over existing local businesses, or by setting up new entities. This development has resulted in West Africa becoming one of the biggest growth markets for the European dairy industry.

It is clear from this example that the old dumping practices still exist in one way or another, and that they now find themselves reinforced by new market liberalisation policies imposed by the EU. Both practices have the same effect: they discourage and destroy competition by local milk producers at a time when small-scale and cooperative dairy farming could be offering an excellent opportunity for people in West Africa to earn a regular and guaranteed income.

Another example comes in the form of the export to West Africa of chicken wings and necks — poultry parts that are less popular with European consumers. The price of these meats is low compared to locally produced chicken, because chicken feed is significantly cheaper in Europe as a result of EU agricultural subsidies. Like milk powder, the export of chicken wings and necks has witnessed major growth in the past few years. The consequences are easy to predict: local chicken farmers cannot compete with poultry imported from Europe, and the growth in demand for chicken products in West Africa is mainly boosting the coffers of European producers selling products unpopular with European consumers on the West African market just above cost price.

And that’s before we mention fishing. The seas off the coast of West Africa have long been a favourite place for European fishing companies to try and compensate for the fall in income from European waters. In the past, this often lead to over-fishing and the marginalisation of local fishermen, who simply couldn’t compete with their much better-equipped European counterparts. Luckily, a review of EU fishing policy in 2014 (led by the Swedish Green MEP Isabella Lövin) has now put an end to some of the more nefarious practices. One of the ways in which this turnaround was achieved was the creation of Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements (SFPAs). Wherever an agreement of this type has been made between the EU and a West-African country, ships under EU flags can no longer obtain permission to fish on the basis of private agreements with businesses in the country in question. This practice was allowed in the past and caused widespread breaching of rules and agreements.

Regrettably, a study carried out last year by the international NGO Oceana concluded that despite these legal restrictions, four EU member states continued to allow their ships to fish in the seas off Gambia and Equatorial Guinea based on private agreements — even through SFPAs have been agreed with both of these countries. Admittedly, the extent of these breaches was relatively minor. However, these examples do demonstrate just how difficult it is to redress the balance in favour of West-African countries and their fishermen, who have long had to witness their livelihoods being fished from under their noses by superior European fleets.

Finally, let’s have a look at a subject that has been back in the limelight in the past few days. Africa has not been spared its share of tax avoidance by multinationals and wealthy individuals. It is estimated that Africa loses at least $50 billion in income every year as a consequence of capital flight, financial malpractice and illegal transactions. This trend led to the foundation of the African ‘Stop the Bleeding’ campaign in 2015. Most of the measures to counter these types of practices must be taken by African governments, either on their own or in cooperation with others through the African Union. However, the EU could play a positive role in this area too. To do so, its member states must stop entering into highly problematic fiscal treaties with African countries that facilitate tax avoidance by businesses and hamper tax collection by the states in question.

In addition, the EU must also take measures itself to increase transparency in its economy and financial sector, such as the so-called country-by-country (CBC) reporting format. Such measures would make it easier for developing countries to see which multinationals pay taxes in which countries, and what the capital flows of multinational concerns look like. In addition, some light would also be shed on who exactly is hiding their capital in tax havens. Through mutual discussion, the EU and West-African countries could decide to scrap or at least adjust one element of their Economic Partnership Agreement: the provisions on the liberalisation and deregulation of the financial sector.


On 29 and 30 November 2017, European and African leaders will meet at the fifth EU/African Union summit in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Most of the points on their agenda suggest the summit will be ‘business as usual’. Instead, European politicians in particular should use this opportunity to address the issues that really matter to regulate migration flows from Africa: spending development money on actual development instead of stemming migrant flows; resisting the temptation to stir up unrealistic expectations on reducing migration from Africa; thinking creatively about forging legal avenues to allow West-African citizens to work and study in Europe; and closing the gaping holes in the coherence of European policies so that, more than ever before, the population of West Africa can reap the rewards of trade between Europe and their part of the world. In brief, the EU must not be allowed to get away with business as usual when it comes to migration policy. People in West Africa seeking to improve their lives cannot simply be held back.

Bart Staes

GroenDe enige partij die sociaal én milieuvriendelijk is.


De Groenen/EVAGroenen en Europese Vrije Alliantie in het Europees Parlement.


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