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Is the EU doubling down on a deadly, failed migration strategy?

‘With all these measures, you're pushing people to use more dangerous routes.’

This picture shows Tunisian coast guards try to stop migrants at sea during their attempt to cross to Italy, off the coast off Sfax, Tunisia April 27, 2023. The Tunisian coast guard boat is to the left, the migrant boat is to the right. A man stands at the front of the coast guard boat and is seen speaking to the migrants on the migrant boat. Composite image using photo by: Jihed Abidellaoui/Reuters
The EU-supported Tunisian Coast Guard stops asylum seekers and migrants off the coast of Sfax, Tunisia during their attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy on 27 April 2023.

Since 2021, the EU has announced migration cooperation agreements with at least 14 countries, pledging billions of euros in spending to bolster border controls, support police efforts to crack down on people smugglers, and back other efforts to reduce the number of asylum seekers and migrants reaching the bloc. 

Migration experts told The New Humanitarian that the flurry of activity represents a doubling down on a strategy of “border externalisation” that seeks to stop the movement of migrants and asylum seekers in the Western Balkans, the Middle East, and Africa before they are able to reach the EU’s external borders.

“Now, it's not just that the border exists in a particular place. The border exists wherever the irregular migrants exist,” said Amanda Bisong, a policy officer at the European Centre for Development Policy Management, whose research focuses on migration and African Union-EU relations.

While the EU has supported efforts to stop migration outside its borders for decades, the current push began in 2015, when more than one million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants – many escaping Syria’s civil war – fled to the continent. 

Since then, experts told The New Humanitarian that the EU’s strategy has contributed to incalculable deaths and human rights violations, made migration routes more dangerous, and – despite the billions of euros spent – failed to achieve its goal of slowing migration. The European Commission did not respond to a request for comment on this allegation in time for publication.

After a brief reduction during the COVID-19 pandemic, arrivals of asylum seekers and migrants have been steadily increasing since 2021, reaching nearly 280,000 in the first nine months of this year – the highest total since 2016.

Watching the number of arrivals climb, the EU since 2021 has signed or renewed migration agreements with Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Türkiye, Niger, Albania, North Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Moldova, and Georgia.

The EU also started discussions in 2022 with Senegal and Mauritania to deploy officers from Frontex, the EU’s coast guard and border control agency, to support efforts to police migration in both countries – which would be Frontex’s first deployment outside of Europe. 

But to what effect, and at what cost? 

“People will always find a way to move,” Bisong said. “When the known routes have been all blocked, then another pops up somewhere, and the numbers increase again.”

“With all these measures, you're pushing people to use more dangerous routes,” she added. 

Counting the costs

It is difficult to determine how much money the EU actually spends on border externalisation. 

When it was adopted in 2021, at least 10% of the 79.5 billion euro budget for the EU’s main foreign development fund for the period between 2021 and 2027 was dedicated specifically to migration spending outside the EU. A possible 10.5 billion euro top-up was also requested in 2023. Billions more are also available through other EU funds, which can be used to support external action on migration.

Asked for a total or estimate of spending on migration outside the EU over the previous 2014-2020 budget period, a European Commission spokesperson sent The New Humanitarian public information about a handful of individual programmes from 2011-2023, but did not provide a total or respond to follow-up questions about other funds.

Independent studies have also been unable to uncover the true cost. A study commissioned by the EU Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs committee tallied up nearly 13 billion euros that appeared to have been spent from 2014-2020, but could not make an accurate assessment because records for some spending have never been published or, in some cases, do not appear to exist. 

Another study from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles reached a similar estimate, but noted missing or incomplete data and a reliance on informal agreements with third countries with unclear terms. “This lack of transparency has severe implications for necessary scrutiny of public money,” the report concluded.

Spending by individual member states is also often mixed into joint-EU projects, making accounting even more opaque.

Recent areas of focus

Although the EU’s total spending is unclear, North Africa has been a key focus area, according to Tasnim Abderrahim, an analyst concentrating on migration and EU-North Africa relations at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

That focus was reaffirmed in July this year, when the EU and Tunisia agreed to a more than one billion euro aid package, including 105 million euros specifically to manage migration in the country. The deal also includes up to 900 million euros in loans and budget support, tying aid for the financially struggling country to its cooperation with EU migration policy.

With departures from Tunisia far outpacing Libya this year, it was inevitable the EU would push for a deal, according to Abderrahim. 

The agreement was made despite human rights concerns and rising xenophobia and violence toward asylum seekers and migrants – many from West Africa and Sudan – in the country. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has described the Tunisia deal as a “blueprint” for agreements with other countries in the region. But the agreement's future is unclear after Tunisia rejected an initial payment and returned 60 million euros of EU budget support in October.

The EU also renewed its focus on the Western Balkans when the number of asylum seekers and migrants transiting through the region increased in 2022, sending Frontex officers and pledging at least 350 million euros for migration control there by 2024 – with at least 201.7 million euros already spent between 2021 and 2022. 

That funding has often come with specific policy requests. A 73 million euro EU aid package to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2022, for example, came with the admonishment that the government needed to address “major weaknesses” in migration control by hiring more staff and border police, signing new readmission agreements with third countries to facilitate deportations, and collecting biometric data from asylum seekers and migrants.

Frontex now describes the Western Balkans as its “closest strategic partner” outside of the EU. The region is home to all five of the agency’s full-scale external operations, all launched since 2019. Border officers from EU member states work alongside local security forces, tasked primarily with controlling migration, as well as policing cross-border crime. 

Chronicle of a policy foretold

More than two decades ago, a rejected EU proposal laid out the basic structure of the current externalisation strategy.

A 1998 policy paper from then-European Council president Austria envisioned “concentric circles of migration policy”. At the centre was the EU’s borderless Schengen zone, with the tightest controls, encircled by non-member states with aligned visa, border, and deportation policies.

Countries in the next circle (Eastern Europe, Türkiye, and North Africa) would crack down on smuggling and regional migration. In the fourth circle (China, the Middle East, and what the document describes as “black Africa”), the EU would try to minimise factors causing people to migrate.

“It practically imagines the world with Europe at the centre of it, as something that should be protected, and all of the other states should be made into zones with different roles in preventing unwanted movement toward the EU,” explained Marta Sojić Mirović, an expert on migration in the Balkans and a research associate at the Ethnographic Institute of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

The 1998 document goes on to describe an “integrated approach”, where “just about all the EU’s bilateral agreements with third States must incorporate the migration aspect”. Cooperation with EU policy goals would have benefits; failure would have “negative consequences”, including for development aid to lower-income countries, which would be assessed in relation to cooperation on migration. 

At the time, many member states distanced themselves from Austria’s proposal, which was considered shocking and voted down, according to Mirović. But two decades later, EU policy echoes this once-controversial approach. 

In a 2022 address to future EU diplomats, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described a similar eurocentric map of the world. “Europe is a garden… Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden,” he said. After a video of the speech sparked controversy, Borell wrote a blog post saying: “Some have misinterpreted the metaphor as 'colonial Euro-centrism’. I am sorry if some have felt offended.” 

‘All possible policy tools’

Meanwhile, migration management has become a core part of EU foreign policy, embedded in its approach to trade, aid, security, and, increasingly, development, explained Lilian Tsourdi, a migration expert and law professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

A September 2023 report from Oxfam International highlighted the EU’s increasing use of aid funding to outsource migration control to countries in Africa. By using development funding to block migration, the EU is “plundering its aid budget to build Fortress Europe”, the report argued, suggesting the EU may be violating its own and international rules on aid by repurposing the funds – an allegation the EU has rejected

Oxfam and other NGOs have pointed to the EU’s 5 billion euro Emergency Trust Fund for Africa as an example of this pivot: billed as addressing the root causes of migration, almost a quarter of the fund was allocated to managing migration

Migration was also woven into the goals and impact assessments of Trust Fund projects that were not directly related to migration management by measuring the success of poverty reduction and other development objectives in Africa by how they affected migration arrivals in Europe. 

For example, a 30 million euro job-creation and economic development project in Niger, a 50 million euro youth skills development project in Nigeria, and a 10 million euro project in the Sahel to support jobs and small businesses in “fashion, ‘lifestyle’ and interior decorating” all included the reduction of migration toward Europe as one of their goals. 

The focus on migration has also precipitated shifts in other aspects of EU foreign policy. In 2023, echoing language from the Austrian proposal, the ambassador to the EU from then-European Council president Sweden said “negative incentives” to force migration cooperation should be on the table.

One of those incentives is linking countries’ access to visa-free travel or easier visa access to their cooperation on border control – a threat the EU recently used to push Serbia to crack down on migration

In the Balkans, where Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia are all seeking EU membership, accession has been the EU’s tool to extract cooperation, explained Mirović. At a high-level summit for Balkan candidate countries in December 2022 in the Albanian capital, Tirana, EU leaders committed to speeding up accession – but warned that governments in the region had to do more to control migration. 

The tone of this side of EU policy has toughened over the past three years, said Bisong. She noted the EU's recent threat to withdraw trade benefits from lower-income countries whose governments don’t cooperate on migration control. 

This is part of a move to use “all possible policy tools” to enforce cooperation on migration, she said – a shift that has involved a reorientation from reward to threat of how deals between the EU and third countries on issues like trade, aid, and visa-free travel are framed. 

“It used to be a more-for-more approach: The more you cooperate with us, the more you would have access to funding,” Bisong said. “What we're seeing with the new path is a less-for-less approach: The less you cooperate with us, the less funding you would get.”

Deadly effects

While these border externalisation efforts have had little discernible effect on reducing the number of asylum seekers and migrants reaching Europe, they have encouraged migration policy shifts by authorities in third countries with deadly consequences, said Moctar Dan Yaye, an activist with Alarm Phone Sahara, a civil society network that runs a telephone hotline for asylum seekers and migrants in distress, and monitors the human rights impacts of EU migration policies.

“The more [governments] control, the more they reinforce the checks and the patrols on the roads, people try to avoid those checkpoints, and it leads them, sometimes, to death and disappearance,” Yaye said. 

An estimated 6,049 people have died since 2014 on migration routes crossing the Sahara, according to data from the UN’s migration agency, IOM. That number is almost certainly an undercount because of poor data collection and the region’s tough geography, IOM notes. In the central Mediterranean, where data is more thorough but still incomplete, that number is more than 28,000

Ultimately, the flurry of activity to address irregular migration may be more about optics than effect, said Tsourdi: “Things are not so simple as they are presented in policy terms. I think it is more the idea for politicians to be seen to be doing something about it.”

Far from Brussels, on the other end of those decisions, the effects are clear, Yaye said: “The lives of migrants become a kind of business tool between countries.”

Edited by Eric Reidy.

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