AU – EU Sixth Summit: Building the new post-pandemic partnership on migration and mobility

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The Sixth Summit of the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU) held with much fanfare from 17 to 18 February 2022 has concluded with the declaration of A Joint Vision for 2030. The two bodies renewed their partnership to build a common future, as close partners and neighbours with a particular focus on health emergencies and vaccines; economic recovery and investment; renewed and enhanced cooperation for peace and security; enhanced and reciprocal partnership for migration and mobility; and commitment to multilateralism.

Under the theme of enhanced and reciprocal partnership for migration and mobility, the Joint Vision for 2030 continues to focus on containing irregular migration; ending smuggling and trafficking in persons; border management, return, readmission and reintegration as well as dialogue.

The Summit could not have come at a more critical juncture for the future partnership between Africa and Europe. However, it missed an excellent opportunity to reboot the existing partnership on migration and mobility to provide a detailed plan on four key issues: remittances; return, readmission and sustainable reintegration; vaccine roll out, and legal pathways.

Legal pathways: waiting for Godot to arrive

The Joint Vision for 2030 states that “respecting national needs, competencies and legal frameworks, pathways for legal migration opportunities will be further developed between both continents and within Africa. We commit to addressing the challenges posed by the brain drain, and investing in youth and women to support their empowerment, skills, education and employment prospects, notably through increased support for technical and vocational education and training.”

In the AU-EU partnership, little has been achieved so far when it comes to creating legal pathways for African migrants’ mobility to Europe. More than a decade after first highlighting the importance of legal channels of migration in the AU-EU partnership of 2007, many African policymakers and potential African migrants increasingly view the promise and wait for meaningful legal pathways as “waiting for Godot”, i.e. a policy change and action  that, in the end, never arrives. Some African policymakers assume that countries of destination are only paying lip service to such legal routes and, as a result, rarely mention legal migration as a priority.

Despite repeated pledges from the EU over the past years,  legal migration avenues to Europe in the form of visa facilitation, faster family reunification and increased labour migration are yet to materialise.  Furthermore, the effort by some EU member states to establish job information centres on migration routes to the EU has not had a significant impact on the potential “irregular migrants” who intend to move to Europe using irregular channels. Only a limited number of people with the skills required in European labour markets are likely to benefit from the current legal migration avenues, since skill development and skill matching remain a low priority in both implementation and funding. Building the capacity for African skilled labour needed by EU countries requires building training centres and significant resources. 

Vaccine solidarity: fast rollout will facilitate mobility

Vaccination rates in Africa are dismally low at less than 12 per cent and present a major threat to public health that affects migration and mobility. Travel restrictions, on people going to and from Africa are not always related to vaccination and infection rates. Whether vaccinated or not, in some European countries travellers from Africa face quarantine requirements. Restrictive measures ostensibly introduced to contain the spread of COVID-19 risk becoming a permanent feature to reinforce Europe’s pre-pandemic ‘containment strategy’ for would-be African migrants.

The progress of vaccine rollouts in Africa will shape, steer, prevent or contain mobility, investment, trade and growth. According to the World Bank, each month’s delay in vaccination costs Africa USD 14 billion. The slow pace of vaccination thus reduces significantly the GPD of many African countries,, further complicating the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). A fast rollout would facilitate the mobility of people, goods, services, and capital – and a faster economic recovery.

Remittances: the misplaced item in the Joint Vision for 2030

While the areas of cooperation between Africa and Europe appear sufficiently broad, the issue of remittances — perhaps the most important item for Africans — is conspicuously little discussed. It also seems misplaced in the recent EU-EU declaration where remittances are mentioned in relation to investment but not migration and mobility.

Remittances are migrants’ money. In 2020, Africa received close to USD 78 billion in remittances, surpassing the sum of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and  Official Development Assistance (ODA). But the figure could have been higher were it not too costly to send money to the African continent. The cost of remittances to and within Africa are very high in global comparison, 7.8 per cent higher than remittance to other regions such as the Middle East, and Asia. A joint effort by the AU and EU to reduce the cost of remittances would directly increase the volume of remittances through formal channels and boost the income of families in Africa. Research has shown that “a one per cent decrease in the cost of remitting USD 200 leads to about a 1.6 per cent increase in remittances.”

Remittances are increasingly important in alleviating the foreign currency shortage faced by African economies — these shortages, taken with the associated inflation and high youth unemployment, can push governments to the brink of collapse. In this regard, remittances serve as a stable source of foreign currency and a steady source of development finance, which influence how African migration policies are formulated. African policymakers view migration as a poverty reduction tool and an opportunity to address high levels of youth unemployment and boost remittances.

Return: All eggs in one basket

The forcible return of migrant is seen by migrants and their families as a failure of an individual and collective projects to improve livelihoods at personal, family and community levels. It is also seen by African policy makers as a predictor of decline in foreign currency  at national level.  Given that migrants and their families have invested in the migration and their families’ livelihoods often depend on remittances, any measure that reduces remittances faces intense opposition from the families affected. The fear of a decline in remittances is a significant factor contributing to the reluctance of African governments to implement agreements on return and readmission. Consequently, the Joint Vision for 2030 should have outlined key ways to harness this important factor under migration and mobility.

The return of failed asylum-seekers and migrants affects overall remittances and, consequently, the policy preferences and positions (especially on facilitating return) of African governments. The inadequate amount of (mainly financial) reintegration support contributes to resistance to return, from both migrants and African governments. In the general public, and among African government officials, there is a widely held belief that extreme poverty and unemployment are the leading causes of irregular migration.  In this context, low levels of remittances could be directly linked to  return, and readmission, and thus affecting other parts of the AU-EU partnership on migration and mobility.

The European partnership with Africa has for years relied too heavily on money as a cure-all with regard to many aspects of regulating migration, particularly return and border control. The EU has put all its eggs for leveraging Africa into one basket of migration (more specifically, the basket of “border control, return, and readmission”). Despite substantial financing, what is meant to be a broader partnership on return, readmission, and sustainable reintegration of migrants, legal pathways for migration, and efforts to address the root causes of irregular migration has faced serious challenges.

There is a high level of EU political and financial commitment to counter irregular migration and facilitate return, while reintegration and legal pathways are starved of both means and political will. With its main focus on return and readmission issues, the partnership appears to have undermined the feasibility of long-term return agreements with Africa. Political and economic realities such as wars, waves of coups, electoral violence and geopolitical competition in many African countries of origin may affect implementation, including of return and readmission.

paradigm shift: five areas of reform

The Joint Vision for 2030 must bring the much-needed paradigm shift in migration and mobility partnership, the AU and EU need to formulate a more detailed and nuanced plan of action that addresses key challenges and five areas where little headway is being made:

First, the AU and EU need to marshal all necessary resources to expedite vaccination rates in Africa so as to reach herd immunity to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cooperation on migration and mobility and other flagship projects such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), will continue to face complex challenges owing to slow and delayed vaccine rollouts.

Second, the development of a more detailed plan of action on the Joint Vision 2030 needs to be based on candid dialogue and mutual understanding, adequate financing, and implementation of overlapping priorities on migration and mobility. Such dialogue will help articulate countries’ aspirations and concerns, as well as their capacity limitations. In light of the complex challenges Africa is facing, including the pandemic, waves of coups d’état, and civil wars in some countries, realistic expectations about the capacity of African governments to deliver on pledges need to be taken into account.

Third, remittances should be a central part of the dialogue and the implementation plan. As clearly identified in the previous AU-EU partnership documents, and the Global Compact for Migration, the AU-EU partnership needs to work towards a faster, safer and cheaper transfer of remittances and access to financial services by migrants.

Fourth, the AU and EU need to avoid the present (arguably self-defeating and irrational) EU-driven urge to put all their ‘migratory eggs’ in one basket, concentrating strictly on rates of return and readmission. This narrow and control focused approach posturing is fast rendering the partnership controversial, counter-productive, ineffectual, and divisive within Africa, and even in Europe itself. The AU and EU must have a candid dialogue on whether or not the current incentive structures for return, readmission, and reintegration are adequate for migrants and African governments to accept the related political and socio-economic risks and consequences.

Fifth, the AU and EU need to generate the political will to address the longstanding demands of Africans for more avenues for legal mobility and less cumbersome visa regimes. The effective, expanded, and accelerated implementation of mobility schemes in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, and the revised Blue Card Directive, clearly require political determination on the side of the EU.

And, lastly, the AU and EU need to anchor their partnership in such a manner that the principle of non-refoulement and the protection of human rights of migrants remain at its core.