Can Rwanda Be the Solution? Europe’s Cooperation on Migration With Third Countries

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Mass displacement from Ukraine does not mean that cooperation on migration with African countries is now off the agenda. Instead, what we have seen in recent weeks is that Europe has adopted ‘internal solutions’ to Ukrainian/’European’ refugees that aim to protect and that contrast with a continued focus on ‘external solutions’ for non-Europeans that aim to deter, prevent, return and remove.

This was brought into stark relief on April 14 2022 when the UK and Rwandan governments reached agreement to send migrants arriving irregularly in the UK to Rwanda. Misleadingly labelled by some media as offshore processing, this is in fact a scheme to deny would-be asylum seekers the right to apply in the UK. In return, Rwanda would reportedly receive £120 million for economic development, plus additional funding for its asylum operations, accommodation of asylum applicants and integration measures. In a joint article, Rwanda’s foreign minister Vincent Buruta and UK home secretary Priti Patel called the agreement ‘ground-breaking’ and one that would set a ‘a new international standard’. The UK Home Office chimed in to claim that the agreement would be an effective tool to ‘break the business model of people smuggling gangs’. Commentators noted that the partnership was inspired by Australia’s inhumane offshoring model sending asylum seekers to Nauru and Manus Island. The plans were widely condemned by human rights groups with reservations even reported from some Home Office staff on grounds of efficacy, cost and ethics.

Whilst the UK-Rwanda deal represents a new level of ‘outsourcing’, this search for external ‘solutions’ is not new and ca be traced to the 1998 Austrian presidency of the European Council. While remaining controversial, using the external dimension to reduce irregular migration and remove irregular migrants gained a more secure foothold over time, particularly after the 2015 migration crisis prompted increased engagement with African countries. This type of cooperation brings challenges, for African and European countries.

Conflicting interests

A key challenge regarding this external dimension of migration policy is that the ideas and interests of origin states, transit states (which are often themselves sending states), and receiving countries in Europe differ markedly. Origin states, especially in the Global South, have a vision of migration based on development goals. Migration is seen as a path to development through remittances of emigrants, and through schemes such as enhanced intra-regional mobility. In contrast, European countries adopt a security perspective aimed at curbing (irregular) immigration.

Because of these conflicting interests, cooperation on migration matters is very difficult to achieve. The result is that the EU and UK tend to rely on a cross-sectoral approach that uses trade, development or visa policy to push through European migration priorities.

Undermining the development agenda

A heavy focus on migration management can undermine not only African priorities but also European objectives in other policy areas.

For instance, for development, migration management objectives have substituted for the goal of poverty reduction. Cutting development aid from emigration countries who heavily rely on this money but do not support the migration agenda of European countries seriously undercuts anti-poverty strategies and is likely to reinforce instability. Redirecting aid to countries that are relevant for Europe’s migration agenda, to the disadvantage of the poorest countries that tend to be countries with lower migration rates, is equally if not more detrimental to development objectives and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals.

Encouragingly, the decision by the new German government to erase conditionality conditions tied to development aid, as expressed in the 2021 coalition agreement, reflects awareness among policy makers of this problem and some willingness to actively address it.

Challenging democratization

Externalization can also contradict the objective of democracy promotion and the strengthening of liberal values and human rights. Migration cooperation has legitimized illiberal regimes in transit and origin countries, and – as has been widely discussed in Libya and Tunisia – to severe human rights violations. Critics of the UK-Rwanda deal also pointed out that Rwanda has a troubling human rights record, including reported killings of refugees.

Migration co-operation has in the past repeatedly also enabled authoritarian regimes to curtail the right of exit of their own population, thereby providing these regimes with an effective means to suppress public opposition.

When agreements are reached they are often informal in nature to circumvent public scrutiny of policies that are frequently perceived by citizens in Global South countries as dehumanizing or continuing colonial patterns. Informalization undermines democratic accountability in non-EU countries and can further erode trust in the political establishment, as happened in Mali in 2016.

Reverse conditionality

Some African countries have used the strong desire of Europe to achieve results in the field of migration to push to a disproportionate extent for concessions in other policy fields. One example is the repeated concessions by EU states to Morocco concerning the Western Sahara in return for commitments in the field of migration. Being aware of the strong political priority of migration control in the EU (and the UK), third countries have been increasingly using migrants as a bargaining chip for their geopolitical ends, as also was evident in Turkey’s repeated threats to end cooperation with the EU or events at the Polish- Belarusian border in late 2021.

The external dimension hence tends to be driven by an underlying short termism in achieving migration controls while contradicting longer-term objectives such as political stability and democracy that can reinforce migration drivers.

The power of the EU as foreign policy actor

Negative conditionality – meaning sanctions if migration-related objectives in agreements are not met – has moreover weakened the EU as a partner in the Global South. So too has an imbalanced focus on European migration priorities that can contradict perceptions and interests of citizens in African countries as well as the non-migration related priorities of these states.

Players that have profited from this weakened position of the EU are China and Russia, which have increasingly become points of reference for African states. Whilst Russia has discredited itself in some African countries with its war in Ukraine, these developments and alliances remain an issue for the position of Europe in the world.

Should Europe drop its externalization strategy?

In light of these serious trade-offs, the question that can be posed is: should the external ‘migration management’ approach be abandoned? New research on the case of readmission agreements, which demonstrates that these agreements had largely no impact on return rates, supports such a view. The study shows that low return rates of migrants are heavily driven by factors that are not influenced by readmission agreements at all, including the lack of documentation or protests by citizens against deportations.

While it would not be wise to end any partnerships, both European and African countries would benefit from a more balanced approach, in which European migration objectives no longer dominate as recognized by EU foreign policy supremo Josep Borrell who recently stated that: ‘We have to look at Africa with a positive eye — not only through the lens of migration problems‘.

A bigger roll-out of programmes opening legal pathways for migration while also enabling better training and work opportunities at home would be one important step towards a more balanced approach. As a potential template, Talent Partnerships can increase productivity and development in third countries and provide viable alternatives to migration.

Those within European governments and EU institutions with a more foreign relations-oriented perspective, are likely to be favourable to such a turn in the external dimension, but others will not. Notably, Denmark is currently negotiating an agreement similar to the UK’s with Rwanda.

Whilst European positions are certainly not unified, the Ukrainian crisis and new geopolitical considerations that result from this tragic war also provide an opportunity for Europe’s governments to engage in a debate about ‘migration management’ that focuses more strongly on the broader impact of the external dimension on cooperation with third countries, and Europe’s role and agency in the world.