Refugee boat and Libyan coast guard, October 2016. Photo: flickr / Brainbitch

New deal with Africa

Regular access and fast return

A humane and effective policy is urgently needed to reduce irregular migration from Africa across the Mediterranean while saving lives and respecting the right of asylum. A coalition of EU member states should establish joint asylum centres at the EU’s external borders. After fair and quick procedures, those not in need of protection should be quickly returned to their countries of origin after a cut-off date. Those in need of protection should be taken in by the members of this coalition. In return, sub-Saharan African countries of origin should be offered an increase in work and study visas to the EU, and a clear perspective to remain for those of their citizens already in the EU who have not been sentenced for any crimes.

ESI newsletter: The Gambia Plan – Beyond empty words and threats: how a breakthrough is possible (17 February 2020)

ESI newsletter: Gambia Plan – win-win with Africa – the 11th commandment (29 July 2019)

The reality at the EU’s external borders in recent years has been tragic: most of the people who reached the EU irregularly from Africa have been able to stay in Europe, regardless of the outcome of asylum procedures. This has created incentives for people not in need of protection to risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean and led some EU member states to look to Australia – and its policy of pushbacks and deterrence – for inspiration on how to prevent arrivals, while reducing much needed efforts at sea rescues. 

All EU member states are failing to return more than a small minority of African irregular migrants to their home countries. In 2019, according to Eurostat, EU member states issued over 173,000 return orders to African citizens, but managed to return only 26,000. Most of those - 18,000 - were returned to only three North African countries, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

An alternative policy would establish quick quality asylum status determination procedures at the EU’s external borders, combined with quick returns after a cut-off date of all those not receiving protection. A strong likelihood to be returned within a few weeks will discourage those with little chance to get protection from risking their lives.

Such a policy requires a coalition of EU member states to push forward with partnerships based on the interests of countries of origin. A “new deal” between some EU countries and some African countries of origin would require three elements:

  1. Common asylum centres with fair and rapid procedures: The participating EU countries establish joint asylum centres in, or close to, locations where people arrive, for example in Malta, Spain, Corsica or Sicily. Asylum procedures should not take more than a few weeks, yet adhere to European and international human right standards. 
  2. Take-back agreements with countries of origin: Those not receiving protection are quickly returned to their countries of origin. This is only possible in close co-operation with these countries. For this to work, three issues are important: First, the coalition needs to offer the African countries tangible benefits to turn them into partners. This can be regular access to the EU for their citizens through annual contingents for work visa and scholarships for students or co-operation on renewable energy projects. Second, take-back arrangements will be applicable to future arrivals taking place after an agreed cut-off date (thus excluding migrants from those countries already residing in the EU). This is important for the governments of the countries of origin: it assures them that the number of actual returns will remain small and thereby politically acceptable. Third, the participating EU countries will offer those migrants from African partner countries who are already in the EU and have not committed any crimes opportunities to integrate and obtain a residence title.
  3. Voluntary distribution of people needing protection: After asylum procedures in the joint asylum centres, those receiving protection are quickly distributed to EU member states that belong to the voluntary coalition.

Such arrangements should be negotiated right away with West African countries like Senegal, Ghana, Gambia, and Nigeria. Their citizens made up a sizable share of people who arrived in the EU by irregularly crossing the Mediterranean in recent years, but who rarely qualify for protection. A first pilot project, presented by ESI, could involve The Gambia and Germany.

At the same time, EU member states should also increase the number of refugees they resettle directly from conflict zones in cooperation with UNHCR.