In a gold-panelled Elysée Palace suite draped in chandeliers and fine art, seven European and African leaders presided over an August conference that could determine the future of thousands of migrants stretching from the windswept deserts of Libya to the dismal camps of Calais.
After discussions hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, the leaders unveiled solutions to an enduring crisis that has seen over 100,000 people risk everything on the treacherous Mediterranean crossing this year.
At the heart of the compact is a bid to improve border security in Niger, Chad and Libya while enhancing financial support for the resettlement of migrants and registration of refugees. It bolsters existing EU initiatives based on providing financial assistance to the countries from which the migrants come at the same time as encouraging stronger controls on the movement of people, all in the hope of bringing an end to the vast humanitarian crisis which haunts Europe’s policymakers.
“They’ve focused on partnering with African governments to increase border security between African countries on the route and address the root causes or drivers of migration,” says Susan Fratzke, policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “What this means is funding and training to support the enforcement efforts of governments, and pairing that with development funding and promises of resettlement or other legal opportunities for settlement.”
Yet while the Paris summit has been hailed as the latest evidence of joined-up thinking between Europe and Africa, the chequered history of previous agreements means that few are willing to bet on success. Still unresolved is the question of whether offering development cash for migration control is a workable concept.
Eugenio Ambrosi, EU Director at the International Organisation of Migration, says that a crude trade-off between aid and the restriction of people is both unworkable and contrary to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
“What they’ve been trying to do, which I think is a good way to go is to try and find the best way in which you can actually use migration, including return migration, as a factor to sustain or foster development… [but] if the idea is let’s give aid so we can contain people somewhere else, that’s probably not a very workable idea. Unless you seriously tackle the reasons why people move, they will continue to move no matter how many restrictions you put around them – this has been proven by history several times.”
There is little doubt that a wide-scale reduction in numbers is a key goal of the Paris talks. Some 1.4m migrants are estimated to have arrived in Europe in 2015 and 2016 alone, increasing the pressure on southern European states and leading to a populist backlash in nations across the continent.
Thousands of migrants have drowned on the Mediterranean crossing or been lost in the sprawling deserts along the routes to the North African coast. The Paris Declaration promises to work with host countries to “tackle root causes, prevent departures and improve our ability to return irregular immigrants to home countries” while “stopping irregular migration flows well ahead of the Mediterranean coast.”
This stark ambition to reduce numbers – supported by improvements to security forces, judicial authorities and border controls in Niger, Chad and Libya – sits side-by-side with a more nuanced approach to development. Among other longer-term schemes, the declaration offers support to Italian efforts to change the economic model of Libyan communities dominated by human trafficking.
“[We] will further enhance cooperation… with the aim of creating alternative sources of income, increasing resilience and making them independent of human trafficking… Fighting the trafficking of human beings and building up the conditions to change the economic model of the local communities in Libya in order to make it sustainable from a humanitarian and social point of view are crucial objectives of our common strategy.”
It is too early to tell whether these efforts will impact numbers – some studies suggest that economic development can paradoxically encourage migration by improving the financial clout of newly mobile, ambitious citizens. For now, EU policymakers are renewing attempts to tackle people smugglers.
Mediterranean arrivals to the EU fell from almost 28,000 in June to less than 10,000 in August, according to UN data, although there is a fear that smugglers will simply forge more dangerous routes. Others fear that arresting or buying off smugglers leaves thousands of migrants stranded in dangerous areas of Libya.
The Paris Declaration looks to subvert that risk by funding humanitarian facilities in a bid to loosen the grip of traffickers on vulnerable groups, including asylum seekers and refugees. While many migration experts are supportive, it remains doubtful whether it will impact numbers to the extent that EU policymakers wish.
“The challenge is the fact that people in the most vulnerable situations are less likely to be able to undertake journeys onwards to Libya and the Mediterranean… the volume of people that can move through emergency transfer mechanisms tends to be very small,” says Fratzke.
More legal channels are needed
Experts say that there is a pressing need to expand legal channels far beyond vulnerable groups. Undocumented migrants find themselves economically marginalised in host countries after using illegal channels to reach the continent. Europe’s policymakers should work directly with African governments on new ways to legally attract useful migrants, say analysts.
“One thing that was missing in the declaration was the fact that there was not enough on how to improve legal channels for migrants to reach Europe. We seem to keep forgetting that the lack of legal channels – and I’m not just talking about refugees but economic migrants – is one of the reasons that forces them to resort to irregular movement and smugglers,” says IOM’s Ambrosi.
More creative responses to this conundrum could bolster the encouraging provisions of the Paris agreement, according to John Campbell, an expert at SOAS, University of London.
“We need to get out of this security box and think of different ways of developing the continent and using different asylum regulations. One thing we could be doing is providing short-term humanitarian visas which would allow people to reside in Europe for a designated period of time – perhaps two or three years – to make and remit money and then be returned back. There are aspirational young people in Central and Southern Africa but they can’t get out.”