Analysis Immigration from Africa

Questions over Europe’s aid policy to combat African immigration

Launched in November 2015, the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) was intended to promote stability and fight against “the root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons”. Five billion euros have been approved for 250 projects in 26 African countries. But what results has the fund produced?

Published on 9 May 2022 at 15:55

In 2014 and 2015, as the spike in the number of asylum-seekers fleeing war in Syria and Iraq made the need for a reception system reform glaringly obvious, the members of the EU decided to act. Not by activating the Temporary Protection Directive (approved in 2001, it was activated for the first time in March 2022 in reaction to the invasion of Ukraine), but instead by deflecting attention to a continent that was at the centre of their preoccupations: Africa. At odds on many other issues, European governments agree on the need to reduce “irregular” immigration, in particular that originating from Africa, and increase the repatriation of people staying illegally in EU territory.

The shipwrecks  of 12 and 19 April 2015 off the coast of Libya, in which more than 1,200 people lost their lives, provided a pretext for the acceleration of these policies. According to the European Council declaration, in order to “save lives at sea”, it is necessary to externalise border control, fight against people-smuggling and encourage cooperation on repatriations by mobilising “all tools, including through development cooperation”.

The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa

Repeatedly articulated by the Commission and the Council over the course of spring and summer 2015, these priorities form the backdrop to the Valletta Summit on migration on 11 and 12 November 2015, which brought together European and African leaders on the question of “migration management”. A new financial instrument was launched, the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF for Africa), with the aim of fighting “the root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa”.

The fund was criticised from its launch, firstly on the basis of its structure. Established in 2013, the European Union Trust Funds  are multi-donor financial mechanisms that allow for flexible and fast responses to external emergency situations. Separate from the EU budget, they are not monitored by the Parliament, which does not appreciate being sidelined. “That didn’t surprise me,” says Spanish Member of EU Parliament Sira Rego, Vice President of European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL). “The EUTF for Africa is an]  example of the lack of transparency that characterises the EU, just like the Facility for Refugees in Turkey or Frontex.”

According to Thomas Spijkerboer, professor in migration law at Vrije University Amsterdam, the fund is particularly problematic, because its implementation relies on the declaration of a state of emergency in the 26 African countries to which the mechanism applies. A declaration, he explains in a recent interview with the journal  Parallax, that “fits with the pattern of applying fundamental rules (on competition law, in this case) in Europe but not in Africa”. This flexibility, according to figures provided by the Commission, has allowed for the allocation of approximately 70% of EUTF funding through direct attribution procedures and 30% through public market procedures.

In the world of development aid it is primarily the goal put forward by the EUTF that raises concerns: reducing irregular immigration from Africa. Of course, “development aid has always been and always will be a tool for EU states – as we saw recently with Afghanistan ,” says Tessa Coggio of the NGO Relief International, who wrote her thesis on the EUTF (an abridged version  has been published by Migration Information Source). With this fund, the hitherto largely positive vision of migration as advantageous for development is replaced by a restrictive and security-oriented approach to human mobility.

As Deutsche Welle reveals in its investigation  of the projects receiving the most funding, the primary category for funding allocation is migration management, with 24% of all resources allocated. Projects range from support for the Libyan coast guard (despite allegations of grave human rights violations against people intercepted at sea and detained in Libya), to schemes for "voluntary" returns from Niger of migrants evacuated from Libya or expelled from Algeria.

In this respect, “the voluntary nature of these returns is questionable,” declares the French organisation  La Cimade, “particularly as it is the sine qua non condition for obtaining access to the services of the Migrant Information Office in Agadez”. Similarly, the reinforcement of border control in Morocco and Tunisia  has resulted in an instrumentalisation of migrant issues by the governments of these countries, aware of the power they can leverage with their European counterparts.

“The root causes of migration”

The minutes of the board meetings  of the EUTF, presided over by the Commission and attended by representatives of donor countries and - as observers - representatives of the African countries in question, are instructive in this regard. In 2018 – halfway through the EUTF’s schedule – the EU representatives congratulated themselves on the reduction in “migration flows” from Libya and considered “putting in place rapid responses to avoid the creation of alternative itineraries” in northern Africa. For their part, certain partner countries – Ethopia, Guinea and the Gambia – “would rather that root causes of irregular migration are addressed”.

While they make up the full, official name of the EUTF, “the root-cause approach is not interesting anymore in Europe,” says Mehari Taddele Maru, professor at the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute. At the Valletta Summit, “many Africans insisted that root causes be included, but how much money has been allocated for root causes compared to border control?”


Receive the best of European journalism straight to your inbox every Thursday


The problem is not solely in the distribution of funding, but also the timeframe envisaged by the EUTF. Initially planned for five years (and then extended), the financial mechanism is more adapted to humanitarian interventions than the stabilisation and strengthening of local institutions. "We know that migration does not just result from people not having a job," says Camille Le Coz, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. "There are many problems that motivate people to leave their homes, such as corruption, lack of public services… And I think that on these governance issues, there hasn’t been enough engagement."

An opinion shared by Tessa Coggio. In her opinion, the training and reintegration programs are very important on an individual level, but "if you strengthen institutions, if you strengthen service provision – things that support people's rights and improve their quality of life, but don't necessarily put money in their pockets – over time this could meaningfully shape someone's decision about whether or not they need to seek opportunity on a different continent."

Mehari Maru recalls that in view of the Valletta Summit, the African Union would have liked to present a common position , but some AU member countries, including Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal, "preferred to sign bilateral agreements with the EU", attracted by the funding offered through the EUTF. This was a result of aggressive migration diplomacy.

Divided in the face of pressure from the EU, the African countries were also invited to accept a minor role in the new financial program. Raffaella Greco Tonegutti, an expert in migration and development for Belgian development agency Enabel, explains that “previous programs envisaged the significant involvement of stakeholders in partner countries, at the conception and formulation stage but also at the contracting stage. As a development agency, we are used to programs that are co-signed by our local partners.”

For its part Enabel, involved in a dozen projects financed by the EUTF for Africa, has tried to take “at least a year at the beginning of the interventions to ensure a dialogue with local actors, in order to consult them on the design of the projects”. The result is that they “have almost systematically delayed implementation, rather than risk losing contact with local actors. That will pay off in the long term, I’m sure. The Commission has been able to conduct studies and analyses in the meantime. These have highlighted the importance of involving partners in the design of projects, and the risk of unsustainable results when solutions are implemented too quickly.”

Tonegutti does, however, underline the positive innovations provided by the EUTF. In particular, collaboration has been encouraged between implementing partners (“it was already happening, but not to this extent”). In addition, a regional and multi-sector approach within projects “has pushed development actors to avoid thinking in terms of sectors (education, health, infrastructure…), but rather to construct alliances around multidimensional themes such as resilience.” 

Another aspect of the EUTF that is appreciated by many actors in the development sector is the effort that has been made by the Commission in terms of transparency and monitoring. “Of course, it would have been better to do it from the very beginning,” notes Camille Le Coz, “but after the initial criticism, the Commission developed a monitoring and evaluation system, and published regular progress reports on the projects. This has made it easier to monitor the overall implementation of the EUTF.”

The Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) after the EUTF

Beyond transparency around data and the availability of certain quantitative results, and pending the final assessment of the EUTF by the Commission (expected in 2024 or 2025), the experiment has already borne fruit politically. Little matter that the “root causes” have not been resolved and the dip in the “irregular migration flows” was only temporary (and caused by an increasingly violent restriction of human mobility in Africa).

“Migration management” remains central to the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI), the new financial instrument for external action approved for the period 2021-2027. 10% of the total budget of €79.5 billion is reserved for migration management projects, with the possibility of drawing on a reserve of €9.53 billion in the event of “unforeseen circumstances”, “new needs” or “emerging challenges”.  

A leaked internal document of the Commission, dated November 2021 and published by the Migration Control network in March 2022, confirms that the NDICI is the continuation of the EUTF: the flexibility cherished by the member states is its focus, as are projects initiated in the framework of the EUTF that will continue to be financed, notably in northern Africa. The NDICI is also considered an “essential tool” to support the implementation of the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum, a collection of propositions presented by the Commission in September 2020 that, after initial difficulties, was granted a second life under the French Presidency of the EU Council. The Pact is intended to make the external dimension of EU migration and asylum policies more operational.

The EU Parliament has assured itself of a greater role in the monitoring of the NDICI, according to German MP Udo Bullmann, coordinator of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group within the parliament’s Commission on Development. He chairs the monitoring group on Africa, one of the three groups introduced to supervise the implementation of the NDICI (the two other groups deal with Asia and Latin America).

Ethiopia : A case study

Although under pressure, African governments still have room to manoeuvre, as illustrated by the example of Ethiopia. As Oxfam explains in its 2020 report on the EUTF, the EU made use of the funding to pressure the Ethiopian government to sign an informal repatriation agreement. The only other informal readmission agreements entered into by the EU Commission in Africa concerned EUTF beneficiaries, namely the Ivory Coast, the Gambia and Guinea. However, in January 2022, in a letter published by Statewatch, the Commission acknowledged that Ethiopian authorities had not proven to be cooperative in the readmission procedures (particularly since, compared to the 100,000 nationals repatriated each year from Saudi Arabia, the few hundred that the EU insists on expelling “pale in comparison”, points out Mehari Taddele Maru).

That said, the agency of African governments is conditioned by what Mehari Taddele Maru, in a study published in 2021, calls a "power asymmetry", stemming from the postcolonial nature of the EU's relationship with such countries. By exporting to Africa – including through development aid – its security- and containment-focused vision of migration and borders, the EU "short-circuited many promising projects that African countries and Europe had on migration. Before Valletta, there were some signs of progress with the African Institute of Remittances, on the African Union’s Commission Initiative Against Trafficking, on alternative-livelihood mechanisms for young people, and even on border governance. There was an opportunity to improve the local capacities, not to put Frontex in Africa. It's what I call capacity substitution: instead of building the capacity of African countries, they are substituting the capacity."

However, the fields of action that would benefit both Europe and Africa are already known (and have received little support from the EUTF): legal immigration, freedom of movement within Africa, remittances, the positive role of diasporas, the reinforcement of local intuitions in Africa. Instead of letting itself be blinded by “the fear of a sociocultural threat”, Europe should address the issue of migration in a rational manner, believes Maru. And it should also overcome what Thomas Spijkerboer calls "denial of the very real human as well as economic ties that exist between Europe and its former colonies”.

The vision of development aid must also change. "We need a development model based on solidarity," says Sira Rego. "We are in a worldwide eco-social crisis in which either we all save ourselves or no one is saved." According to Udo Bullmann, it would be a mistake to subordinate development policies to foreign-policy priorities and "new paradigms of defence policy": "Only a holistic approach to development, an approach based on human development, can really produce security in the long term. Europeans have to realise that we are in a new global political setting, and that development policy - as a horizontal way of creating sustainable partnerships - is the central way to build a just future for everybody."

In partnership with the European Data Journalism Network

Was this article useful? If so we are delighted! It is freely available because we believe that the right to free and independent information is essential for democracy. But this right is not guaranteed forever, and independence comes at a cost. We need your support in order to continue publishing independent, multilingual news for all Europeans. Discover our membership offers and their exclusive benefits and become a member of our community now!

Are you a news organisation, a business, an association or a foundation? Check out our bespoke editorial and translation services.

Support independent European journalism

European democracy needs independent media. Join our community!

On the same topic