African and European migration diplomacy: a checklist and suggested future direction

Original article at:

Andrew Geddes and Mehari Taddele Maru

While EU member states and citizens debate the new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum, it is clear that migration has been, is and will continue to be an integral part of the relations between African and European countries.

A ‘strong external dimension’ takes a pride of place in the Pact and ‘migration diplomacy’ will most probably be deployed as a tool of first choice to persuade (sometimes coerce) governments to agree to keep people in countries of origin and transit.

This blog assesses African Union (AU) and European Union (EU) ‘migration diplomacy’ with a focus on the African perspective to think through implications for policy, governance and international cooperation. We present a 9-point checklist to assess developments so far, and suggest a direction for future travel that recognises that an efficient and sustainable migration governance architecture is unthinkable without the active participation of national and local authorities and local communities in African countries.

1. Strategic migration governance
Migration diplomacy has so far not led to strategic migration governance in Africa. Current African approaches to migration tend to lack a clear and comprehensive policy direction. Instead, there is a focus on the criminal justice system, with the emphasis on irregular migration, refugees, and the prosecution of traffickers and smugglers. A more strategic approach can help shift away from migration management through legislation to migration governance and potentially address the securitization of borders, the criminal approach to most of migration related public work and an undue focus on the negative aspects of migration.

2. Primacy of state responsibility
Stability and the provision of decent living standards for citizens by African states remain vital to address irregular migration and displacement. These are the primary responsibilities of states to their citizens. States bear responsibility for protecting their citizens and are expected to institute normative, institutional, collaborative and financial frameworks for migration governance. Hence, it is axiomatic that African countries should be held responsible for and assisted in providing stability and essential economic delivery for decent living standards.

3. Addressing the fundamental problems
The challenges related to migration are unlikely to be resolved through short-term containment strategies at the borders of countries of origin, transit and destination. Migration governance must go beyond a response to irregular migration and displacement; it is necessarily linked to the African development agenda at national, local and international levels. The consequent social stability would make it possible to address the causes, triggers and accelerators of irregular migration and displacement. These require foresight and long-term strategic engagement. Unless governments get the fundamentals of migration governance right, current engagement with EU will remain on weak foundations, and always brittle. African countries have yet to come up with a necessary degree of political determination and leadership for effective implementation mechanisms at national and regional levels. There is an urgent need for a nationally-owned, politically-led migration governance agenda. Effective migration governance cannot be achieved without acquiring and building the necessary capability.

4. National consultative conferences
An argument can be made that priority in developing partnerships should have been – but was not – placed on building migration governance structures throughout Africa to develop comprehensive, stand-alone policies to provide strategic thinking and clarity about the benefits and costs of migration. To do this requires a normative, institutional and collaborative state framework – in cooperation with non-state actors – that could facilitate voluntary, safe, orderly and legal mobility and a consequent reduction in forced or irregular migration. A first step to building such an institutional architecture could be national consultative conferences to articulate the policy direction of the countries at national level dealing with existing normative frameworks on migration at the level of the African Union and Africa’s regional economic communities.

5. More migration diplomats
Migration diplomacy requires more diplomats trained in migration governance. Given the transnational nature of migration, effective migration governance requires well-coordinated, coherent and harmonised national and regional collaboration. Such collaboration extends beyond organisations and member states into the development of bilateral, regional and global cooperation.

6. Human rights protective migration regimes
Diplomacy is also necessary to ensure the protection of migrants’ rights and coordination among those involved, including the migrants themselves and the governments in their countries of origin, transit and destination. Regional frameworks and processes foster harmonised policy and shared minimum standards for consistency, cooperation and complementarity among member states. Diplomacy can also facilitate harmonised policies at regional and national level, help in the fight against criminal networks involved in human trafficking and smuggling and protect human rights.

7. Regional free movement
Facilitation of regional free movement and labour migration is unthinkable without regional policy harmonisation; which at regional level could also foster complementary initiatives such as free movement, training, education and job market matching with an impact on migration. In the Horn of Africa, for example, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development has initiated several regional and national level processes, all of which require dynamic migration diplomacy programmes staffed by diplomats who understand migration governance.

8. From policy to practice
The AU and EU have long been committed to a normative framework, but while progress in norm-setting has been relatively rapid, implementation has been slow. Practical steps are required to provide resources for implementation. African states generally still lack the will, determination, institutional framework and resources necessary to govern migration effectively. Putting into effect, the policies advanced in AU-EU policy documents demands coherent, consistent and comprehensive planning and resourcing of implementation. Governance and institutional inadequacies are attributable primarily to the meagre resources allocated to migration, and the challenges will remain for the foreseeable future unless partners devote larger resources to plug gaps in funding, address institutional weaknesses and help implement the recommendations advanced in AU-EU policy documents.

9. Localization as implementation mechanism
Migration diplomacy can be a valuable tool for effective local governance of migration in border areas. Building an efficient and sustainable migration governance architecture is unthinkable without the active participation of national and local authorities and local communities. Effective implementation of migration governance depends on local authorities and communities. Community engagement considers the particularities of localities and communities, their emerging issues and the priorities of migration source hotspots and border areas. To avoid the common mistake of ‘one size fits all’ or EU-centric ‘our size fits all’ programmes, migration policy requires decentralised planning and implementation to enable migration governance to recognise the necessity of embracing proximity, local expertise and legitimacy and to tailor interventions to local contexts. Localization can encourage local entities to initiate their migration management proposals and potentially help to reduce the negative impacts of migration management that have substantially undermined the other useful components of cross-border trade, including significant opportunities for peace, mobility, integration, and regional prosperity.

To conclude, a productive future path for AU-EU migration diplomacy would be a focus on localising the migration agenda and devolving migration governance with greater involvement by local populations co-opted as vital participants in finding solutions to the challenges of migration governance. This includes in cross-border areas. Clearly, decentralisation demands the capacity to implement and discharge the responsibility that can be developed in the context of enabling the state and local authorities to take responsibility for the governance of migration in the regions and localities they administer. International actors therefore should not encourage – or fund – national systems that coercively replace local priorities. Migration diplomacy should have as its objective the aim of endowing local authorities with the capacity effectively to govern migration in their areas.

Looking forward, the aim of a cohesive global, regional and national migration architecture should be to build better governance from the local level upwards. Donors, including the UN, the AU and RECs could form a support system for national coordination mechanisms, which, in turn, could act as back-up generators for local governance structures.