Europe's risky experiment: Can aid be used to deter migration?

Migrants cross the Mediterranean from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo by: Mstyslav Chernov / Unframe / CC BY-SA

In 2015, amid the greatest displacement crisis since World War II, a million refugees and migrants arrived on Europe’s shores. Travelling via neighbouring countries in the Middle East and North Africa, some arrived by foot across the European Union’s eastern borders; while most came by sea, crossing the Mediterranean in overloaded dinghies — sometimes without so much as an engine or someone who knew how to steer.

European governments struggled to respond and were criticized for falling into political paralysis as thousands lost their lives attempting the perilous journey. More than 12,000 people died in Mediterranean waters during 2014 to 2016, according to the International Organization for Migration. This year, there have been more than 2,000 deaths so far, alongside 70,000 safe arrivals.

In November 2015, as the crisis peaked, European leaders met in Valletta, Malta — the arid island on Europe’s southern border which acts as a key arrival point for migrants — to try to reach a unified response. The result was the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa — a development instrument that promised to “address the root causes of irregular [or undocumented] migration” through the “flexible, speedy and efficient delivery of support to foster stability and contribute to better migration management” in three regions seen as central to Europe’s migration challenge: The Sahel and Lake Chad, the Horn of Africa, and North Africa.

Since then, migration has become one of the most controversial issues in European development circles. Under the rules that govern official development assistance, limiting migration to a donor cannot be the primary objective of aid, but migration-related aid spending is allowed if it contributes to the economic development and welfare of the recipient country. Some say that definition is being stretched too far.

The approach has now been embedded into EU development policy: Tackling migration is included among the goals of the Union's new development framework, which will guide programming until 2030.

To its proponents, these moves bolster existing development efforts on the understanding that improving stability and quality of life in developing countries also drives down the motivation to move.

But critics say the focus on migration deprioritizes the needs of the recipient country in favour of the domestic objectives of the donor — and that it risks blurring the line between aid and security.

How much money has been affected?

To date, 2.8 billion euros ($3.1 billion) of aid has been pledged to the EU Trust Fund — money which has mostly been drawn from the existing budget of the European Development Fund, an aid instrument focused on the countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Beyond the EU Trust Fund, there has also been a more general reorienting of aid toward the goal of tackling migration. A Devex analysis shows that money from at least two other EU development pots has been earmarked for migration since the Valletta Summit, and EuropeAid identified “migration” as the primary focus of roughly 17 percent of development activities planned since the beginning of last year.

Debating the rules: What in-house refugee costs count as aid?

The amount of development aid being redirected to domestic refugee reception has skyrocketed in recent years. Now, the rules for what local costs count as aid are up for debate. Civil society sees a crucial moment to tighten the reigns.

However, migration-related programming is often not categorized as such within the EuropeAid documentation. For example, most of the projects planned so far through the EU Trust Fund — which accounts for a third of all programming since January 2016 — have been categorized under alternative sectors, such as “economic development” or “governance and institutional development.” As a result, it is unclear how much funding has been reshaped under the migration agenda.

In part, this reflects the blurred line between migration programming and other sectors, with proponents arguing that there is little difference between the two. Spending to tackle the root causes of migration typically focuses on job creation — since it is often the young and unemployed who travel to find work — alongside additional support for refugees in host countries, the provision of basic services to local populations and broader issues such as food and water security. Projects covering border management, security and trafficking are also included.

The same phenomenon is being witnessed in the bilateral aid programs of several key European governments. In Germany, migration is a development priority, with 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) of bilateral aid spent on the issue during 2016 alone. In the United Kingdom, the government’s Illegal Migration Strategy — which aims to limit the number of irregular migrants arriving in the country — has been part-funded from the aid budget, and aid announcements increasingly refer to migration.

“The trend at the EU level is being pushed by member states,” said Inge Brees, a migration expert at Concord, the European confederation of NGOs. “There’s so much connection now between the migration agenda and the development agenda that it’s impacting [aid] in many different ways.”

Senior politicians in Germany and Austria have even pushed for aid to be made conditional on recipient countries being “cooperative” on migration issues — for example, on the rapid readmission of failed asylum seekers. But as some countries receive more from migrant’s remittances than they do from aid, priorities are not clear-cut. “We are very short on carrots and sticks,” said Judith Sargentini, a Dutch MEP, at the recent European Development Days summit.

‘Migration goals are development goals’

Neven Mimica, European commissioner for international cooperation and development. Photo by: European Commission

In the “European Quarter” of Brussels, Neven Mimica, European commissioner for international cooperation and development, sat at a desk in a sweeping office, overlooking a parade of EU flags on the street below.

“Tackling the root causes of migration is one of the important tasks of [our] development policy; it has been so before and it will be in the future,” he told Devex. “We really want to address the issues in our partner countries — in Africa especially — that prevent or suppress development by creating better conditions for growth, for job creation, for vocational training and skills, and other issues that really could [help] people to stay and to be integrated in economic and social life in their countries.”

He rejected claims that the migration agenda constitutes a “diversion” of development money. “I do not see a substantial argument for such claims,” he said. “The point is that the root causes that make people move from their country are also the roots of underdevelopment. Migration goals are development goals.”

Mimica pointed out that migration is part of the Sustainable Development Agenda: Sustainable Development Goal 10 — reducing inequalities — includes a target to “facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration … including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.”

NGOs had indeed lobbied hard for the inclusion of migration in the SDGs — but advocates say there are right and wrong ways to approach it. Several who spoke to Devex argued that migration went from playing almost no role in development cooperation to being the main lens through which it is viewed.

“Looking at the push factors that force people to leave is really important,” said Brees, “but what we see as the negative side-effect is that instead of looking at ‘where do we need to invest most to eradicate poverty?’ ... we see more and more a shift towards ‘where do we need to invest to make sure people don’t move?’”

“We’re very worried that more and more funding will go particularly to those countries and regions that produce migration towards Europe at the expense of everyone else,” she said.

That could also mean the least developed countries are overlooked, as they tend to generate fewer migrants than slightly wealthier countries.

The concern is backed up by data from the Donor Tracker, which shows that European aid has increasingly shifted toward the Middle East and Africa — and particularly to regions seen as key origins or transit zones for migrants — since the “crisis” began.

In addition, the amount of money being diverted to support refugees within the developed countries of Europe has soared in recent years. In 2015, such costs accounted for up to a third of official development assistance spending by some European governments, eating into the money available for development work overseas.

Changing priorities

As well as shifting the geographical distribution of aid, the migration agenda seems to have affected the kinds of projects that money is used for. The Donor Tracker points to a higher level of spending on humanitarian rather than development aid; while Brees said she has seen a growing focus on “the broad banner of resilience,” border control mechanisms and the setting up of asylum systems — “things that are necessary but that would normally not receive first priority,” she said.

Hilary Jeune, policy advisor at Oxfam EU, argued that the migration agenda means prioritizing the donor’s needs over the recipient’s. “These countries do need aid but ... they have made their development strategies, they know what they want and need” in terms of projects and support, she said. Migration programming often means offering up different projects instead.

There have also been reports from the ground of projects being implemented hastily in order to showcase rapid results, she said. “We’re hearing that projects are starting to have indicators where you have to start showing, for example, not only how many jobs you’ve created but also how many migrants that would have stopped from going.”

While some proponents of migration programming argue that it can mean more funding for development, Jeune and others said that their concern is less the quantity of the funding than the quality of the projects — and that aid programs unable to demonstrate a short-term impact on migration might come under pressure.

“If aid is used to try to force somebody else’s policies on to countries and citizens, we’re going to fail — just as there have been failures in the past,” she said.

Laura Sullivan, vice-president of Concord, the European confederation of NGOs, talks to Devex about the migration agenda at last month’s European Development Days in Brussels.

Securitization of aid

The new Sahel Security College, created with the help of 7 million euros ($8 million) from the EU Trust Fund for Africa, is expected to collaboratively train military forces from Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad to strengthen security in the region, with a focus on tackling terrorism, organized crime and human trafficking. In June, the EU committed a further 50 million euros ($56 million) to support a joint military force between these countries, with the money drawn from the African Peace Facility via the European Development Fund.

While many of the projects that fall under the banner of migration resemble traditional development programs, there is increasing concern about the use of aid money for hard security.

Such concerns existed prior to the migration agenda taking hold, said Brees. “There was already more and more attention with SDG 16 on peace being used as a rationale to say ‘we need to invest more into peace, and thus into security.’ But that’s really being identified as state security — the military and so on — whereas civil society saw it more as human security.

“In the migration agenda, again, [we’re seeing] border control and border guards and so on, and that’s where the two agendas get linked.”

At the European Development Days, many speakers stressed the need to align efforts on security and development.

Angel Losada Fernandez, the EU’s special representative for the Sahel, said the EU recognizes that “there is no development without security, and no security without development.” Speaking in French, he said the Union is not against migration, but that “illicit migration” must be tackled for the immense suffering it can cause. “Let’s not talk about militarizing borders but about managing them with an important security element,” he said.

NGO workers worry that this gets dangerously close to the line. In Sudan — a key partner country under the EU’s migration agenda, in receipt of hundreds of millions of euros of aid — there have been particular reports of the violent treatment of migrants attempting to pass through its borders. A European parliamentary delegation which visited in December 2016 independently of EuropeAid found the northern border under control of the Janjaweed, a government-aligned militia blamed for atrocities in Darfur.

The EU has not given any money directly to the Sudanese government, instead distributing it through international organizations and aid agencies. But critics say Sudan has understood it can curry favor by showing results on migration. The parliamentary delegation said it is “clear” from the agreements and projects underway that Sudan ultimately expects to receive training and equipment for its security forces.

“It’s not necessarily that [money is being used for] very clear-cut security projects — building a wall or something — but if you’re boosting support by giving data technology to manage flows across the border or to ID people who are travelling, that could ... have a lot of negative effects — especially in the kind of countries [the EU is] dealing with,” said Jeune.

Ensuring that aid projects conform with standards on human rights is an essential part of the EU’s development work, Mimica told Devex. “Our development cooperation always goes [alongside] political dialogue ... because we see that respect of democratic values, human rights and the rule of law can be the only enhancing environment for the real success of our development cooperation,” he said. That includes having raised the issue with the government of Sudan.

He added that, while accountability mechanisms are already in place, there would be renewed emphasis on improving these under the EU’s new development framework.

Can it work?

On all sides of the debate, everyone who spoke to Devex agreed that tackling the root causes of migration can only be a long-term project.

“Migration is a historical phenomenon that has existed through centuries,” said Mimica. “The ultimate goal of our development engagement in the migration agenda is to turn irregular migration into legal, ordinary migration flows where people would not decide to migrate from their countries of origin out of necessity and desperation but ... as a result of their choice and aspirations.”

“There could not be a short-term result in stopping migration,” he said, “but in transforming migration … this is a goal that we can achieve, together with the outcomes of the global 2030 agenda.”

Advocates, including some members of the European parliament, told Devex the best approach would be to create safe, legal routes for migrants that would shut down the traffickers’ market — but there are no signs of this happening on a significant scale.

“Legal pathways hardly exist,” said Sargentini. “We’re fuelling a business of smugglers.”

Some suggested the strategy could even be counter-productive. Gervais Appave, special advisor to the director-general of the IOM, pointed out that development has the potential to increase migration. “There are very few people who migrate from the poorest countries in the world; they do not have the means to do that,” he said. “As development increases, they have the means to travel.”

Jeune said that “the short-term European thinking” of trying to stop migration could hinder development in the long-term because the mobility of skills and labor is part of that — pointing to the EU itself as an example.

Strengthening borders could also have serious knock-on effects for communities who are used to being able to cross them, she added. In an interview included in the European parliamentary report, an anonymous member of Sudan’s national anti-trafficking committee worried that efforts to reduce migration to Europe might lead to the closure of borders within Africa and a subsequent “deterioration of relations amongst countries of the region.”

“Development cooperation is a long-term process,” said Sargentini, also a substitute member of the European Parliament’s development committee. “It’s one of the processes that’s best evaluated — we do trial, error, evaluation; trial, error evaluation — and here comes along [the] ‘internal affairs’ [department] that says ‘but we need a solution tomorrow,’ ruining your whole routine.”

The risk, she said, is that a few years’ down the line the EU and its member states will conclude: “We spent development aid on migration issues and it didn’t deliver what we were looking for — a lower number of people arriving in Europe — therefore we can cut development aid and spend it on something else.”

Mimica disagreed. “We don’t see that tackling the root causes of migration would go contrary to the development goals,” he said. “The point is that the root causes that make people move from their country are also the roots of underdevelopment.”

But even if the development agenda receives more attention — and funding — because of its links with migration, said Brees, it’s problematic because “it changes the way one of the biggest development donors worldwide looks at their main mission.”

“By buying into that political narrative, it’s to some extent diverting [aid] from its original purpose and what the Lisbon Treaty prescribes as the main purpose for EU development cooperation, which is poverty eradication … It [has] completely changed the lens for development cooperation from one which looks at vulnerability and where we can best invest to reduce poverty to one which is too closely linked to migration.”

“So instead of just having attention paid to migration — which we were actually asking for, particularly for forced migration — it became the main lens. And that’s not acceptable.”

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About the author

  • Jessica Abrahams

    Jessica Abrahams is Editor of Devex Pro. Based in London, she helps to oversee news, features, data analysis, events, and newsletters for Devex subscribers. She previously served as Deputy News Editor and as an Associate Editor, with a particular focus on Europe. Before joining Devex, she worked as a writer, researcher, and editor for Prospect magazine, The Telegraph, and Bloomberg News, among other outlets. She holds graduate degrees in journalism from City University London and in international relations from Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals.