The Italian navy helps a boatload of people trying to reach Europe from North Africa. Photo by: M. Sestini / Italian Navy

BRUSSELS — When Nafkote Dabi, Oxfam’s policy lead in Niger, Nigeria, and Chad, went to Brussels for meetings at the European Union institutions in late October, she expected to be talking about the region’s humanitarian crisis.

“Now, being here, I have come to realize all the hoopla is about migration,” Dabi told Devex in Brussels. “Maybe we need to find a way to rephrase our humanitarian engagement to highlight [migration issues], but to pull it back towards our own agenda.”

Dabi is not alone in her concerns.

Two years ago this week, EU leaders gathered in Valletta, Malta, to address the escalating number of refugees and undocumented migrants arriving in Europe, with thousands drowning in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

As a result of the Valletta Summit, leaders agreed to “mainstream migration in development cooperation,” in part through the establishment of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTFA). So far, 117 projects totalling 1.9 billion euros ($2.2 billion) have been approved under the Trust Fund, designed to “address the root causes of instability, forced displacement and irregular migration and to contribute to better migration management” across the Sahel and Lake Chad, the Horn of Africa and North Africa.

Migration crisis: Two years on

In 2015, more than a million undocumented migrants and refugees arrived in Europe. A further 3,515 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean. In November that year, as the “migration crisis” escalated, European leaders met to hash out a solution at the Valletta Summit, relying heavily on the idea that development cooperation could help.

Two years on, Devex is taking a look at some of the policies, priorities and trends that were put in action then, asking what is working, what isn’t  and what’s yet to even start? Read more about the rise of the migration agenda in European development policy, and follow the rest of the series here.

Since then, “addressing the root causes of migration” has become a central refrain in European development policy, driving billions of euros worth of aid. That includes the new European Fund for Sustainable Development, a plan worth a potential 4.1 billion euros ($4.8 billion) to trigger private investment in Africa and the European neighbourhood, in order to alleviate poverty and other “migratory pressures.” The EU’s new Consensus on Development — a framework that will guide the development policy of the world’s fourth-largest bilateral donor until 2030 — also promises to “address the root causes of irregular migration.”

But critics say there is little agreement over what those root causes are, and that it is unclear what definition is being used to guide policy.

The Valletta Summit Action Plan committed EU leaders to “conduct a joint EU-Africa analysis of the root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement to improve the evidence-base of public policies.” Two years later, that analysis has yet to materialize.

A spokesperson for the European Commission said the EU is “constantly analyzing these issues with its African partners”, including as it assesses development projects, and that root causes will be a subject of discussion at the Africa-EU Summit in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, at the end of November.

“Based on the results of these different work strands, it will be decided in what form this joint analysis will be ultimately presented,” the spokesperson said.

In the meantime, European leaders are offering their own definitions. But aid experts say there is a complex relationship between the causes of migration, and development.

The relationship between poverty and migration

In a speech in September, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, said “the time when we had the illusion of managing migration flows only through border management is gone.” Now, she said, Europe must address “what we all usually define as the root causes: poverty, climate change, lack of democratic spaces, violations of human rights, opportunities for life.”

European commissioner for development policy, Neven Mimica, has said the EU’s strategy is to support projects that create economic opportunities, increase basic services in “risk areas,” and to strengthen governance and the rule of law.

There is a “general consensus,” the commission spokesperson added, that “many of the drivers of migration are similar to the root causes of poverty.”

Yet Arezo Malakooti, a migration researcher and former senior adviser at the International Organization for Migration, pointed out that it’s more complex than that. “It’s only when you hit upper middle-income levels that migration actually starts to decrease,” she said. Before then, development can prompt more migration as people acquire the means to travel in search of opportunity.

A recent German Development Institute briefing paper on this so-called “migration hump” found that income was not the only factor in the decision to leave home. It pointed to two other key factors: demography, as younger populations are more inclined to migrate; and whether there is already a large community diaspora able to instruct and inspire others.

“Research has shown that a feeling of inequality is far more influential in a decision to migrate than absolute need,” Malakooti added. “It’s when you are poor and you realize that somewhere else people are living better than you, and you might be able to have a better life somewhere else,” that people decide to move.

European commissioner for development policy Neven Mimica and EU’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini during the Valletta Summit on Migration held in November 2015. Photo by: European External Action Service / CC BY-NC

Legal pathways and irregular migration

There is also a question over whether EU policy intends to tackle the root causes of all migration, or only those traveling “irregularly,” without authorization. The Valletta Summit sought to address the root causes of “irregular migration,” while the EFSD aims to tackle “migratory pressures” at large.

NGOs often point out that Sustainable Development Goal 10.7 aims to “facilitate orderly, safe, and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies.”

And the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, agreed at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016, points out that migrants themselves play an important role in helping development at home.

The commission spokesperson argued that by tackling poverty the EU aimed “to ensure that migration (be it irregular or not) happens out of choice, not out of necessity.”

But even if people make that choice, they will likely be frustrated by the options on offer.

Emilia Ngabi, a 21-year-old from Cameroon, told the French magazine Society that her brother, Leonge, likely drowned after he tried to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy in the summer of 2016.

“I told him to come back and that we would try and find a legal way to send him to Europe, but he didn’t want to hear it,” she said. “He had already tried so many times to get a visa.”

The EU’s migration strategy includes plans to create more legal pathways to Europe — the best way to tackle irregular migration, many say — but progress has been slow.

In September, European commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said it was “essential” to “open real alternatives to taking perilous irregular journeys. Investing in more legal pathways, both for protection but also for study or work."

But conclusions from a summit of EU leaders’ last month scarcely mentioned this, focusing instead on bolstering border protection and the “reduction of incentives for illegal migration through effective returns.”

Malakooti worries that such hardline policies create an incentive for people to move for longer periods. The more difficult and expensive the journey, she said, the less likely migrants are to return to their country of origin, “because they are afraid that they won’t be able to come back again.”

Malakooti argued in a report for IOM last year that most Nigerians coming to Europe do so hoping for a temporary migration of a few years at most. They “wish to migrate to Europe for a specific period of time to work, save enough money to be able to create a business or invest their money in some other income-generating activity on return, and enjoy the fruits of their labours at home with their families.”

The German Development Institute paper argued that EU countries trying to cut irregular migration need to offer more programs for sub-Saharan Africans in Europe.

“A joint programme of the EU, which would cover at least part of the European requirement for seasonal workers, could encourage transit and origin countries to co-operate more in tackling the problem,” the paper argued. “The opportunities for qualified migrants have also not yet been exhausted. If European employers show sufficient interest in such skilled workers, programmes could be supported by funding from development cooperation.”

Malakooti said the fear of millions of people wanting to come to Europe forever was misplaced.

“It’s very rare that when you are migrating for the first time you say ‘I’m going to go to Sweden’, or even Europe in general,” she said. “Usually, it’s more like ‘I’m gonna migrate and see where I can find better opportunities’. Usually the first step will be to go to an urban center in your own country and try your luck. If you find a job there, you’ll stay.”

The researcher said she’d met sub-Saharan Africans in North Africa who told her their plan was to reach Europe, find a job, make some money and then apply for a visa to Canada, making Europe itself a transit zone.

Security and development

Insecurity is also commonly named as a “root cause” of migration, but again this has a complex relationship with development cooperation.

In a report last month called “Beyond Fortress Europe”, Oxfam warned that “development aid should be distributed in accordance with need and its effectiveness should only be measured in achieving development goals.”

This presents a conundrum for NGOs that wish to champion education and health initiatives, but that are wary of development aid going to state security forces, for example.

“If the EU is building a school somewhere, it’s also important that people feel safe enough to go there,” said Raphael Shilhav, who authored the report. “But that doesn’t mean that funding for security forces is necessarily development aid per se.”

“State security doesn’t necessarily translate to human security,” he added. “We do have concerns when we see funding through an emergency mechanism [such as the the EU Trust Fund for Africa] going to state security without a clear explanation or justification as to what exactly are the expected results for human security, and the work plan to get there.”

Another concern is that the focus on migration is distracting from large numbers of internally-displaced people.

The Oxfam report cites the case of Niger, where it says that six of the nine projects under the EUTFA, representing 124 million euros of a total 168.9 million euro investment, are going to migration management and governance issues.

Shilhav said that despite support from the EU’s humanitarian arm, ECHO, the effort to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad basin remained underfunded.

“We see the political focus driving active involvement along the migratory routes, rather than making a real commitment to the objectives of the trust fund to address instability, economic opportunities, equal opportunities and displacement,” he said. “The Lake Chad basin crisis is generating mostly internal displacement, and it’s not the people who have the financial resources to travel very far, so they’re not enough on the European agenda.”

Read more Devex coverage on migration and displacement.

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.