Valletta Summit: Aid For Africa Is Not the Solution to the Refugee Crisis

African Union Valletta
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union Commission, attends the Valletta Summit on Migration in Valletta, Malta, November 12. Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters

Giving more development aid to Africa may be a good idea, but the proposition that it will be an effective way of stemming the flow of migrants out of Africa toward Europe is deeply flawed.

At this week's Valletta Migration Summit between European and African leaders in Malta, the European Union announced the establishment of an Emergency Trust Fund for Africa to promote stability and to address the root causes of irregular migration and displacement. The EU has pledged 1.8 billion euros ($1.9 billion) and has asked member states to make additional contributions to match that amount.

The funds are to be spent on an array of activities including generating employment opportunities, reintegrating returnees, providing basic services for local populations, and promoting environmental sustainability. Money will also be directed at law enforcement, border management, containing and preventing irregular migration, combatting trafficking and smuggling and countering radicalization and extremism.

The underlying idea of the Fund and the Summit is that more EU aid will curb migration. That idea is flawed for three reasons.

First, it assumes that development aid given to recipient countries (through government and civil society channels) will directly and immediately improve the lives of would-be migrants and their families. We know that this is not how development works, and that development may in fact lead to greater migration. When aid contributes to significant economic progress, the results usually take many years—a generation or more—to materialize. Sustained and significant economic development in Africa is part of the solution to tackling instability and poverty in Africa, but this is a long-term solution which will take more than a few billion euros in aid, and its potential to reduce migration is dubious.

Second, it is premised on the idea that all migration to Europe is economic, or has economic roots. This is to ignore the fact that many people are fleeing persecution or conflict in their countries of origin—people coming from Eritrea, Somalia, parts of Nigeria and the Central African Republic face such threats. Often the abuse that they are vulnerable to is at the hands of the state. Such displaced persons have real protection needs that cannot be addressed in their countries of origin. No amount of development aid will address the root cause of their movement.

Failing to recognize many of the causes of forced migration in Africa amounts to an attempt to recast Africans on the move to Europe as migrants, even as those from Syria and Iraq are recognized as refugees. This denies the reality that many African migrants are actually mixed migrants with both protection and economic needs. Casting movement out of Africa as essentially an economic problem is a dangerous narrative, because it facilitates the further closing of opportunities for legal and safe movement of African refugees.

Third, while the Fund claims to address root causes of movement, a major focus is to pave the way for countries of origin to accept deportations.

Countries that receive Trust Fund money will have to agree to cooperate in receiving the voluntary and involuntary return of failed asylum seekers and others deemed not to be eligible to remain in the EU. African countries are being given a payoff to accept deportations, thereby helping EU countries address a long-standing problem that has little to do with development in areas of origin. No mention is made in the Summit's Action Plan of any mechanism to ensure that those who are returned are not subjected to human rights abuses; without such safeguards these measures may result in people being returned to situations of abuse without recourse.

Related to this, African countries will also be expected to increase their border control measures to prevent people from leaving or transiting. This may result in blocking people with real protection needs from being able to move, effectively trapping them in dangerous circumstances.

To be sure, it is reasonable to seek to address migrant flows comprehensively: at the points of origin, along the transit routes, and in the destination countries. But there is nothing in the statements from the Summit to suggest any increased willingness of EU member states to assume more of their rightful responsibilities toward refugees and those in need of protection. Without that essential element, the Trust Fund is nothing more than an attempt to deflect Europe's refugee crisis back in the direction from which it has come.

There are some elements of the Action Plan which are to be applauded, such as the facilitation of more affordable remittance sending mechanisms and the (admittedly small) increase in the numbers of scholarships for African students wanting to study in the EU. But the Trust Fund for Africa will not result in fewer Africans risking their lives to reach Europe.

Laura Hammond is a reader in Development Studies at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London.