How and why migration is weaponised in the relations between Africa and Europe

Presently, migration is a leading issue in bilateral and multilateral discussions between the European Union (EU) and its member states on the one hand, and the African Union (AU) and its member states on the other.
1 June 2021
Extreme poverty is considered the leading cause of migration of African youth along dangerous and sometimes even fatal routes that involve illegal crossing of borders without proper documentation. [AP]

According to a recent Financial Times report, about 6000 migrants, with 25 percent of them children, "entered Spain after Morocco scaled back the policing of its border following a diplomatic rift between the two countries." Morocco is “deeply unhappy with Spain's decision to provide medical treatment to Brahim Ghali, head of the Polisario Front, which has long fought for the independence of the Western Sahara region." Such a sudden increase in the flow of migrants may be caused by many factors that are not necessarily attributable to migrants only. When a tiff arises between countries, mainly due to disagreements on the political front, it is not surprising to see countries weaponising migration and migrants as an additional tool of diplomacy.

Since the 2015 Valletta Summit, new and aggressive migration diplomacy emerged as the EU began to employ a mix of persuasive and coercive measures to compel African countries to contain or stop migration to Europe. Financial incentives; partnership on aid, development, peace and security; governance and international diplomacy were repurposed as subservient to the migration agenda. Presently, migration is a leading issue in bilateral and multilateral discussions between the European Union (EU) and its member states on the one hand, and the African Union (AU) and its member states on the other.

The power asymmetry (financial and diplomatic) between Europe and Africa has distorted the priorities of Africa and created pressure to implement policies that give precedence to Europe’s interests over those of African countries and migrants. This power asymmetry creates dynamics in the Africa-Europe migration partnership that forces countries to resort to the use of migration and migrants as an added lever to counterbalance the asymmetry.

The EU’s footprints on migration issues are massive and extensive in Africa. This wide reach is attributed to the European Union Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF). Signed by 25 EU member states (plus Norway and Switzerland) and launched by the European and African partners at the Valletta Summit on Migration in November 2015, EUTF amounts to Eur 5 billion. It supports 204 projects in 26 African countries.

The EU also released other funds related to African migration management before 2015. They include the European Development Fund (Eur 30.5 billion), Internal Security Fund focused on borders and visa (Eur 3.6 billion), Return Fund (Eur 676 million) and External Borders Fund (Eur 1.8 billion). These projects are supported by more than 63 agreements and memoranda of understanding, including the Migration Partnership Framework.

In a bid to intensify migration diplomacy, a Contact Group for the Central Mediterranean route has been established. The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX), EU Border Assistance Missions, the G5 Sahel Joint Force and EU migration officers have moved their assets to Africa and are operating on the ground there. FRONTEX has moved its areas of operation deep into Africa. Europe’s cooperation on migration with Africa has led to competition among branches of local governments to work with the EU and FRONTEX in order to access financial and diplomatic support for their respective institutions.

Since the Valletta Declaration, many African countries have conducted a series of negotiations with the EU and bilaterally with European countries, the World Bank, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (2) As a result, several African countries have revised their laws related to refugees and the trafficking of persons, smuggling of migrants and labour migration, and have aligned them with pledges made under the Valletta Declaration, the New York UN Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and bilateral agreements with the EU and its member states. (3)

While these migration agreements (both bilateral and multilateral) focus on the operational dimension of migration, the Europe-Africa partnership extends to norm-setting and norm-diffusion. Partially attributable to these partnership, more than 39 African countries have developed or are in the process of adopting policies, strategies, migration profiles and action plans, with particular emphasis on countering irregular migration, trafficking in human beings and people smuggling. As part of the implementation of these agreements, many African countries have ramped up their prosecution and sentencing of traffickers and smugglers.

The partnerships on migration with Africa aim to govern migration in Africa better. What are the critical determinants of African migration policy-making? How far do these partnerships take African migration policymakers' concerns and aspirations into account?

Seven key and mutually reinforcing factors influence, inform and shape African migration policy-making as it regards the partnership with Europe.

Migration and development: two sides of a coin

The first and most pervasive factor relates to the view that African policymakers see migration and development as two sides of the same coin: one cannot be addressed without the other. It is a widely held view among African governments that to address irregular migration, including trafficking and smuggling, poverty needs to be eradicated. Extreme poverty is considered the leading cause of migration of African youth along dangerous and sometimes even fatal routes that involve illegal crossing of borders without proper documentation.

Regime type

The second determinant of policy decisions and levels of cooperation on migration is the regime type (democracy, transparency and accountability). As other areas of public decision-making, migration policy is calculated against the costs or benefits associated with constituency-based domestic politics and the financial gains to be made from cooperation. Such cost-benefit calculation, in turn, largely depends on the regime type and how it responds to political pressure and diplomatic risks. 

In democratic countries, governments face stiffer challenges to decisions on migration that are considered to violate international human rights law. The constitutional democratic institutions and constituency pressure keep the government's actions in check. Lacking such constitutional and electoral accountability mechanisms, less democratic regimes rarely face accountability and pressure for their decisions on migration, including return.

Accountability to the public and responsiveness to the media and other stakeholders affect the degree of cooperation and policy implementation. The type of regime also influences the calculations authorities make on domestic risks, the human rights violations migrants may face and the responsiveness of the government to pressure from countries of transit or destination.

The nature of the countries of destination from where migrants return (democratic or authoritarian, economically developed or not) impact decision-making on the African side. This is why some migration routes are more important for partners than others. For example, the East Mediterranean routes enjoy much political attention, media coverage and resource allocation despite the enormity, gravity and implications of the other more critical routes. Diplomatic pressure and legal accountability work more effectively in European destination countries with established democracies and strict rule of law than in the Middle Eastern routes with less transparency and less legal and political accountability.

Financial and development aid

Related to the second factor, and perhaps the most forceful incentive in migration policy-making, is financial and development aid and remittances.

Many African policymakers would prioritise any agreement that might alleviate the foreign currency shortage faced by their economies— these shortages, taken with the associated inflation and high youth unemployment, can push governments to the brink of collapse. In this regard, aid transfers and remittances can serve as a stable source of foreign currency and a steady source of development finance. Access to finance and hard currency play a critical, if not the most fundamental, role in the formulation of African migration policies. Thus, European migration diplomacy significantly influences policy-making processes in many African countries that are either origin or transit players in irregular migration to Europe.

Diplomacy and geographic proximity

A fourth factor relates to diplomacy and the geographic proximity of African countries to Europe. Colonial, historical, social, geographic, religious and family relations form special ties between African origin and European destination countries. Culture and diaspora networks of migration also impact migration policy-making. These unique relations also play a role in migration determinants, particularly the routes, trends and frequencies. These factors profoundly shape migration policy-making processes in Africa. European countries with such specificities have more leverage in influencing and informing the decisions of African policymakers than do those without such relationships.

The above mentioned flow of migrants from Morocco to Spain and the ongoing bilateral negotiations the EU is having with Tunisia and Libya are good examples of how geographic proximity to Europe can dictate migration partnership. Morocco’s prominence in migration diplomacy does not emanate mainly from the size of the migrants that originate and transit through it but also from its geographic proximity and foreign policy that promotes active engagement on migration issues. These countries are also good examples of governments employing migration diplomacy for the purposes of domestic and foreign affairs. Geographic factors complement African leaders' views on using migration as a foreign policy tool to promote their global standing and foster their country's national interest in international and regional relations.

Capacity to control borders

Fifth, a genuine concern that African states factor into their migration policy-making is the limit on their capacity to govern (or, more narrowly defined, control) borders. In general, many African states lack the resources necessary to govern migration effectively on the continent.

Lobbying, advocacy and fraudulent practices

Sixth and closely related to the regime type (democracy, transparency and accountability), advocacy, lobbying and fraudulent practices play a part in shaping policy decisions and implementation related to migration, particularly at local and border areas and their implementation. Labour migration agencies, brokers, smugglers, traffickers, hospitality and transportation businesses often have close links with government officials, including members of parliament and ministers in charge of migration-related decision-making, particularly at the local level. Lobbyists and other business owners frequently develop close relations with ministers, parliamentarians, city mayors, border officials and other government officials, and are therefore able to influence the course of migration policy-making.

Pan-African integration agenda

The Pan-African integration agenda, such as the establishment of free movement regimes and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), shape national migration policies. The free movement regime and the AfCFTA offer an overlapping area of interest for cooperation with Europe. As initiatives that are legally binding and which constitute a long-standing Pan-African aspiration, free movement regimes and the AfCFTA could prove more effective than previous efforts in the implementation of partnership on migration with Europe.

The EU's primary containment policy and Pan-African integration agenda

Migration partnerships with the EU have spawned new tensions between the AU's Pan-African migration position on the one hand and that of bilateral cooperation agreements the EU concluded with AU member states on the other. Essentially, the member states of the AU, like those of the EU, are sovereign entities with the power to enter into bilateral agreements. Nonetheless, the EU bilateral cooperation agreements do not necessarily reflect the collective positions member states have taken under the AU's umbrella. European migration interests supersede the African aggregated interest. This is done in a manner that undermines international solidarity and regional or Pan-African collective positions. Despite the divergence of interests of African countries of origin and transit with those of the EU, the need for financial aid coincides with the EU's primary containment policy of deterrence of secondary migration to its member states. The member states of the AU and regional economic communities (RECs) also override the Pan-African agreement that they have signed when they are offered a better deal bilaterally by the EU and other entities. The result is that the AU and RECs are undermined and seen as a bureaucratic impediment in the face of the EU and other partners due to the significant asymmetry in the financial and diplomatic power relations between the EU, AU, RECs and African countries.

Established primarily for migration containment in Africa, some projects are being funded by the EU to perform functions that are inherently proper to states. EU funding has also invited interventions of a plethora of extra-national and extra-regional entities and international organisations such as UNHCR, IOM, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and non-state private contractors and agencies. For example, immigration officers and police forces from European countries are operating in border areas of African countries, arresting traffickers and smugglers. (4) Some of these extra-regional entities are also conducting border surveillance. (5) The IOM provides a significant part of the processing, transportation and support delivery, the UNHCR conducts the determination of refugee status, and several UN agencies are involved in drafting legislation related to migration.

For example, as part of its pledges, Ethiopia — a country known for hosting one of Africa’s largest refugee populations — intends to ensure that refugees benefit from local integration and participate in infrastructural, education, health and natural resource development. New laws are expected to contain irregular migration to Europe by encouraging and financing local integration. Ethiopia has allocated 10,000 hectares of land for refugees’ agricultural cultivation and is also set to offer jobs to them in industrial parks. In the same manner, Rwanda has pledged to admit irregular migrants stranded in Libya, as have Uganda and others, for their citizens. These highly liberal approaches focusing mainly on local integration and resettlement within Africa have been hailed as a “model for other refugee-hosting nations around the world”. In return, those African countries have gained access to sources of much-needed foreign currency.

Some of the legislation developed for African countries by the partners is so restrictive and out of touch with realities on the ground that it has required several amendments. Ethiopia, for example, has amended its migration-related proclamation and policies more than three times since 2007. “While external actors continue to fund projects, they should be aware that the role of international organisations and their predominance in dictating migration management is becoming a concern for national actors”. Some transit countries (e.g. Niger, Djibouti, Libya, Mauritania, Senegal, Chad, Burkina Faso, Sudan and Ethiopia) host a growing number of stranded migrants and asylum-seekers while facing an acute shortage of resources to provide protection and humanitarian assistance in their jurisdictions. In effect, they are being turned into ‘migrant containment countries’. Consequently, the EU has externalised its borders. This has meant that migrants are contained in countries of origin and transit, a process administered by state and non-state actors such as immigration departments, airlines, private security companies and international organisations.

The presence of external actors managing migration on behalf of governments and organisations is more visible in countries facing state failure. Libya, as a transit in the central Mediterranean route to Europe, and Somalia in the eastern Yemen route as a transit to the Gulf region, are major migratory channels from the Horn and broader Africa. Libya and Somalia lack strong central authorities and have pockets of territory that are controlled by rival authorities with geographic, religious and cultural bases. Their national governments are weak and fledgling with limited administrative control, and most often face external forces playing more significant roles in migration management than domestic de facto authorities. The war economy in these countries survives on the continued presence of conflict involving domestic and external state interests and non-state armed groups, and private military and security companies. War economy incentivises state failure, enabling and multiplying the intricate web of war profiteers, armed groups, criminal syndicates, including traffickers, smugglers and migration detention centres, reducing Libyan politics’ marketplace sellers and buyers. Migrants have been detained in facilities run by armed groups in countries with state failure.

Partnership: balancing values and interests

The policy position of African decision-makers varies depending on the regime type and economic development status of the countries of destination and transit. The primary interest of African countries lies in securing financial aid and diplomatic leverage. When possible African countries and their leaders use migration as a tool for promoting self-image and national interest in their foreign relations. Such an approach also offers them negotiating leverage over Europe. In terms of domestic politics, the partnership with the EU is also used to build a positive image of cooperation with significant global powers from Europe. Indicative of the inadequacy of the current EU incentive infrastructure, African policymakers are not fully persuaded to take the political risks of losing some of their constituencies associated with the partnership on migration. Despite signing the EU Common Agenda on Migration and Mobility, African countries have backpedalled on their pledges due to likely negative political repercussions and consequent instability in their constituencies. Facing the dilemma between demanding respect for fundamental human rights, on the one hand, and seeking an end to the outflow of migrants, on the other, Europe has had strenuous relations with such regimes on migration partnership. In the long term, the balancing act of values and interests need to tilt towards values.



African Union. (2006, June 25-29). African Common Position on Migration and Development. Retrieved June 2020, from

Akkerman, M. (2018, May). Expanding the Fortress. Transnational Institute and Stop Wapenhandel. Retrieved January 2021, from

Arhin-Sam, K. (2019). The Political Economy of Migration Governance in Nigeria . Mercator Dialogue on Asylum and Migration. Retrieved June 01, 2020, from

Angola, Botswana, Eswatinii, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria, Tanzania, Seychelles, South Sudan, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe have draft or adopted national migration policy, while others have strategies that deal with aspects of migration such as diaspora, and trafficking and smuggling of persons. See also African Union. Africa Migration Report: Challenging the Narrative. Addis Ababa: International Organization for Migration. Accessed February 2021.; see also IOM Migration Data Portal. n.d. "Key World Migration Statistics." Accessed February 2021.

Arhin-Sam , K., & Zanker, F. (2019, October). Nigeria at a crossroads: The political stakes of migration governance. Mercator Dialogue on Asylum and Migration. Retrieved June 04, 2020, from

AUDA-NEPAD. (n.d.). Free Movement of All Persons And African Passport. Retrieved January 2020, from

Bird, Lucia. 2020. "Movement should be safe for migrants; not profitable for smugglers." Institute for Security Studies. Accessed February 2021.

Castillejo, C. (2017). The EU Migration Partnership Framework: time for a rethink? Econstor. Retrieved January 2021, from

Castillejo, C. (2018). EU engagement with Africa on migration: a change of approach required. Econstor. Retrieved January 2021, from

Dennison, S., Gowan, R., & Fine, S. (2019, October 08). False moves: Migration and development aid. European Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved January 2021, from 

Eaton, Tim. 2018. "Libya's War Economy: Predation, Profiteering and State Weakness." Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs. Accessed February 2021.

El-Sheikh, Sharm. 2018. "Prosecutors from Africa and Europe agree closer cooperation against human trafficking and migrant smuggling." (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). Accessed February 2021.

Ethiopia and Niger are examples. International Organization for Migration. Maru, Mehari Taddele. 2019. "IN DEPTH: Unpacking Ethiopia's revised refugee law." Africa Portal. Accessed February 2021.;

European Border and Coast Guard Agency. (n.d.). Retrieved January 2021, from

European Border Agency Missions. (n.d.). Retrieved January 2021, from

European Commission. 2018. "Many More to Come? Migration from and within Africa." Accessed February 2021.

European Commission. (2021). All EUTF Projects. Retrieved January 2021, from

European Commission. (2015). Investing in an open and secure Europe: €1.8 billion to fund Asylum, Migration, Integration and Security. Retrieved January 2021, from

European Commission. (n.d.). Heading 4: Global Europe. A list of the programmes funded under heading 4 of the current long-term budget, with reference amounts and legal bases. Retrieved January 2021, from

European Commission. (n.d.). Internal Security Fund - Borders and Visa. Retrieved January 2021, from

European Commission. (n.d.). Return Fund. Retrieved January 2021, from

Financial Times. 2021. "Migrants stream into Spanish enclave of Ceuta as Morocco loosens borders." Accessed 2021 May.

France Diplomacy. (n.d.). G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Sahel Alliance. Retrieved January 2021, from

FRONTEX. 2020. "Situation at EU external borders – Western African route at record highs." Accessed February 2021.

Jegen, L. (2019). The Political Economy of Migration Governance in Niger. Mercator Dialogue on Asylum and Migration. Retrieved June 01, 2020, from

Karagueuzian, Charlotte, and Audrey Verdier-Chouchane. 2014. "Taking Africa’s Irregular Migrants into Account: Trends, Challenges and Policy Options." (African Development Bank Group). Accessed February 2021.

King, Russel, and Aija Lulle. 2016. "Research on Migration: Facing Realities and Maximising Opportunities." (European Commission). Accessed February 2021.

Kingsley, Patrick, and Haley Willis. 2020. "Latest Tactic to Push Migrants From Europe? A Private, Clandestine Fleet." New York Times. Accessed February 2021.

Knoll, Anna, and Andrew Sheriff. 2016. "Making Waves: Implications of the irregular migration and refugee situation on Official Development Assistance spending and practices in Europe ." Expertgruppen för biståndsanalys.

Lucke, M., Diez, O. S., Zanker, F., & Jegen, L. (2020). European and African perspectives on asylum and migration policy: Seeking common ground. Mercator Dialogue on Asylum and Migration & The Kiel Institute Institute for the World Economy. Retrieved January 2021, from

Lucke, Matthias, Martin Ruhs, and Mikkel Barslund. 2019. Rethinking EU migration and asylum policies: Managing immigration jointly with countries of origin and transit. Assessment Report, Mercator Dialogue on Asylum and Migration. Accessed February 2021.;

Mangala, J. (2013). Africa-EU Partnership on Migration, Mobility, and Employment. Retrieved January 2021, from

Maru, Mehari Taddele. 2019. "IN DEPTH: Unpacking Ethiopia's revised refugee law." Africa Portal. Accessed February 2021.

Maru, Mehari Taddele, Migration Profile of Ethiopia, unpublished study, 2018, International Organization for Migration. (2016, November 05). First-Ever Migration Profile for Ethiopia: Validation of Preliminary Findings Completed. Retrieved May 2020, from

Maru, M. T. (2019, August 01). Barriers to free movement in Africa: How to remove them? Migration Policy Centre Blog. Retrieved June 2020, from…

Migration and Home Affairs. (n.d.). European migration liaison officer (EMLO). Retrieved from

Ministers of Interior of Algeria, Chad, Libya, Mali, Niger, Tunisia from Africa's side and Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Switzerland, and Estonia from Europe, in addition to the EU Commission and European Council.  Federal Department of Justice and Police. (2017, November 13). 3rd meeting of the Central Mediterranean Contact Group, 13 November 2017 in Bern. Retrieved January 2021, from,Italian%20Interior%20Minister%20Marco%20Minniti.

Oxfam. (2017, November). AN EMERGENCY FOR WHOM? The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa – migratory routes. Oxfam Briefing Note. Retrieved January 2021, from

Pledges to the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, 71st Session of the UN General Assembly, 20 September 2016, New York. United Nations. (2016, October 3rd ). A/RES/71/1 Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 19 September 2016: New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. Retrieved June 2020, from

Shilhav, R., & Tuuli, R. (2020, January). The EU Trust Fund for Africa: Trapped between aid policy and migration politics. Oxfam Policy and Practice. Retrieved January 2021, from;jsessionid=26A2FF58403E49FFBF4F666CB73E6AE3?sequence=1

Stock, I., Üstübici, A. & Schultz, S.U. Externalisation at work: responses to migration policies from the Global South. CMS 7, 48 (2019).

Strange, Michael, and Bruno Oliviera Martins. 2019. "Claiming parity between unequal partners: how African counterparts are framed in the externalisation of EU migration governance." Taylor and Francis Online. Accessed January 2021.

Tardis, M. (2018, March). European Union Partnerships with African Countries on Migration: A common issue with conflicting interests. Centre for Migration and Citizenship and OCP Policy Centre. Retrieved January 2021, from

The Africa-EU Partnership. (n.d.). African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Retrieved January 2020, from,of%20the%20AfCFTA%20Secretariat%20to

The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), EU-IOM Joint Initiative on Migrant Protection and Reintegration are some of them. EU Commission. (2015, November 12). President Juncker launches the EU Emergency Trust Fund to tackle root causes of irregular migration in Africa. Retrieved May 2020, from

The EU's Valletta Summit document addresses five major focus areas: The Development benefits of migration and addressing root causes, Legal migration and mobility, International protection and asylum, Prevention of and the fight against migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings, and Cooperation on return and readmission. Africa-EU-Partnership. (2015, November 18 ). 2015 Valletta Summit on Migration. Retrieved June 01, 2020, from

UNHCR. (2018). UNHCR Statistics: The World in Numbers, 2018. Retrieved 2020, from

UNHCR. (2019, January 18). UNHCR welcomes Ethiopia law granting more rights to refugees. Retrieved June 2020, from

UNHCR. (2019, December 05). An overview of how the Global Compact on Refugees is being turned into action in Ethiopia. Retrieved June 08, 2020, from

United Nations. (2016, October 3rd ). A/RES/71/1 Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 19 September 2016: New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. Retrieved June 2020, from

United Nations Development Programme. 2019. "Despite dangers, majority of irregular migrants from Africa to Europe would still travel: UNDP report." Accessed February 2021.

Zanker , F., & Jegen , L. (2019, September). European dominance of migration policy in Niger “On a fait les filles avant la mère". Mercator Dialogue on Asylum and Migration. Retrieved June 04, 2020, from