Upholding migrant human rights

How do authoritarian regimes respond to EU initiatives to stem migration? A recent publication by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP – Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) demands that Europe adopt clear principles on funding and enforce red lines with regard to human rights. By Monika Hellstern

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Monika Hellstern

Migration management has been high on European policymakersʹ agenda since 2015, as David Kipp and Anne Koch write in their introduction. The idea is increasingly to control and stem the flow of migrants outside the EU in order to ensure that refugees do not even arrive at European borders. According to Kipp and Koch, this trend towards "externalisation" is the lowest common denominator of EU migration policy.

The EU is forming so-called migration partnerships with countries of transit as well as origin. The partnerships involve co-operation on issues such as trade, security and development. The EU is not fulfilling old promises of facilitating legal migration options, but is increasingly using financial incentives, including in relations with authoritarian regimes. The authors point out that development co-operation is thus being subordinated to "fighting the causes of flight" and keeping migrants away. The EU is ever more willing to co-operate with undemocratic governments, especially when it comes to security issues on European borders, the study states.

Authoritarian African governments respond in different ways to EU initiatives. The SWP team assessed matters in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Niger, Sudan and Eritrea. The degree to which these countries are under dictatorial rule varies. In their conclusion, the SWP editors Anne Koch, Annette Weber and Isabelle Werenfels point out that some governments are proactive and want to shape migration policy, whereas others only respond to European proposals.

Migration routes in Africa (source: Stiftung Wissenschaft & Politik)
"External EU migration policy is currently a laboratory for new approaches and instruments primarily motivated by domestic policy and designed to send out a signal to the European public," write study contributors David Kipp and Anne Koch. "These measures have helped to substantially decrease the number of irregular entries into the European Union in 2017 compared with the previous year." Yet, at what cost?

According to the study, an African governmentʹs stance depends on five distinct issues:

  • state capacities and the quality of statehood in general,
  • the relationship with European countries, which is typically marked by colonial history and liberation struggles,
  • existing migration patterns,
  • regional contexts, including conflicts and
  • prior experience of co-operation with the EU.


All countries considered have in common that their response to EU proposals is driven by concerns to stay in power and enhance the governmentʹs legitimacy, according to the SWP. Typically, governments are more interested in international acknowledgement and the loosening of sanctions than in development funds.

The editorial team concludes that European policymakers should heed their advice in five areas:

  • Migration should be considered a complex international phenomenon, so European policies should take regional dynamics into account
  • Mobility within world regions deserves support and must not be disrupted by restrictive border management.
  • The EU needs a clear policy on funding to prevent that government misuse payments for repressive purposes.
  • The governments of countries that depend on migrantsʹ remittances are – and will continue to be – interested in legal options for migration.
  • In regard to human rights, the EU should define and enforce red lines.

Migrants on a boat (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/Libyan coastguard)
EU migration policy reaches rock bottom: rather than fulfilling existing promises of facilitating legal migration options, the EU is increasingly resorting to financial incentives in its negotiations with countries of both transit and origin – including those run by authoritarian regimes. Development co-operation is thus being subordinated to "fighting the causes of flight" and keeping migrants away

According to the publication, Moroccoʹs government is pursuing a migration policy of its own and is interested in raising its international profile, whereas Egyptʹs is mostly reacting to European proposals and focusing on entrenching its power domestically. In contrast, the way Algeria and Eritrea respond to European initiatives is marked by scepticism towards co-operation. The editors argue that this is the result of anti-colonial struggles.

In the eyes of the SWP team, the response of Niger is neither strategic nor sceptical. As the regime is interested in both money and a better reputation, the EU is basically able to remote-control its policymaking. The scholars warn, however, that the measures promoted by the EU are disruptive and may trigger conflict. The reason is that, after migration boosted the regional economy, especially in the area around Agadez in Nigerʹs north, border controls have more recently limited migration. As discontent grows, the mood may turn violent.

Monika Hellstern

© Development and Co-operation | D+C 2018