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Conflict and Fragility

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The EU-AU’s response to slavery and migration: a way forward?

01 Dec 2017 - 16:26
Source: African Union Commission / Flickr

On 28-29 November 2017, African and European leaders met at the 5th EU-AU Summit in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) to discuss how best to invest in Africa’s youth for a sustainable future. Demographic growth will be one of the main challenges for the African continent in the coming years, with a population predicted to double by 2050. Yet no mid- or long-term measures were announced as a result of the Summit, which only concluded that young people are a key entry point when it comes to development.

The summit was largely overshadowed by recent evidence published by CNN on persistent human trafficking and slavery practices inside Libya. The public outrage which this created resulted in the organisation of a high-level side meeting on the margins of the Summit. Here, political leaders agreed, with the consent of Libyan President el-Serraj, on the creation of an EU-AU-UN Task Force in Libya. The activities of the Task Force mission will include the voluntary evacuation of irregular migrants in the coming weeks, the facilitation of migrants’ repatriation to their countries of origin, and the resettlement of those in need of international protection. In addition, the Task Force will intensify efforts to dismantle transnational traffickers and criminal networks in close collaboration with Libyan authorities. This will be accompanied by information campaigns aiming to raise awareness of the dangers of embarking on these migratory routes.

The creation of this Task Force is a momentous undertaking, reflecting our research findings showing that in Libya, ‘the line between human smuggling, slavery and human trafficking has become increasingly blurred’ and that this has resulted in severe protection needs. Migrants have become pawns in intricate webs of exploitation and it has often become just as profitable to keep migrants captive as it is to put them on boats heading for Europe. Addressing this situation on the ground will not be an easy task, however. In a fragmented Libya, the Task Force will be up against a complex set of authority figures. Indeed, our recent analysis shows that the local power of Libya’s many armed groups makes it extremely complicated to intervene effectively against trafficking and human rights violations without having armed groups ‘on board’ to assist in such interventions. In the most positive scenario, the desire of these armed groups to gain international legitimacy as part of the security apparatus fighting smuggling and trafficking can be leveraged to achieve migrant protection. In a more negative take on reality, working with local armed groups without a deep knowledge of local power dynamics, pre-existing armed coalitions and the local political economy of the smuggling business could exacerbate existing conflict lines. Such a strategy would run the risk of creating an even more dangerous environment for migrants and Libyans alike.

The Summit came at a time of European polarisation around the issue of migration, to which Donald Tusk referred in his speech when he stated that, ‘I do not need to explain here the political context in Europe today.’ To deal with political pressure at home, member states such as Germany, France and Italy have taken the lead in the border externalisation strategy with Africa which aims to take the pressure off Europe in general and Italy in particular as the main entry countries. While it thereby remains the EU’s priority to prevent illegal migrants reaching its shores, the AU is looking for opportunities to increase legal routes to Europe for Africans. The Summit appears to have served as a dialogue platform to find common ground, with Chancellor Merkel declaring that the EU and AU have ‘a common interest in stopping illegal migration and creating legal opportunities for people from Africa to be trained and to study’. This reconciliation of views comes at the end of a year which witnessed the death of more than 3,000 people in the Mediterranean. As the President of the European Investment Bank highlighted, it is regrettable that it took such dramatic events for the EU to understand why development for African countries is vital.

The question remains, however, whether the EU’s quest to stop migration is compatible with African development and the creation of legal pathways. The case of Agadez shows that current investments to stop transit migration through Niger take the reduction of migrant numbers as the sole indicator of their effectiveness. This narrow focus overlooks the negative effects which these interventions have had for the region’s economic development, its security and the legitimacy of its authorities. Future migration-mitigating policies would benefit from a greater understanding of the relationship between transnational irregular migration, political institutions and larger governance dynamics in order to design politically sensitive policies that target irregular migration without contributing, counterproductively, to one of its root causes. These policies cannot be implemented sustainably unless policy makers understand and take into account how proposed measures could affect the responsiveness of the state and the potential dynamics of conflict and economic development. It is time to move to a more holistic and conflict-sensitive vision of migration management in which migration is seen as one of many challenges confronting the region. Only then will migration policies become truly sustainable in the long term.