Humanitarians’ migration conundrum
Since the establishment of the European Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) in 2015, a new approach to migration governance outside of the European borders has blurred the lines between traditional ‘humanitarian’, ‘development’ and political issues, reorienting the activities of international organisations, international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other actors involved in migration management. Think tanks and researchers have given much attention to the externalisation of border controls and information campaigns for ‘potential’ migrants. At the same time, protection programmes and assistance to migrants has received less critical reflection. This may be explained by the very often uncritical reception of assistance: any type of assistance is often seen as better than nothing.
In humanitarian action, protection is understood as advocating for, supporting or undertaking activities that aim to obtain full respect, protect and fulfil the rights of all individuals in accordance with the letter and spirit of relevant bodies of law. Protection for all affected and at-risk people has to inform humanitarian decision making and response, and must be central to preparedness efforts, as part of immediate and life-saving activities, and throughout the duration of a humanitarian response and beyond. Thus, humanitarian responses must be driven by the needs and perspectives of affected people, with protection at their core.
Yet in order to tackle migrants’ needs – framed as vulnerabilities while in transit and as development issues when in the country of origin – the tailor-made solutions created were based on assistance along migration routes. This approach allows aid organisations to provide services in transit hubs, at checkpoints, in bus stations and in other key locations for migrants. The question that should be asked both by analysts and researchers is whether neutral, impartial and independent actions are possible within the framework of a strong political agenda.
Assistance as return
In the current humanitarian landscape across the Sahel, assistance given in addition to delivering specific services to people in need is very often conditional on a migrant’s willingness to return to their country of origin. The first to be launched in 2016 was the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration with funding from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF). The programme, as stated, is intended to save lives, and protect and assist migrants along key migration routes in Africa. The major focus of the programme is assistance to returning migrants to help them restart their lives in their countries of origin through an integrated approach to reintegration that supports both migrants and their communities. From the point of view of protection, the programme aims at improving protection, providing direct assistance and enabling the assisted voluntary return of migrants stranded along the migration routes.
The narrative of the EU-IOM Joint Initiative is strictly related to return as a form of assistance, a phenomenon that is widely presented as a solution across the region. As stated in the EUTF 2020 annual report, the EU-IOM Joint Initiative continued to support the most vulnerable migrants and refugees. From May 2017 until the end of October 2020, the EU-IOM Joint Initiative supported the voluntary return of 61,632 migrants from Libya (30,658), Niger (27,294) and other countries of transit and destination, including Mali (2,501). In countries of origin in the region, the Joint Initiative provided assistance to 87,858 migrants upon arrival, whose return was supported by the EUTF or other donors.
Both in practice and discursively, the assistance is represented as a response to the needs of people who migrate. The help provided, as listed in the report is: nutrition assistance, job creation, information campaigns, food security-related services, etc. For example, in Mali 2,191,800 people have improved access to basic services and in Nigeria 560,800 basic social services have been delivered. While there is a big difference between the needs of populations in general and the specific needs of people on the move, the programmes seem to mix them up, trying to tackle assistance to migrants through development assistance.
Another humanitarian programme based on assistance to migrants along the route is the Red Cross’s Action for Migrants: Routes Based Assistance (AMiRA) programme. The programme was funded under the UK Department for International Development (DFID) 2018-2020 Safety, Support and Solutions Phase II (SSS II) programme focusing on the Central Mediterranean Route (CMR). The objective of SSS II was to make migration safer and provide critical humanitarian support, which would mean fewer deaths and less suffering along the CMR. The AMiRA programme aimed to facilitate access to basic services and the protection of migrants’ rights along migratory routes, through the provision of humanitarian assistance, psychosocial support, information-sharing and support for reintegration upon return. A specific feature of the AMiRA programme was the establishment of Humanitarian Service Points along migratory routes in Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. With a much more specific humanitarian focus and also a different donor – DFID – the programme nevertheless still had the return of migrants as a major focus.
In her seminal article ‘Security, development, protection. The triptych of externalization migration policies in Niger’, Florence Boyer describes migration governance as an attempt to stabilise populations through such techniques as securitisation, development aid and humanitarian protection. Boyer defines these as ‘construction of a protection space’ aimed at containing northbound migration. Boyer focuses on the example of the protection space in Niger for asylum seekers and refugees, underlining that this approach is functional to consolidating the settlement of refugees, providing them with permanent housing and access to vocational training – activities that might give them hope for the long term.
Disincentivising asking for help
Framing return as a response to the needs of migrants can be related to an inaccurate interpretation of the migration journey as not a voluntary one. In the EU-IOM Joint Initiative and the AMiRA programme, return is framed as one of the ‘basic services’ or needs requested by migrants, in accordance with the abovementioned definition of protection oriented towards the needs of affected populations. Such programmes make people on the move choose between their basic needs and their desire to continue their journey, disincentivising them from asking for help. Besides which, such an interpretation might also be based on an erroneous understanding of the role of smugglers and the so-called ‘business model of smugglers’ as being one of the major reasons for departures.
The years of implementation of programmes of protection and assistance to migrants have demonstrated that they influence migrants’ perception of humanitarian actors. It is clear that many migrants see humanitarian actors as directly interested in their return. Migrants in fact might ‘exploit’ assistance, for instance by using transit centres to recover from hard journeys before setting off again. ‘Our group arrived here shortly before the confinement and it’s a good thing because the IOM is taking care of us completely. We are provided with accommodation, food, clothing and even pocket money,’ as stated by migrants interviewed in Niamey in September 2020. In other cases, migrants may try to avoid contact with humanitarian actors, precisely because they fear the conditionality of assistance. ‘We can also count on some NGOs such as the Red Cross who often treat us when we are injured but the problem is that they will want to send you back to your country afterwards,’ as stated by a migrant interviewed in Gao, Mali, April 2021.
These specific aspects need to be critically evaluated by humanitarian actors who are involved in migration programmes in the Sahel because the framing of assistance as return undermines principles of humanitarian action. Humanitarian assistance can thus become a disincentive for those who do not want to be sent back to their countries of origin. This strong perception by migrants of the political ‘back stage’ of assistance activities, deprives humanitarian programmes of their neutrality, impartiality and independence because of being guided by a political agenda. Furthermore, migration and development programmes on the African continent very often have a sedentary bias, the implicit objective of reducing the flow of international migration – especially to the industrialised world. Taking part in such projects also means that humanitarian actors actively participate in the mobility restrictions desired by Western donors in the region.