The EU must prioritise the maritime dimension of migration from West Africa. Here's why

The EU is insistent on combatting the ‘root causes’ of migration. Yet this has led it to overlook other reasons why people leave their homeland. Niels Keijzer and Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood argue these include the threatened livelihoods of coastal communities in the Gulf of Guinea

Among the many crises confronting the European Union, you might easily overlook the demographic one it faces at home. The EU's population is ageing rapidly. Between 2001 and 2021, the percentage of its citizens aged 65 and over increased from 5% to 21%. Meanwhile, the proportion of young people under 20 decreased by 3%, to 20%. Since the 1990s, net migration to the EU has been the main driver of the Union’s continuing population growth.

Given these demographics, and given that the EU derives most of its global standing as the world's largest trade bloc, one might rationally expect the EU to consider migration policy a key tool to retain and consolidate this position. Yet migration policy is strongly contested in the European Union. And this is largely due to important differences between its 27 member states, who retain policy competencies on immigration policy. Currently, the EU’s desired New Pact on Migration and Asylum remains a distant dream rather than a political reality.

External migration policy formed by consecutive crises

Development of the EU’s external migration policy has followed a similar trajectory. Perceived crises have been the main factor shaping their development. From the EU’s perspective, these included migration to the Canary Islands in the early 2000s, followed by the so-called refugee crisis of 2015. The latter had considerable influence on the EU’s development policy debate and spending patterns. This was partly due to the larger geopolitical crises to which the influx of refugees was linked. Migration to Europe from and via the Gulf of Guinea region, and maritime dimensions of migration policy more generally, received considerably less priority and funding.

Perceived crises have shaped EU external migration policy, while maritime dimensions of migration policy were far less influential

Discussion about how to respond to the 2015 influx of refugees into the EU led to considerable polarisation and disagreement. Particularly contentious was the proposal to redistribute refugees between EU member states. The EU lacked unity or consensus on how best to internally redistribute the refugees. But this was partly compensated by a stronger focus on external migration policy – with a key role in development cooperation.

The EU focuses on combatting ‘root causes’ of migration…

First, in 2015, the EU created a dedicated Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. Its aim was to strengthen migration management and address what the EU assumed were the 'root causes' driving migration from Africa to Europe. By March 2022, the trust fund amounted to €5 billion. This figure included €4.4 billion from the European Development Fund (EDF) and other EU financial instruments, topped up with around €623 million from EU member states, Norway, Switzerland and the UK. The projects funded focused on dominant migration routes at the time, notably the trans-Saharan one.

The EU developed its approach based on a trust fund prepared for the Sahel. This partly explains the ‘emergency’ in the title. West African states are thus included in the ‘Sahel and Lake Chad’ group, and not all Gulf of Guinea countries are covered. For this reason, the maritime dimensions of the Trust Fund are not well articulated, and largely overlooked.

At present, there is no clear distinction between development cooperation activities that are migration-related, and those that are not

The Trust Fund is now coming to an end. However, under the EU’s budget framework 2021–2027, 10% of the available development budget of €79.5 billion must be ‘migration-related’. One key challenge is that – as currently defined – there is no clear distinction between migration-related EU development cooperation activities and development cooperation activities that are not migration-related. The EU has been under great pressure in recent years to please a broad range of stakeholders. This pressure goes some way to explain the fuzzy definition. It also explains the vague focus on addressing root causes and the diverse actions funded.

…but should focus on what contributes to human mobility

It will be difficult to evaluate what the various programmes have achieved in relation to migration and development objectives. It will also be hard to gauge their intended and unintended consequences for coastal communities and artisanal fisheries. The same applies to EU policy areas such as trade and fisheries that affect coastal communities in this part of the world.

It seems, however, that the use of the phrase ‘root causes’ implied that such causes were not at sea. Rather, most alternative livelihood options explored were either inland or in fish processing industries as opposed to in the maritime domain.

Seeking the 'root causes' of migration from West Africa merely sustains artificial compromise between EU member states

We believe the EU should abandon its 'root causes' frame. For reasons of political convenience, this framework sustains a largely artificial compromise between EU member states. Instead, the EU should invest in better understanding and acknowledging the reasons for human mass movement within and beyond the Gulf of Guinea.

An evidence-based grounding of its development cooperation is the only basis for effective cooperation with the various countries in the region. This investment in knowledge sharing on the drivers of human mobility – within and beyond the Gulf of Guinea – should also consider any other relevant policy domains, including security and trade.

The authors are part of a collaborative research project between the University of St Andrews (UK), and the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS), in association with the University of Bonn. The project explores the EU’s policy choices in the Gulf of Guinea. It examines the relationship between maritime governance, maritime security initiatives and irregular migration from the region to Europe.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Niels Keijzer Niels Keijzer Senior Researcher, German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS), Bonn More by this author
photograph of Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood Lecturer in Sustainable Development, University of St Andrews More by this author

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