A missed opportunity in Valletta

17 November 2015

by Bob van Dillen, Expert Migration and Development of Cordaid and Chair of the CONCORD Migration and Development Task Force

What would our history students in 2050 make of the ‘historic’ Valletta Summit 35 years earlier, when they review the deliberations leading to a Political Declaration, an Action Plan and a Trust Fund launched by the EU to provide some € 2bn for implementation in some 25 African countries?

The Summit may in fact not get any mentioning in the migration and development history books, at a time when the global population will count 9.7 billion people. One of every four people will be African. Each of them keen to have a decent live at home, or – if really necessary – abroad.

Valletta could have been a historic occasion. It could have reached an agreement on policies fighting root causes of forced migration and displacement, from poverty to conflict and human rights abuses, as well as the creating decent jobs and economic opportunities. Addressing these challenges requires political will and determination to succeed. In the absence of political engagement and trust, the policies desperately needed were not agreed. Hence the Valletta outcomes will do very little to ensure decent lives in the coming decade.

Syria refugee crisis

The news coverage on the African continent was halfway taken over by what policy makers and the media considered a more pressing and urgent issue: the Syria refugee crisis. Even before the ink of the signatures on the EU aid package for Africa had dried, the debate swiftly focused on the upcoming EU Summit with Turkey. And the much bigger aid envelope of €3 billion that the European Commission has proposed.

The Valletta ‘European response’ to the migration crisis was based on self-interest, rather than shared concerns and urgency. It was a dual effort to promote the return of migrants and preventing them from coming. An agenda that is at odds with the fundamental values of an open European society, based on respect for human rights and human dignity, promotion of peace and solidarity between and among nations. An agenda that failed to convince African leaders: opposing forced returns turned out to be their united ‘common position’.

Since the 1980s

African leaders have seen the migration crisis developing since the 1980s, and realised that the patterns of migration from Africa are not going to change anytime soon. On the whole, most migration takes place within the continent and within countries. But the numbers crossing borders towards the Mediterranean coast have also gone up dramatically over the past decades. With so much human misery and many fatalities as a consequence, not only off the coasts of Lampedusa, but also in the Sahara desert and many other dangerous places in transit.

African leaders have realised that the patterns of migration from Africa are not going to change anytime soon

Will the €2 bn EU aid package do much to save lives along the migratory route? Will it result in effective protection of migrant rights and tackle the root causes of poverty and inequality, or rather facilitate the deportation of irregular migrants back to Africa and enforce border control in Africa preventing migrants from their departure to Europe? The financial resources pooled by the EC – mostly from the 11th EDF – were not met by any substantial figures from the EU member states. The meagre € 15 million contribution announced by the Dutch government eventually turned out to be the highest figure of all 28; several member states felt their contribution could not even extend €50.000! African leaders themselves also failed to commit to substantial financial contributions, a minimum of € 3 million allowing them to share ownership and co-management of the Trust Fund. It would in fact be a mistake to channel the resources to government programs – instead it should be a resource for civil society and SMEs or social business actions in the countries involved, the governments should concentrate on establishing an enabling environment.

16 priority actions

The Declaration and the Action Plan is full of vague language, often repeating agreements that have already been signed elsewhere, such as the commitment to reducing the transaction costs of remittances to below 3% by 2030 – which was already agreed three months ago in Addis Ababa at the third Financing for Development conference. The Action Plan includes 16 priority actions to be launched only at the end of 2016 under five overarching headings, related to the development benefits of migration, legal migration, protection and asylum, irregular migration and smuggling as well as return and readmission. These areas are the same as declarations and action plans agreed at the Declaration on Migration and Mobility of the April 2014 EU-Africa Summit, which so far has seen no significant implementation. Indeed, political commitments have already been adopted through the Rabat Process (2014 Rome Ministerial Declaration), the Khartoum Process (2014 Ministerial Declaration of the Khartoum Process) and the Valletta Summit, aimed to build on these. Monitoring and implementation will take place in the framework of the Rabat, Khartoum and Africa-EU partnership. What would be different this time around ensuring that actions will be implemented?
Overall, the discussions on return and readmission dominated – instead the African states would have liked to see voluntary return, as opposed to forced return. The EU could not accept this, as it is looking for new and effective ways to send back irregular migrants. A compromise was found in the agreement “to give preference to voluntary return”. The EU had hoped to see African states accept ‘laissez passer’ documents to facilitate a swift return of irregular migrants – even before their nationality has been identified. The EU had also proposed that neighbouring countries would accept the return of nationals in case of continued identification problems or state’s unwillingness to facilitate swift returns. These proposals did not make it to the final documents.

A compromise was found in the agreement “to give preference to voluntary return”.

Absurd situation
However, the Action Plan does allow African migration officials to come to Europe for the verification of nationality – a rather absurd situation if this happens to be one of the many notoriously corrupt African dictatorships, who might be keen to facilitate the return (and imprisonment, or worse!) of political opponents, religious or human rights activists that for the wrong reason had not received the right to protection in the EU. Such a situation would contradict the non-refoulement principle. It shows the EU’s determination to speed up people’s return and it is already using a variety of tools to encourage cooperation on readmission ranging from foreign policy, trade policy and development cooperation (for example, the Dutch development aid to Ghana was cut by €10 million in 2011 when it ‘failed to cooperate’ with the return of allegedly Ghanaian nationals).
The Summit made little progress on enhancing legal migrati
on for a variety of migrants, not just students and expats. African leaders had made sure that their agenda is not to limit migration but to achieve safe, fair, responsible and legal migration, including through well-managed migration policies, as was in fact agreed by all states last September at the Sustainable Development Summit in New York. Whereas civil society had expected substantial increase in resettlement, humanitarian visas, extended family reunifications, sponsorship programs and educational scholarships, European member states did not want to provide legal opportunities for African nationals, apart from a doubling of Erasmus scholarships for students.

Civil society demands

Valetta also did not take any action on other civil society demands, including the lift of carrier sanctions as a means to ensure safe migration and counter people smugglers, to facilitate the important role of migrants and the diaspora in development, and to stop using development assistance for the first year’s reception of asylum seekers. This already takes up more than 20% of the Dutch ODA budget (and would be even significantly higher is the second and third year of reception would also be included, as is currently being discussed at the OECD). Civil society had in fact repeatedly asked to be part and parcel of the Valletta process from the very beginning, but had been excluded until in the eleventh hour two CSO representatives were allowed to participate as ‘observers’. As with much of the Valletta Summit process and outcomes, this was ‘too little, too late’, which will no doubt be remembered as a missed opportunity that may well backfire one day.