The forced return of migrants from the European Union (EU) to their countries of origin continues to be a source of major tension in African countries as well as EU member states. The result has been that the EU – and individual member states – have been scrambling to come up with ways to improve cooperation on migration.
What EU countries want is for countries of origin to take back migrants that are not able to live legally in Europe. But return rates from the EU to Africa are the lowest compared to other world regions and have even decreased in the last decade. For example, only 9% of Senegalese with an order to return from the EU did so between 2015 and 2019. In other words, of the 30,650 Senegalese migrants who received an order to leave from a European country between 2015 and 2019, only 2,805 did. Forced return necessitates the cooperation of countries of origin through for example issuing travel documents or allowing flights to land.
I also show how West African states resist cooperating on returns. Their strategies range from reluctant compliance with deportations of their citizens to proactive noncompliance, which has included incidents or threats of violence.
My findings help explain why current migration partnerships continue to have little effect on returns.
Migration partnerships coming up empty
Apart from Rwanda, which has signed a deal with the UK to take in asylum seekers, not yet implemented, returns from European countries are hugely unpopular in most African countries.
The EU’s Partnership Framework was established in June 2016. It sought to mobilise the instruments, resources and influence of both the EU and member states to establish cooperation with partner countries in order to “manage” migration flows. It stated that the priority was to achieve fast returns. It named five priority countries for this approach: Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal, seeking to establish tailored migration compacts with them.
This framework has so far largely failed to achieve better migration cooperation. The same applies to the New Pact on Migration and Asylum from 2020, and a revised visa code which allows visa restrictions for countries not adequately cooperating on returns.
Forced returns, especially back to west Africa, remain low as noted above.
There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, deportations are often violent and traumatic events for those being returned and involve serious human rights violations. For example, a Senegalese migrant rights group recently documented a case of a person who was deported from a closed psychiatric institution in Germany without medication, medical records or telephone and other personal belongings and was left to fend for himself on arrival. Governments wanting to take care of their citizens will want to avoid this.
Secondly, returns can come at the cost of important remittances (often higher than development aid). For example, Nigeria is the largest net remittance-recipient country in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2017, the country received US$22 billion in official remittances, representing 5.9% of Nigeria’s GDP. In comparison, official development assistance came to US$3.36 billion, only 0.89% of GDP. Thus, countries calculate that returns could reduce remittances. And reintegrating deportees comes with social and economic costs.
Thirdly, countries feel that they are badly treated by their European counterparts. Legal migration pathways are limited and the EU approach has become increasingly punitive. There are stricter visa conditions for countries not seen to be adequately cooperating on returns, like The Gambia or Senegal.
Governments respond in various ways to return pressures from the EU.
A range of responses
The research considered the interests of governments in Nigeria, Senegal and The Gambia. It built on 129 interviews with policymakers, politicians, civil society activists and academic experts in these countries and in the EU.
Countries’ responses range from reluctant compliance to reactive and proactive noncompliance. They are likely to use all these strategies at different times, sometimes simultaneously. Responses are influenced by the often conflicting pressures governments face domestically and externally.
Reluctant compliance is when countries comply with deportations, but only reluctantly. For example informal return agreements signal compliance to international partners but attract less scrutiny from parliamentary oversight bodies or the general public. This strategy can, however, backfire and cause distrust and outrage from citizens.
Reactive noncompliance includes calling out technical issues and causing delays in return operations. States may fail to identify whether migrants are their citizens, or fail to issue travel documents of migrants awaiting deportation. This can be a less costly strategy than outright refusing deportations, while increasing domestic approval.
Proactive noncompliance is the most extreme response. This is when states are more direct in their refusal to cooperate with returns. It includes, for example, stalling on negotiations for a formal return agreement. Senegal and Nigeria have taken this route. The Gambia even implemented a moratorium on all (chartered) deportation flights for a few months.
Proactive noncompliance holds the most potential for governments to improve their domestic legitimacy – especially during elections. But it can come at the cost of international support. In the case of The Gambia, for example, the EU has imposed visa sanctions.
EU stakeholders could do more to consider the interests that African countries have when it comes to accepting returnees.
Ratcheting up the pressure will produce more resistance. Rather, the EU should focus on repairing relationships. One way would be to offer migration pathways that are accessible, visible and credible. Tying this to return pressures is not likely to work, and will not improve relationships in the long run.