The EU migration cooperation with Niger facing headwind after regime change as the head of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) expresses doubts over deployments in Senegal and Mauritania. Devastating natural disasters leave thousands dead and missing in Libya and Morocco. MEPs denounce the controversial EU agreement with Tunisia as Commission continues to praise it.

In a briefing note published by the Centre for African-Europe Relations (ECDPM), Amanda Bisong, Harouna Mounkaila from the Université Abdou Moumouni in Niamey and Leonie Jegen from the University of Amsterdam discuss the consequences of the regime change in Niger for migration cooperation with the EU. The briefing note describes the substantial multi-million EU investment in cooperation including on migration with the West African country and outlines the potential impact of the coup d’état in July. EU’s suspension of budget support and security cooperation with Niger “indicates that many migration-related initiatives towards security actors have momentarily come to a halt”. Partial border closures with neighbouring countries and closure of the air space have constrained regional mobility and could affect the “so-called voluntary return of migrants trapped in the IOM transit centres” and the future of the Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM). Further, the threat of war, and the potential deepening of the security crisis, alongside aid cuts, could deepen an “already severe humanitarian displacement crisis faced by large parts of the populations present in Niger”. Finally, “with the Ambassador of France and French troops stationed in Niger being requested to leave the country and the responses from France and the EU, it is likely that in the medium term, some aspects of EU – Nigerien migration cooperation remain discontinued”. Statewatch summarized developments on 7 September: EU-promoted migration control policies have caused discontent in Niger, and it has been suggested they may have contributed to the unpopularity of toppled president Mohamed Bazoum, who was ousted in a military coup in July. After the coup, the European Commission halted its support for security and migration projects in the country. However, its willingness to cooperate with institutions and actors that violate human rights elsewhere raises the question: for how long?”, adding: “The EU has demonstrated a clear willingness to support institutions, groups and governments with scant respect for human rights in order to implement its border externalisation policies”. On 12 September, Alarmphone Sahara stated: “It is a fact that the principle of freedom of movement is one of the pillars of the ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] agreements, but for some time now the organization has been unable to fully assume its role as guarantor of this right for the nationals of its area. This situation, one of the consequences of the influence of the EU and its member countries on the migration policies of countries in the South, means that thousands of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are currently stranded in Niger in deplorable conditions in IOM and UNHCR camps, as well as in migrant “ghettos” or on the streets. This situation is further aggravated by the sanctions and threats that hamper travel between Niger and its neighboring countries. It therefore becomes a moral and logical responsibility for ECOWAS and the EU to work together in a humane way to find urgent and long-term solutions to this situation”. 

Executive Director of Frontex, Hans Leijtens has expressed reluctance to launch operations in Africa amid ongoing discussions to secure agreements with Senegal and Mauritania: “The western African countries, but, perhaps in general, African countries are much more difficult to cooperate with and I have a lot of reluctance to be very frank,” he told MEPs on 7 September in response to questions on the agency’s plans for deployments in the two West-African states. “I think it’s obvious that the negotiations should have all the checks and balances we need,” Leijtens added. The controversy over the EU’s attempts to externalize migration prevention beyond European borders has long been ongoing. In advance of a fact-finding mission to Mauritania and Senegal by MEP’s Cornelia Ernst, Left Group (GUE/NGL) and Tineke Strik, Green Group (Greens/EFA) the latter stated: “We will particularly focus on the Frontex status agreements that the EU is currently negotiating with both countries, and possible human rights implications for migrants” and warned: “The possible deployment of Frontex officers in Mauritania and Senegal fits in a broader trend of externalization: Member States are deeply divided over internal reforms, so instead choose to outsource responsibility to non-EU countries – often at the costs of refugees’ rights”. Under the headline “How Europe Outsourced Border Enforcement to Africa”, independent investigative journalist, Andrei Popoviciu – covering the mission described how: “The European Union is militarizing Africa’s internal borders to curb migration, with little regard for human rights”. Popoviciu further writes: “the EU hopes to extend Frontex’s reach far beyond its territory, into sovereign African nations Europe once colonized, with no oversight mechanisms to safeguard against abuse. Initially, the EU even proposed granting immunity from prosecution to Frontex staff in West Africa”. Fatou Faye from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, told the MEPs: “Frontex is a risk for human dignity and African identity”.

Key strategic EU partners in North Africa have seen devastating natural disasters – severe deadly storms and floods in eastern Libya leaving more than 5,300 people dead and thousands missing and a deadly earthquake in Morocco leaving more than 2,900 dead and thousands more injured or homeless. Regional and local politics have reportedly complicated aid efforts with both Rabat and Tripoli governments imposing conditions – the first accepting only aid from nations deemed “friendly” and the latter revealing limited motivation to assist its rival government in Eastern Libya. Spain with extensive migration cooperation with Morocco has committed to sending search and rescue teams as well as other aid to assist in the ongoing emergency response and eventual reconstruction efforts. While Spain is one of the countries approved to deliver assistance, “frosty” diplomatic relations with France have complicated aid and support efforts from there.

InfoMigrants quote news reports, according to which Libyan health authorities have estimated that “the number of victims will exceed 10,000 and about 100,000 people missing”. IOM Libya reports “at least 30,000 individuals displaced in Derna due to Storm Daniel, with 3,000 in Albayda, 1,000 in Almkheley, and 2,085 individuals still displaced in Benghazi. Number of deaths is currently unverified”. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) indicates that over 46,000 internally displaced people were hosted in the east of Libya before the devastating floods. “The floods caused a mass displacement, adding to the number of people who were already displaced before Storm Daniel hit the country. However, estimates of flood-induced population displacement are not available yet,” UNHCR spokesperson Matthew Saltmarsh told the outlet, adding: “UNHCR is aware that a larger number of forcibly displaced people that are not registered with UNHCR live in the areas hit by the storm and flooding”. Sea Watch International warned on 12 September: “Countless people on the move are cut off from the outside world and trapped in illegal detention centers!”. Mounting reports have long revealed the hellish conditions in formal and informal detention centres in Libya as well as the links between EU-funded officials and criminal networks. Meanwhile, Refugees in Libya sent: “solidarity and condolences to the families who lost their children and loved ones during this natural disaster, migrants, refugees and the Libyan common people have been affected horribly”. Interior Minister-designate, Imad Trabelsi, has announced the installation of security cameras along the border between Libya and Tunisia which has been the scene of deadly desert deportations by the Tunisian regime. “For the first time, the Libyan border with Tunisia will be provided with surveillance cameras day and night and security forces will be deployed along the border,” Trabelsi said.

The highly controversial EU deal with the Tunisian regime continues to spark intense debate. On 12 September, EU Neighbourhood Commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi told MEPs that “respect for human rights and democratic principles is enshrined in the EU-Tunisia Association Agreement, which is the overarching legal framework for the bilateral relations” adding: “In addition, the objective is to hold the EU-Tunisia Association Council by the end of the year to tackle many aspects of the bilateral partnership, including the situation of human rights and fundamental values”. According to Várhelyi, the Tunisian coast guard intercepted nearly 24,000 boats headed for Europe this year, compared with some 9,000 last year.  President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen who has hailed the Tunisia deal as a model to follow, gave her State of the Union 2023 speech on the same day emphasizing the need to show “Europe can manage migration effectively with compassion”. However, key MEPs seem far from convinced. Predicting how von der Leyen would speak of defending democracy against autocracy, Green MEP, Tineke Strik referenced the deal with the Tunisian dictator, Kais Saied, saying: “Paying an autocrat to prevent migrants from fleeing his own violent attacks and deportations is more than cynical. The EU-Tunisia deal only leads to more repression and to the sale of our EU values von der Leyen must cease this deal if she seriously defends democracy and the rule of law”. MEP, Thijs Reuten from the socialist alliance stated: “Von der Leyen speaks about humanity and brutality of human smugglers putting people on deathly routes in the desert, while at the same time defending the dirty deal with Tunisia. You can’t have it both. If you really mean it, you take the Tunisa deal off the table”. In her remarks “on the flawed Tunisia ‘deal’, which has the legal status of a beer coaster and was hammered out by a fantasy body dubbed ‘Team Europe’”, liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld pointed to the failure of the deal to reduce arrivals and immense human suffering caused by it. In late August, the director general of the EU’s neighborhood department, Gert Jan Koopman warned it is too soon to see a fall in boat crossings to Europe as negotiations to unblock the funding have just begun. Meanwhile, the European Ombudsman has entered the controversy: “Noting that concerns have been raised about the agreement, the Ombudsman asked whether the Commission had carried out a human rights impact assessment before signing the MoU and whether it intends to carry out a periodic review of the human rights impact of actions undertaken during its implementation. The Ombudsman also asked whether the Commission has defined criteria for suspending funding if human rights are not respected”. Reportedly, five members of the EP Committee on Foreign Affairs due to travel to Tunis on an official mission were told in a last-minute communication from the Tunisian government that they were not welcome. Chair of the committee, German MEP Michael Gahler, stated: “This conduct is unprecedented since the democratic revolution in 2011. We continue to be ready for, and we insist on a dialogue on critical issues and remind this parliament has always approved the comprehensive cooperation agenda including the strengthening of democracy and financial support as agreed in the association agreement”. Meanwhile, civil rights defenders in Tunisia point out that the ongoing crack down has only intensified departures of migrants as well as Tunisians themselves. Further, Senior Visiting Fellow Refugees International, Nicholas Noe reported on 14 September: “Hearing disturbing news from multiple Tunisian NGOs & International Agencies that Tunisian Red Crescent has been compelled recently to stop its previous distribution of emergency food & water supplies to 1000s of migrants, refugees & asylum seekers in Sfax & likely elsewhere”, adding: “These basic supplies were vital for many, esp. after the violent, forced expulsions to desert and border regions in July by the Tunisian government and security forces…”

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