In West Africa, Germany is playing a key role in expanding the European border regime
By Laura Lambert
Laura is a postdoctoral fellow at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute in Freiburg. Together with Hassan Ould Moctar, Moctar Dan Yaye, Leonie Jegen and Aino Korvensyrjä, she coordinates the West Africa working group at migration-control.info. This article was first published in German in Analyse und Kritik, on April 18, 2023. Please find the German version online here.
Since the early 2000s and increasingly since 2015, Africa has become a central site of European migration defense. Europe tries to prevent African migrants from migrating to Europe, often by violent means. Germany plays a significant role in this. The cornerstones of this policy are diplomacy, capacity building, local policing, deportations and legal migration.
Since the supposed migration crisis of 2015, European attention has increasingly focused on illegalized migration from West Africa. With the Valletta Summit, European and African politicians defined the fight against irregular migration and its causes as the main goal of their cooperation. The Emergency Aid Fund for Africa, which was subsequently created, has so far provided five billion euros for this purpose. West and Central Africa alone accounted for 2.1 billion euros. For countries like Niger, which has a national budget of three billion euros for 24 million inhabitants, these funds represent a significant incentive for cooperation.
In addition, there was diplomatic pressure from Europe. Niger, for example, as a key transit country, introduced a law in 2015 that criminalized the transport and accommodation of migrants. But it was not implemented until Angela Merkel visited in 2016. She was the first German chancellor to ever travel to Niger. It was only migration and counterterrorism that put the country on the radar of German foreign policy.
This prior lack of interest in Niger proved advantageous for Germany in migration diplomacy. Despite its failure of reappraisal with German colonialism, as in Togo, or even the current exploitation by German chocolate manufacturers in Ghana, Germany was often seen as a better partner. In contrast, France has been the target of criticism in West Africa in recent years for acting as a (post-)colonial ruler.
Diplomatic pressure was extended deep into the West African authorities through liaison officers. The German embassy in Niamey received an officer for flight and migration, and the Federal Police sent several liaison officers. The same was true for Frontex and the European Commission. They sought contact with Nigerien officials and supported the implementation of migration controls.
Joint governance frameworks were also established. In them, Nigerien politicians and officials decided on the cornerstones of migration policy together with European diplomats, police officers, the state-run German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the United Nations. Germany played a leading role in this process, as GIZ provided financial support for the creation of Niger’s 2020 migration policy and structured the process.
In other projects, GIZ also supports capacity building of border infrastructure through the construction of border posts, demarcation of border routes, and training. In addition to GIZ, the civilian security mission EUCAP Sahel is particularly involved in capacity building for the police authorities. German police officers are also involved in this mission. The mission is said to have contributed to the drafting of the Nigerien anti-smuggling law. In addition, it provides material and training. Between 2012 and 2019, EUCAP trained 19,000 security actors in Niger.
European security actors do not limit themselves to trainings, however. They also intervene directly on African soil. Already in 2006, Frontex and the Spanish Guardia Civil patrolled the coasts of Senegal to intercept migrants on their way to the Canary Islands and bring them back to the mainland. In Niger, joint investigation teams are being set up. In them, Spanish, French and Nigerien police officers work together to uncover and prosecute „smuggling and trafficking networks.“ Between 2017 and 2022, more than 700 people were arrested in this way.
In Niger, these and other arrests cut deeply into society. Overnight, a thriving migration economy was made illegal, and transporters were imprisoned. In the historic transit city of Agadez on the edge of the Sahara, more than half of households reportedly lost income. Migrants were stuck in transit and increasingly became victims of corruption, violence and arbitrary detention. Their rights were massively curtailed, as the responsible United Nations Special Representative on the Rights of Migrants also criticized in 2019. He criticized in particular the violation of the principle of non-refoulement and the West African right of free movement. The latter, similar to the Schengen Area, regulates that nationals can move visa-free in the 15 member states of the West African Community of States ECOWAS.
Criticism of Niger’s migration control has not abated since. In 2022, the civil society organizations Alarme Phone Sahara and the Malian Association of Deportees (Association Malienne des Expulsés), together with the Italian rights organization ASGI, filed a lawsuit against Niger before the ECOWAS Court of Justice. Based on their accompaniment of migrants, they documented the human rights violations to which they were subjected.
The example of this lawsuit shows that in opposition to European externalization policies, new transnational alliances are also emerging to document and scandalize rights violations by Europe and cooperating third countries. Alliances to be mentioned here include Afrique-Europe-Interact, Migreurop, and Loujna Tounkaranké. They come together, among other things, at the transnational summer camps, the CommemorActions of migrants killed by Europe, and within the framework of the West Africa working group of the migration-control.info info platform.
Shortly after taking up its work, the traffic light government announced a tightening of its deportation policy. Among the 12,945 people deported by Germany in 2022 were 599 who were deported to West Africa. This mainly affected people from Nigeria, Gambia and Ghana. To tighten deportations, the German government’s new special representative for migration agreements, Joachim Stamp, intends to conclude further readmission agreements. So far, Germany has only had success with this in West Africa with Guinea. In addition, there are a few European agreements. For West African states, migrants are simply too great an economic and political power. Their remittances often exceed official development aid. In countries like Mali, the diaspora is an important interest group.
So far, so-called „voluntary“ return has been more significant in terms of numbers. With the consent of the migrants, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in particular transfers them to their countries of origin and promises them support there for reintegration. This is hardly a voluntary decision. In Germany, which ranked second worldwide in voluntary returns in 2021 with 6,785 people, the return often follows a threat of deportation. In first place is Niger, where often no other option remains after the violent mass deportations from Algeria to the Sahara. In Libya, in third place, the program offers the only escape from torture prisons. Among the top five countries of origin of „voluntary“ returnees were Guinea, Mali and Nigeria. West Africans are thus particularly affected by this „soft“ deportation.
Legal migration routes?
Recently, Germany has also been trying to recruit workers in West Africa for its labor market, which is characterized by a shortage of skilled workers. The „German-Ghanaian Center for Jobs, Migration and Reintegration,“ opened by GIZ in Accra in 2017, was ceremoniously renamed the „Ghanaian-European Center for Jobs, Migration and Development“ by German labor and development ministers in February 2023. The government of the traffic light coalition sells this as a paradigm shift in migration policy towards a „triple win“, in which not only Germany, but also the countries of origin and migrants would benefit.
At the same time, it is questionable whether the German recruitment of skilled workers in West Africa will reach any significant size at all. As elsewhere, embassies in West Africa are extremely restrictive in issuing visas. „The European embassies only want the sons of ministers,“ as an an NGO worker complained, who tried almost in vain to obtain study and work visas for recognized refugees. Since the 1970s, the visa regime, which is characterized by racist and socioeconomic selection, has de facto made legal migration to Europe impossible for most Africans. As a drop in the bucket, prestige projects like the one in Ghana create the illusion that legal migration to Europe is possible if the people concerned would only try to get enough education.
Ultimately, German and European border policy in West Africa continues to rely on isolation and violence against migrants and refugees, masked with the legal migration of individual skilled workers. With its policy of isolation, Europe is not only constantly failing in its unrealizable claim to control. It also gets rid of any vision in dealing with contemporary challenges. Migrants and officials in West Africa often spoke to ak about their vision of a better world. In it, all people could travel the world and live a good life. Freedom of movement, human dignity and self-determined development can be the cornerstones of an alternative migration policy.