Plans for offshoring refugee protection undermine human dignity, African political interests, and international norms

by Dr Franzisca Zanker, Senior Research Fellow and Head of Patterns of (Forced) Migration Clusters at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute

As the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced increased pressure to resign in the wake of repeated parties during national lockdowns and strict COVID restrictions, his advisors launched “Operation Red Meat”, to distract the angry public and members of his own party with bold statements on old-standing policy initiatives. Some of these related to people on the move, such as the proposal to use the navy to implement illegal pushbacks on the channel crossing , as well as plans to send people “ to countries such as Rwanda and Ghana for processing and resettlement,” as reported in various British papers on the 18th of January. On the very same day, the Ghanaian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration released a statement on Twitter, noting that “Operation Dead Meat” (sic) had come to their attention, and that the Ministry has not engaged with the UK on such a plan and does not intend to do so in the future. Moreover, they pointed out that they had previously debunked a news item which Ghana claimed had an interest in a partnership agreement with the UK to host deported or returned migrants from Third Countries. Just two days earlier, the Kenyan journalist Allan Olingo reported on Twitter (backed by Danish journalists) that Rwanda had rejected 250,000 COVID-19 vaccines from Denmark, given that they were attached to the government accepting to host asylum centers for Denmark. In 2021 Danish parliament approved plans(“Alien’s Act”) to establish refugee reception centers outside the country’s borders, a move Amnesty International called “ unconscionable […] and potentially unlawful.”

It is not new that migration cooperation between the EU and the African continent is heavily skewed towards European interests. This is particularly obvious in policy developments related to one of the most sensitive topics of potential cooperation, namely the return of people residing in Europe without the correct legal documentation including deportations. Already in the Cotonou Agreement from 2000 – a treaty linked to the European Development Fund, and signed by the EU and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States, the commitment of signatories to accepting return and readmission is specified in its Article 13 and includes the possibility of readmission of third country nationals and stateless persons. In other words, under this Agreement, countries may have to accept returns of persons who might not even be their own nationals from European states. More recently, in October 2021, the European Council announced visa sanctions against The Gambia (with the UK making similar threats in January 2022) as direct punishment for a lack of satisfactory cooperation on deportations.

Despite the unequal footing and immense pressure put on many African countries from the EU and individual countries, things have not exactly worked out according to plan. Already back in 2015, the Chairperson of the African Union at the time, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, noted in a statement made on the occasion of the Valetta Summit that “the African Union is not in support of, and cannot endorse the establishment of the so – called processing centers in Africa. The processing centers, or whatever they may be called, are de facto detention centers that will constitute a serious violation of human rights and re-victimization of migrants.” More recently, the question of returns proved to be one of the most contentious issues under negotiation when it came to revising the Cotonou Agreement in 2020-2021. The final document (not yet formally signed) notes that states are only obliged to accept the return and readmission of their own nationals (Article 74). In a response to the new Danish Law last year, the African Union released a press statement noting “such attempts to stem out migration from Africa to Europe is xenophobic and completely unacceptable”.

As for individual countries, it has been difficult to achieve cooperation on returns of their own nationals, let alone in establishing centers for asylum seekers from other countries. This is due not least to domestic political interests, including the prospect of an unhappy electorate, considering that deportations are harmful to those returning and often come at the costs of much-needed remittances. For Ghana in particular, researchers including Leonie Jegen (and co-authors) and Melissa Mouthaan have shown that there is little political interest in returns, notably due to reduced remittances as well as the economic impact of reintegrating returnees in the long run. Public opinion also plays a large role in Ghana, with cooperation on return being an unpopular issue amongst voters, and it is unlikely that the Ghanaian public would be sympathetic to the woes of the populist British prime minister, who is known for making racist including anti -African comments.

Beyond national political stakes making return an unpopular choice, African governments have also not shied away from appealing to humanitarian arguments to protect people on the move. A major turning point was the release of the CNN footage of African refugees and other migrants being auctioned off in slave markets in Libya in November 2017. In consequence, major outrage unfolded across the continent. The revelations led Burkina Faso for example to recall its ambassador to Libya, and Niger to summon the Libyan ambassador for talks. In Senegal, the chargé d’affaires of the Libyan Embassy in Senegal was summoned by the Foreign Minister ‚to notify him of the ‚profound indignation‘ of President Sall over the sale of Sub-Saharan African migrants on Libyan soil‘. Furthermore, as the IOM began to help stranded migrants return from Libya, with over 106,700 migrants having returned under the Joint Initiative on Migrant Protection and Reintegration by 2021 (the degree of voluntariness frequently questioned), countries like Nigeria also launched their own repatriation missions, to protect their own citizens. As such, protecting vulnerable migrants en route has become a priority for countries, including Ghana and Senegal.

This protection ideal is not just for people of their own nationality. In 2019, a deal was made between the African Union, UNHCR and Rwanda to evacuate refugees from Libyan detention camps to Rwanda. As of April 2021, 515 persons have arrived in Rwanda as a result of this. The deal dates back to 2017, when President Kagame stated his readiness to host up to 30,000 Africans trapped in Libya in response to the CNN footage. The evacuees are offered repatriation, resettlement or local integration in Rwanda, and the action was described as humanitarian, with the Minister in Charge of Emergency Management noting “Rwanda has not taken any money to honor the commitment to host African refugees from Libya. It was our proposal and we are committed to it. We believe in African solutions to African problems. We don’t have to wait for someone from outside to help us.“

Having said that, just because motivations are announced as humanitarian, doesn’t mean that they are necessarily. Nor is the situation for people returning to Ghana an easy one, let alone the situation of refugees in Rwanda. Clashes over dire conditions in refugee camps in Rwanda led to the death of ten refugee protestors in 2018. Other third-country nationals repatriated to Rwanda also speak of homelessness and no support.

Just like European countries such as Denmark, African countries also make political choices when it comes to hosting refugees or welcoming people on the move or not, often linked to geopolitical calculations. Rwanda is a case in point here: the country has previously been involved in a variety of deals to accept ‚voluntary‘ returns from Israel of primarily Eritrea and Sudanese refugees. The alleged benefits included cash payments per person returned, but rumors also included weapons, military training and aid as part of the deal. Rwanda has denied such deals, and  the cooperation later collapsed after it emerged that ‚voluntary‘ returnees were threatened with a choice between repatriation to Rwanda (or Uganda) or detention.  According to the researcher Gidron, however, it served its purpose: “African leaders [like Kagame] … were able to utilize Israel’s geostrategic needs for their own ends.” [1] An Israeli embassy was opened in 2017 and direct air routes between the countries were scheduled. And despite Rwanda’s alleged public refusal of Danish vaccine donation, the countries did also sign a non-binding memorandum of understanding to strengthen cooperation on migration and asylum in 2021 , although its status is unclear at present.

Either way, plans to place asylum seekers outside of Denmark or UK – whether an actual policy or political posturing – go against the very foundation of basic human decency. They counter the spirit of international refugee protection and will further the erosion of principles of protection that have been around for decades. In the words of the AU “[such a process] will play to distort the international asylum regime as well as pave the way for more wealthy and developed countries that only host 15% of the global refugees, to shift their responsibilities to the developing countries who already have a burden of hosting 85% of the global refugees while struggling with other challenges.” As the next EU-Africa summit is scheduled to be held in a few weeks, the principle of equal partnership needs to be underlined with a basic respect for the lives of African people on the move, as well as for the complexities of political stakes of African governments dealing with their own migration priorities.


[1] P. 154

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