(Brussels) – Leaders of European and African countries should ensure that intensified migration cooperation does not come at the expense of respect for human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Over 60 heads of state from the two regions will gather on November 11, 2015, in Valletta, Malta, for a two-day summit the European Union sought with African nations, to discuss the refugee and migration crisis.

“Ensuring that people can live in safety and dignity should be the overarching aim of migration cooperation and development assistance,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “For that to happen, at the Valletta Summit and beyond, it’s vital for human rights and refugee protection to stand as core principles for any common EU-Africa efforts.”

Refugees and asylum seekers arrive at a transit camp in Hungary, after crossing the border from Serbia on September 3, 2015. 

© 2015 Daniel Etter for Human Rights Watch

The summit will bring together EU countries, EU institutions, the African Union, and African countries participating in the Rabat Process and the Khartoum Process, two forums for dialogue and cooperation about migration and development. Participants are expected to agree to a political declaration and an action plan on development, refugee protection, and migration.

EU government efforts – including through the Khartoum and Rabat processes – to build capacity in African and other countries to fairly process and humanely host asylum seekers and refugees are worthwhile, long-term efforts. But these should complement EU efforts to protect the rights of migrants and asylum seekers within its own borders, and increase safe, legal, and orderly channels into the EU, Human Rights Watch said.

Leaked draft versions of the declaration and action plan contain positive elements, including promoting legal migration channels for work, study, and research; increased development aid and humanitarian assistance; and capacity building to improve rule of law, governance, and protection of refugees and other displaced people; and enhanced search-and-rescue efforts.

The draft action plan, dated October 26, contains a strong emphasis on increased border cooperation, enhanced migration management, combatting smuggling, and facilitating the return of irregular migrants.

While there is nothing wrong with such efforts per se, EU governments’ consistent emphasis on stemming flows raises concerns that the EU governments will seek to use the Valletta Summit and other cooperative frameworks with African governments to win their support for preventing migration. This approach risks channeling funds and expertise into institutions or agencies with abusive records, and could deter or restrict the flight of persecuted people from African countries collaborating with the EU on migration programs.

The broad thrust of EU migration efforts over the past decade has been on outsourcing migration control, stemming the flow of migrants and asylum seekers, and facilitating the return of those who can be sent back through readmission agreements. That focus has been underscored by the recent EU declarations on the current refugee crisis, and EU efforts for a migration action plan with Turkey, with a goal of preventing refugee flows to Europe.

The Khartoum Process, involving the EU and Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, Egypt, and Tunisia, raises particular concerns that the EU will channel significant funds through abusive governments with the aim of deterring migration, including by nationals from these countries fleeing persecution.

There is little information in the public domain about the projects envisioned or underway in these countries. However, an EU Council document from April that Human Rights Watch obtained indicates that proposed or ongoing projects include building capacity with the deeply repressive Eritrean government to combat smuggling and trafficking. Recognizing the repressive human rights situation in Eritrea, EU member states granted asylum or other forms of protection in 2014 and the first half of 2015 to 82 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers who succeeded in escaping their country and overcoming the obstacles to reach the EU.

“While the aims of these projects may be laudable, it’s alarming to see funding to agencies and security forces from countries like Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia, which are among the top refugee-producing countries precisely because of human rights abuses,” Sunderland said. “Any projects have to be carefully thought through, and subjected to regular monitoring for potential human rights concerns.”

The list of EU-supported projects also includes training Sudanese officials in labor migration issues. Sudan’s security forces have repeatedly been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur. A training center for law enforcement officers from all African countries participating in the Khartoum Process is to be based in Egypt, a country whose security forces have pervasive impunity for abuses, including enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial executions.

The Rabat Process is an inter-governmental process involving EU and African governments, with the objective to “create a framework for dialogue and consultation” on migration and development. Its website notes that “the European Union has asked the African partners to pursue a policy aimed at preventing and reducing illegal migration” but adds it also “aims to improve the organisation of legal migration and promote the connections between migration and development.”

The Valletta Summit draft action plan covers five broad areas:

  1. Development benefits of migration, and addressing root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement;
  2. Legal migration and mobility;
  3. International protection and asylum;
  4. Preventing and countering irregular migration, migrant smuggling, and trafficking in human beings; and
  5. Making progress on return arrangements and readmission agreements.

EU governments should design, carry out, and monitor their migration cooperation with African and other third countries to ensure that it does not effectively trap people in abusive situations, prevent them from accessing fair asylum procedures, or return them to places where they would risk persecution or inhuman or degrading treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

EU governments should also avoid migration cooperation with refugee-producing countries given the significant risk that such efforts would be used to block departures and access to protection, Human Rights Watch said. Failure to focus on human rights abuses contradicts the cornerstone of EU foreign policy as required by the EU human rights action plan and is counterproductive to the EU’s long-term objectives of managing migration and tackling the root causes of refugee flows.

“Like the wire fences being erected across Europe, deals to stem migration flows at the expense of human rights will only work in the short term,” Sunderland said. “EU governments should lead by example, take responsibility for asylum seekers on their territory, and ensure that respect for human rights remains a cornerstone of EU foreign relations with African and other partners.”