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Competing Imperatives? Migration and the African Continental Free Trade Area

This blog was originally posted on NewSecurityBeat, a blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center.

African informal migration to Europe raises human insecurity issues for states in both Africa and Europe. This challenge was underscored almost a decade ago by the arrival of about a million migrants and refugees on the shores of Europe.

These movements between continents led to a “crisis” that prompted the launch of the European Union Trust Fund for Africa (EUTFA). Yet EUTFA’s key goal of deterring African informal migration to Europe has a spillover effect on movement within Africa, and it contradicts an essential regional integration prerogative: freedom of mobility. Thus, EUTFA is a strategy with significant implications for the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

The AfCFTA brings with it the promise of greater regional integration and an easing of trade barriers within Africa. It is an essential component of the African Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want. However, the existing dichotomy between national and regional priorities—arising from regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—puts the successful implementation of this strategy into question.

Moreover, while African informal migration to Europe poses a serious issue due to its human insecurity consequences, the movement of people within the continent itself is much greater. Indeed, intercontinental African migration accounts for only 14% of total global African migration. Can trade facilitation be achieved in a context where access to borders is restricted? What do conflicting interests in regulating African migration imply for the successful implementation of the AfCFTA?

The Interplays of Migration and Governance 

The duality of the question of African informal migration makes it a vexing issue. This movement is considered an asset for development, yet informal migration to Europe represents a human insecurity issue due to human trafficking and tragic deaths in the desert and at sea.

Using a global governance lens to examine the management of African informal migration and borders reveals a plethora of actors engaging in this space via both formal and informal modes. This synergy has implications for the true realization of a free trade area in Africa. Such an analysis also enables us to understand how actors manage conflict, facilitate cooperation, reduce uncertainty, procure resources, maintain hegemony, and address transnational problems. In this case, it also shows how the numerous actors with the goal of managing African informal migration to Europe interact.

Prior to the EUTFA initiative, the governance of migration in Africa was dominated by both European and African actors. It was enshrined in regional and international organizations, including the AU and its Regional Economic Communities (RECs), the European Union (EU), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Mainly, regional organizations such as the AU’s RECs had established migration policies in their respective areas. In this approach, the EU was described as a transregional actor. For instance, it was at the 30th Ordinary Summit of the ECOWAS heads of state and government in June 2006 that the organization paved the way for the definition of a common regional approach to African migrations. Indeed, the 2008 ECOWAS common approach to migration set the basis for cooperation with European countries to address African informal migrations to Europe but also promote formal pathways.

The “crisis” of 2015 deepened efforts to address these movements. The EU adopted border securitization and humanitarian strategies to address these dynamics through the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex)—and, more recently, through its 2020 New Pact for Migration and Asylum. The latter agreement established guidelines for a shared responsibility among member states regarding incoming migrants and asylum seekers. While both policies tend to be centered geographically in Europe, the EUTFA strategy has also been established in Africa to strengthen these efforts.

Indeed, African and EU perspectives on migration and development differ. In the view of African nations, the benefits of migration—especially for its contribution to GDPs via remittances—are clear. Europe now favors aid to prevent African migration to Europe. This divergence underscores the different regional approaches to addressing African migration.

The EU and ECOWAS even adopt different approaches within their institutional frameworks to address African informal migration to Europe. The EU focuses on reinforcing its borders, dismantling human smuggling networks, and addressing irregular migration within its region. ECOWAS seeks to combat human trafficking and abuse.

Informal Governance and its Implications for the AfCFTA

This blog was originally posted on NewSecurityBeat, a blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center.

If formal governance structures cannot resolve issues relating to this divergence, informal governance can do so. It enables actors to engage informally to address trade-offs and re-position their agendas. Both states and non-state actors can influence governance outcomes via these processes, so the need to position policy conversations beyond formally established institutions is evident.

Informal governance takes place outside of formal organizations and their constitutions. It is a space in which interactions can provide a platform to negotiate trade-offs. The Migration Dialogue for West Africa (MIDWA) illustrates just how effective such processes can be. This informal grouping is a way that ECOWAS, the IOM, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the AU, and EU commissions can discuss African informal migration to Europe. Civil society networks also engage informally to advocate for human rights in groupings such as the Migration and Development (MADE) civil society networks.

While informal governance can further dialogue, key elements of the African/European migration dialogue still work against the concept of an African free trade zone. African migration and trade are two faces of the same coin. Trade is facilitated when mobility has become the norm. For instance, in exchange for technical and financial support from transregional actors, ECOWAS engages in actions to discourage informal migration to Europe. As such, it is observed that through these kinds of bargains, actors such as the EU hinder the goal of a borderless region.

For the true elimination of trade barriers, AfCFTA efforts must embed the facilitation of African migration into their structures—and also consider existing dynamics that prevent this from happening. Creating spheres where multiple actors can interact and discuss the facilitation of a free trade area is essential. This will welcome stakeholders involved in the governance of African migration to an important conversation. It will also help the continent embrace the crucial roles of non-state actors such as civil society networks (and their influence) in this arena of governance.

Balkissa Daouda Diallo is a recent PhD graduate from the Global Governance and Human Security program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

Sources: African Continental Free Trade Area; European Commission; European Union Trust Fund for Africa; Journal of Borderlands Studies; Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies; Mercator Dialogue on Asylum and Migration; Origins; Palgrave MacMillan; The Review of International Organizations; Routledge; UNHCR

The opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of the Wilson Center or those of Carnegie Corporation of New York. The Wilson Center's Africa Program provides a safe space for various perspectives to be shared and discussed on critical issues of importance to both Africa and the United States.

About the Author

Balkissa Daouda Diallo

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more