European and African leaders gathering in Ivory Coast have an opportunity to confront one of the biggest sore points between the two continents: migration.
The two-day African Union-European Union summit begins Wednesday as Europe is grappling to stem the biggest wave of asylum seekers since World War II, with more people arriving by sea from African countries this year than from war-torn Syria. Anxiety over migration has stoked populism in Europe and driven electoral gains by far-right parties from France to Hungary.
“For the Europeans, it’s a priority because it’s also a domestic political issue and their electorate is very sensitive to this question,” said Gilles Yabi, head of policy group Wathi in Senegal’s capital, Dakar.
Yet few African leaders want to be seen as curbing migration in a region where going overseas is often considered a rite of passage and remittances are vital for economic survival. That’s why African Union member states favor talks that touch on broader issues such as economic development, security and trade relations, according to Yabi.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are expected to attend the summit in Abidjan. Among African leaders to join the talks are Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari and South African President Jacob Zuma.
Africa will only persuade its young people to stay if there are prospects for economic development on the continent, Moussa Faki Mahamat, president of the African Union Commission, told Radio France Internationale last week.
“We have to start at the root of the problem, with development, with concrete projects,” Mahamat said.
The views of African and European leaders on migration are fundamentally at odds, the International Crisis Group said in a report last month. “The European Union is doggedly focused on trying to prevent irregular migration, whereas the African Union is looking for ways to increase legal flows,” the Brussels-based research group said.
The plight of African migrants was highlighted this month by videos of what the International Organization for Migration described as slave markets in Libya, scenes that have drawn global condemnation and may dominate the opening talks of the summit. The African Union has pledged to “spare no effort” to end the practice, while Macron has called the auctions a crime against humanity.
The EU plans to make 8 billion euros ($9.5 billion) available to improve migration control from the Middle East and Africa. The five-year program should make it easier to return illegal migrants to their countries of origin through ‘partnerships’ with specific nations and help create jobs and provide vocational training in the Middle East and Africa. Additional financing will go toward limiting migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Sea.
In September, the European Parliament adopted a separate 4.1 billion euro plan for Africa that’s meant to boost private investment and address root causes of migration. The facility will help foster up to 44 billion euros of investments in renewable energy, financing of small and medium-sized businesses and agriculture, according to the EU.
The EU and the AU need to come up with a clear plan to solve the crisis of migrants who are stuck in Libya, according to Liesl Louw-Vaudran, senior researcher at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies. “The AU and African leaders have consistently been ignored when it comes to talks about Libya and its future,” she said. “This new focus on Libya, due to the media revelations about human trafficking, could be a catalyst for something new.”
The surge in terrorist attacks in West Africa will also be on the agenda. Among the military operations in Africa the EU helps fund are troops fighting Boko Haram in Nigeria and a regional force with soldiers from five West African nations to combat militants in the Sahel that’s meant to deploy this year. The EU has pledged 50 million euros to the joint force known as G5 Sahel, but it’s not clear where the remainder of the funds will come from.
“The EU wants Africa to take more responsibility,” Louw-Vaudran said. “From the African side, they feel they are putting up the soldiers.”