The EU and the Horn of Africa: Migration in the middle

“[I]t is a partnership of equals, where both sides share opportunities and responsibilities. Africa will be a key partner in building the world we want to live in – whether on climate, digital or trade,” stated President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen, during her speech at the State of The Union conference on Monday 16 September in front of the European Parliament. This is the guideline that the Commission means to take forward this year with regard to relations between the European Union (EU) and the  African Union (AU).  The relationships with the Horn of Africa are a key part of this for the EU. What impact have migratory flows and human trafficking from Africa had on this relationship in the last years? This article looks at the development of EU-Horn of Africa relations in light of migration and the new migration pact.

According to the “Update on UNHCR’s operations in the East and Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region”, the East and Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region of Africa together host 67% of the refugees on the African continent as per February 2020. This was ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. The prospects for solutions are complicated by new and evolving situations, such as peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, natural disasters like flooding and locusts and the armed fights that occur in South Sudan and Somalia. More than 7 million internally displaced persons in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan are in need of assistance.

In the field of Migration, Development and Peace-Building, relations between the EU and Horn of Africa started with new vigor  in 2011 after a period of severe drought that forced thousands of people to emigrate.

This led to the following frameworks of cooperation, among others:

The 2011 “Strategic Framework for the Horn of Africa” signed between the EU and countries of the Horn of Africa, which would improve social and democracy issues such as: peace, stability, security, prosperity and accountable government.

The 2012 “Supporting Horn of Africa Resilience Initiative” (SHARE), which was supported by European Commission. The primary objective of the SHARE programme was to support the populations affected by the droughts of 2011. Access to food, water and health care aimed to help people in need by a long-term humanitarian aid project.

These plans were born individually, but in 2015 they were merged with the “Horn of Africa regional action plan 2015-2020″. This five-year plan deepened the key points of the previous agreements. In addition, the migration peak of 2015 led to migration-focused action, flagshipped by the EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative, better known as the “Khartoum Process”. Migration and forced displacement have emerged as key issues in the relationship, and are taken up again in the speech to the State of the Union in 2020.

Stopping migration and human trafficking requires closer cooperation between countries in the Horn and the EU, underlines the Council Conclusions of the “Horn of Africa regional action plan 2015-2020”. In particular, the implementation of the 2014 Khartoum process for stopping ‘irregular’ migrants from Horn of Africa to Europe was seen through the lense of a greater involvement of the Horn of Africa countries and regional organizations (African Union and European Union), in order to improve migration management. In addition, the conclusions also stated that given the increase in human trafficking and the formation of a network of professional smugglers, the EU should support the international and local legislations.

In fact, five years later, discussions at the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting of 21 September 2020 on EU-AU relations are still stressing that point. Moreover, the President of the European Commission brings back the theme of mutual support between the two continents, underlining how a strategic partnership is necessary. The New Pact on Migration and Asylum aims to give new impetus to the management of migration routes and the European Solidarity not only as ‘value’ but also as implementation of concrete actions. The reactions have been mixed between member states.

As part of the Pact, the EU states that it wants to intensify its work with the African Union to continue to improve conditions in Libya and push for the abolition of the current detention centre system, the overcoming of obstacles to access for international organisations and NGOs, and the evacuation of refugees. However, so far, international organisations such as Amnesty International point out that collaboration with certain authorities have raised (legal) questions about EU involvement in human rights abuses perpetrated by authorities in the countries it wishes to cooperate with. Last year, for example, lawyers submitted documentation to the International Criminal Court on possible crimes against humanity that the EU is involving itself in. This highlights that  there is a need for reviewing the framework of relations and the kind of cooperation the EU engages in, and the need for higher standards and harmonised criteria for granting protection, as well as fair and equal conditions for asylum seekers and beneficiaries across the EU.