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Europe outsourcing asylum to African countries is a terrible idea – there are alternatives

A policewoman writing on a table with people standing
Nigerien police processing Emergency Travel Mechanism evacuees in Niamey, Niger in 2019. Laura Lambert

For 40 years, western governments have entertained ideas of outsourcing asylum processing and refugee hosting to the global south. It is not a new idea. And neither are the controversies that have accompanied it.

Denmark and the UK have been in the news over this issue recently. In January 2023, however, after fierce domestic criticism, the new Danish government announced it had paused its negotiations with Rwanda to bilaterally “transfer” all asylum seekers out of Denmark. Instead it suggested building an EU alliance to do the same. This step appeared at odds with the criticism of the Danish plans from both the European Commission and the European Parliament.

The UK, too, wanted to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. The plan was temporarily halted by the European Court of Human Rights in 2022. For its part, the British High Court didn’t condemn the policy as illegal. So it may be revived.

In line with these and other recent policy initiatives, prominent migration researcher Ruud Koopmans supported the idea of sending asylum seekers to Tunisia. But his endorsement was poorly timed, coming right after the African Union condemned Tunisia for systematic racist violence against sub-Saharan migrants.

We’ve conducted research into European policies to discourage immigrants, and implementation of emergency refugee evacuations from Libya to Niger. Based on this we explain the risks and frequent failures of outsourcing schemes, and offer more pragmatic alternatives for European asylum policies.

Why these policies fail

Initiatives to outsource asylum – known as “externalisation” – have frequently failed on different levels.

First, since the 1980s, there has not been enough political support in Europe for these radical ideas. Although vocal, proponents have remained a minority at the common European level.

Second, international organisations have voiced sustained criticism. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)implored the Danish government to abandon its externalisation ambitions. It said that they undermined international solidarity and could lead to chain refoulement. This happens when one state after another successively deport a person under inhumane and degrading conditions. Instead, it encouraged Denmark to focus on improving the safe and orderly access to asylum.

Third, most countries have repeatedly rejected hosting these designs. The African Union condemned the Danish plans in 2021. It said that developing countries already hosted 85% of the world’s refugees, and that such policies were xenophobic. A growing academic literature also argues that such externalisation policies actually represent a continuation of racialising colonial practices of transferring displaced people through imperial territories.

In practice, these proposals offer little substance more than hot air. They appear designed to appeal to domestic voters rather than to solve displacement.

For instance, in 2018 the European Council proposed taking people who had been trying to reach Europe on boats in the Mediterranean to centres in North Africa for asylum processing. It remained a press release issued by national ministers unconnected to any EU policy process. The African Union criticised the proposal as a violation of international law.

Yet Germany recently revisited these plans – but only in a press interview. This seemed geared to accommodate conservative voters after government announcements of liberalising residency and citizenship legislation.

Announcing such plans without consulting potential partner states or regional bodies suggests revived colonial fantasies where all states in the global south can be paid off. Also, it demonstrates a complete disregard for any opposition among such states’ electorates.

Niger and Rwanda

Certainly, Europe’s financial-political incentives can weigh on different sub-Saharan governments. Rwanda received £140 million from the UK in advance to build accommodation. Rwanda has also used Danish and British desires to silence criticism of its support for the M23 militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Niger got international praise for hosting refugees evacuated from Libyan prisons. Beyond new diplomatic recognition, it also received additional resources for its asylum bureaucracy. These included a permanent camp infrastructure and salary increases for senior officials.

However, despite these incentives, outsourcing asylum risks also creates tensions in partner states.

First, refugees may get stuck in transit because their asylum claims are rejected, or because western governments abandon promises of resettlement.

In mid-2019, around 120 of 2,900 evacuees faced a rejection of their refugee claims. Both responsible Nigerien officials and refugees refused their legalisation in Niger for various reasons.

The lack of economic opportunities in Niger weighed heavily on the refugees, as did the precarious security situation on the officials. According to local UNHCR staff in Niger, the government of Burkina Faso refused to host these refugees after hearing about Niger’s difficulties.

Second, outsourcing asylum procedures presupposes that the rule of law is functioning in the partner state. In Niger, the appeals process was neither operational nor independent. For one thing, the appeal committee had not met for three years and consisted of the same departments as the first instance.

Political alternatives

If politicians really want to reduce deaths in the Mediterranean, often used as the purported motivation for externalisation, they should stop criminalising sea rescue.

EU states could also make it possible to claim asylum at embassies or consulates. Several European countries allowed this until the early 2000s. Similarly, humanitarian visas could be issued from embassies, as argued by European Parliament members in 2016. This requires more resources for screening and case-processing.

These would be real steps towards dismantling so-called smuggling economies, whose incentives have only increased with the one-sided EU focus on deterrence and border control. Safe entry procedures would be an approach fundamentally different from containing displaced populations far from Europe.

A modern and pragmatic migration policy should abandon postcolonial illusions that massive global inequalities and displacement can be addressed through deterrence and the outsourcing of refugee protection to third countries.

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