Profiteers of Migration? Authoritarian States in Africa and European Migration Management

Anne Koch, Annette Weber and Isabelle Werenfels (eds.)

SWP Research Paper 4, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (German Institute for International and Security Affairs), July 2018


Under the banner of “combating the root causes of migration”, cooperation with countries of origin and transit countries is being promoted to reduce irregular migration to the EU. Development aid is being instrumentalized for migration policy purposes, and the barriers to cooperating with authoritarian regimes have lowered. This has led to a growing number of cooperation formats and project funds related to migration and an increased focus by the EU on the African continent. This study analyses migration cooperation in countries with different degrees of proximity and interaction with Europe and examines whether, and to what extent, authoritarian rulers benefit from this cooperation. The study focuses on: Egypt; the Maghreb states Algeria and Morocco; the Sahel state of Niger; as well as Sudan and Eritrea. The analysis shows that the impact of external EU migration policies varies according to the internal conditions in partner countries:

  • Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is using the high priority that the EU attaches to migration policy cooperation with third countries to consolidate his power.
  • The Sudanese regime faces a multitude of cooperation options, whose importance and priorities have not been clearly identified by the EU and do not meet Khartoum’s expectations.
  • Niger’s government hopes that cooperation will improve relations with the EU, however Niger must deal with problematic consequences in its own country if, for example, the transport of irregular migrants as a source of income is halted and local conflicts become a threat.
  • The Moroccan government has its own design ambitions on migration policy and is acting strategically, placing the EU’s migration policy offers at the service of its own modernization agenda.
  • Algeria has so far largely avoided cooperation, so there are no potential “migration profits”, but there are signs of a cautious opening towards more cooperation.
  • The Eritrean regime remains categorically opposed to partnership-based cooperation.

The degree of centralisation, assertiveness, and regional ambitions of regimes are decisive in determining whether European offers are perceived as a welcome influx of project funds or as an opportunity to pursue overarching political goals, or neither of the two. While the degrees of authoritarianism do not correlate significantly with willingness to cooperate with the EU, nevertheless the interests in maintaining power and the legitimacy strategies of the elites play decisive roles in responding to offers of cooperation in all countries examined. The willingness to cooperate is not necessarily tied to a desire for more financial support but linked to strategic interests, such as the lifting of sanctions or the normalization of relations and international recognition. These insights are important for European decision-makers in order to avoid contradictions between the migration policy agendas and longer-term development policy objectives, as well as any potential for domestic political conflicts in partner countries. The study cautions against restricting regional freedom of movement, which has promoted the economic development of African states. The study also highlights that states for which remittances from Europe are an important economic factor have a greater interest in enhancing the possibilities of legal migration than states whose citizens primarily send money home from the Gulf States.