An “Informal” Turn in the European Union’s Migrant Returns Policy towards Sub-Saharan Africa
A not-insignificant share of the European Union’s resident irregular migrant population comes from sub-Saharan Africa. Even though estimates of the unauthorized population in EU Member States are notoriously imprecise, comparing the number of non-EU nationals (formally known as third-country nationals) ordered to leave with the number who departed suggests that the resident unauthorized population has grown by up to 3 million persons over the past ten years. And sub-Saharan African nationals accounted for around one-fourth of this growth, with a significant share coming from Nigeria (13 percent), Senegal (8 percent), and Eritrea (7 percent). Despite increased EU efforts in recent years to work with sub-Saharan countries to accept the return of their nationals, return rates remain low.
Amid publics increasingly anxious over migration, particularly since the 2015-16 crisis that saw hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and economic migrants cross the Mediterranean, EU and national policymakers have placed new emphasis on deterring arrivals and stepping up the pace of returns.
In 2017, EU countries carried out 189,545 returns of irregular migrants to third countries, of which 9,235 were to sub-Saharan Africa (see Table 1). The numbers remain small considering that only slightly more than one-third of non-EU nationals ordered removed actually were returned. The 2017 total was nearly 18 percent less than the number removed in 2016.
An initial focus by the European Union on formal readmission agreements with migrant-origin countries has given way since 2016 to informal ones. This article examines this informal turn and explores the potential effect that nonbinding readmission pacts could have on migrant returns to sub-Saharan Africa, challenging the assumption that such agreements will have a significant effect on future return levels agreed upon by EU and African policymakers. The analysis also evaluates EU reliance on return totals as an indicator of policy effectiveness and questions whether policy success can be quantified, considering data and other limitations.
The Framework for Returns
A decade after EU Member States agreed to establish common rules for managing the return of irregular migrants, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in his 2018 State of the Union address outlined a proposal for recasting the EU Return Directive to create a “stronger and more effective European return policy.”
This proposal reiterated the goal of increasing cooperation with origin countries, explicitly noting that it as a precondition for sustainably returning unauthorized migrants to their points of origin. Historically, the European Union and individual Member States have predominantly sought to ensure cooperation of origin countries by reaching readmission agreements, which broadly set out obligations and procedures to accept timely returns of irregular migrants and failed asylum seekers in exchange for favorable policies such as visa liberalization or financial incentives.
More recently, however, the European Union has quietly, yet significantly, changed its approach. Whereas the European Commission once exclusively sought formal readmission agreements, in 2016 it began to negotiate and conclude informal arrangements with third countries. The Commission’s 2018 proposal for a new EU Return Directive notes that “several legally nonbinding arrangements for return and readmission have been put in place.” The shift occurred as the Commission found great difficulty in finalizing formal accords with third countries, especially those whose populations rely on remittances from diasporas irregularly residing in Europe. Informal arrangements keep readmission deals largely out of sight, and thus take away domestic pressure on governments to refrain from cooperating on returns.
Sub-Saharan African State Returns
The European Union’s return and readmission policy has devoted particular attention to ensuring cooperation of sub-Saharan African states over the past two decades due to the very small number of returns of their nationals residing irregularly in Europe.