The European Union was trying Wednesday to secure African help to control migration flows, offering in return billions of euros in development aid, at a two-day summit in Malta.
One of the most controversial aspects at the EU-Africa talks was a demand that African nations agree to take back failed asylum seekers, economic migrants and other migrants with no legal rights to stay in Europe.
In an opening speech, EU President Donald Tusk said it was “essential” to make progress on the issue, even through forced deportations, to allow the bloc to “keep the doors open” for genuine refugees and legal migrants.
But Senegalese President Macky Sall said it was “difficult” to take such a tough approach towards people “who have often braved death, crossing the desert and the Mediterranean, in really horrendous circumstances.”
“We should have a frank discussion, see which ones can be legalized and then, for the others, we will see, depending on the agreements we have with the EU, what is the best way to handle this issue,” he added.
Europe is grappling with the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. In the first nine months of the year, EU governments have received more than 1 million asylum applications, but such numbers pale in comparison with Africa’s refugee burden.
Even though most EU-bound refugees hail from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and enter via Greece and the Western Balkans, stemming migration from Africa is an important priority for the 28-member bloc.
“The attitude we’re trying to adopt here is a more for more approach, in the sense that, yes there has to be more aid to these countries, but these countries have to also get their act together,” Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said.
In remarks that followed a ceremony in which leaders observed a minute’s silence for dead migrants, Muscat said African countries should “make sure they are not aiding in a complacent manner” migrant traffickers.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel – whose country is taking in the biggest number of refugees in Europe – said her continent wanted an “amiable” relation with Africa “in which, in addition to aid, clear demands and expectations are formulated.”
The EU has tried to push the idea of setting up migrant processing centres in transit countries like Niger, but diplomats said the proposal had not made much inroads amid a strong African pushback.
“There is no consensus related to this issue,” Egypt Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told reporters.
The main result of the summit was expected to be the launch of a 1.8-billion-euro (1.93 billion dollars) fund to tackle the root causes of migration, such as poverty. EU governments have been asked to pour a further 1.8 billion euros into it.
“The fund on its own cannot cover all the needs, because the needs are enormous,” said Niger President Mahamadou Issofou, adding that Africa also needed fairer trade relations with European parters.
The EU was also expected to promise to slightly open its borders to selected categories of Africans, such as students and researchers. The bloc’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said proposals would “come in the next months.”
Human rights groups criticized Europeans for focusing too much on security aspects, and expressed concern at the implications of cooperating with countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, like Eritrea or Sudan.
“The EU seems intent on using African governments as proxy gatekeepers, and the Valletta summit may result in new agreements that […] only focus on border control,” Matteo De Bellis of Amnesty International said.
After the summit, EU leaders were due to stay on in Valletta for more intra-bloc talks on migration, amid slow progress on the implementation of burden-sharing initiatives approved two months ago.
They include a commitment to move 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to elsewhere in the bloc over two years. So far, this has happened for only 147 people, according to data from the European Asylum Support Office.
“The biggest problem that we have at the moment [in the EU] is that too much is being promised and too little is being delivered,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz said in a dpa interview.
In a move expected to create new tensions, Germany decided Tuesday to no longer unconditionally accept Syrian refugees, but return them to the first EU country they set foot on, as stipulated by bloc rules seen as increasingly hard to enforce.