Containment Development and Africa’s Time-Space Trap

Forum on the new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum in light of the UN GCR

Contribution by Loren B Landau (Professor of Migration & Development at Oxford University and Research Professor with the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg) & Iriann Freemantle (Associate Researcher with the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg)

7 December 2020

In 2015, a moral panic engulfed Europe. Long uneasy with African migration across the Mediterranean, the European Union (EU) and its members states responded with unprecedented levels of peacetime defensive action. In the subsequent years, panic engendered a sophisticated, multilateral apparatus to suppress African mobility. The New Pact on Migration and Asylum represents the next stage in its evolution.

From crisis to containment

The Pact demonstrates that what began as a crisis has now become a new ‘normal.’ It furthers efforts to institutionalise strategies that code ‘ungoverned’ and ‘irresponsible’ migration as existential threats to the EU, to host countries, and to migrants themselves. It outlines a series of initiatives – coercive, narrative and ‘developmental’ – to contain Africans’ ambitions to move.

Importantly, the paternalism used to frame these efforts discursively reconciles intercepting and pre-empting Africans’ movement with the EU’s liberal, universalist foundations. The EU’s raison d’être stems from respect for rights and dignity; concerns with safety and freedom; and dedication to progress for all. It wants a future where Africans are ready to join the world. Within this rubric lies the rub: Only the deserving and developed will be allowed to move; however, demonstrating deservingness requires adherence to ever more restrictive if amorphous moral codes connected to legality, safety and responsibility. In effect, qualifying to move means surrendering the desire to do so. To gain entry, refugees and asylum seekers must demonstrate that they migrated almost exclusively by compulsion..

The justification for this approach and the EU’s extra-territorial modalities are outlined in the Pact’s opening pages:

Addressing the root causes of irregular migration, combatting migrant smuggling, helping refugees residing in third countries and supporting well-managed legal migration are valuable objectives for both the EU and our partners to pursue through comprehensive, balanced and tailor-made partnerships (page 2).

In this short statement, the European Commission is proposing that the EU dedicate itself, inter alia, to slowing migration by addressing the reasons people move. It also designates that to move legitimately means doing so in ways that states authorise and make legal. Ensuring that the only movements are righteous ones justifies extraordinary measures to regulate not just people’s ability to migrate, but even their desire to do so.

Containment development and the ‘time-space trap’

This contribution to the ASILE Forum argues that the apparatus furthered by the Pact entrenches two interrelated regimes of knowledge and control: Containment Development and the Time-Space Trap. These institutional and discursive constructions not only recalibrate the EU’s relations to Africa and Africans, but also to its own history and ethical commitments. It does this by casting migration management in humanitarian terms: to counter material and moral deprivations in ways that ready Africans for a universal liberal project. Working with allies across sectors and continents, this produces a regulatory regime that intercepts and prevents mobility while coding even the most coercive means as necessary to ‘protect’ Africans and foster their continent’s development. Stepping back, we can consider the elements that set this trap.

It begins by reframing undocumented African mobility as both illegal and immoral. It is worth noting the Pact’s language: this is not a campaign to extinguish human trafficking and exploitation. It rather aims to suppress human smuggling. Given the tightening of borders into the EU and across Africa – in law if not in practice – almost anyone moving or planning to move will somehow intersect with agents, operators or actors otherwise complicit in human smuggling. By default, almost anyone poor who has not pre-authorised a trip to the EU but begins a journey that may end there, becomes complicit in a crime. As the Pact notes on page 15:

This criminal activity therefore damages both the humanitarian and the migration management objectives of the EU. The new 2021-2025 EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling will focus on combatting criminal networks, and in line with the EU’s Security Union Strategy, it will boost cooperation and support the work of law enforcement to tackle migrant smuggling, often also linked to trafficking in human beings.

Borrowing from dystopian science fiction, the EU goes beyond just punishing those who move, but has launched a form of ‘chronoscopy’ or ‘pre-crime’: To identify and correct those likely to transgress. Part of the correction comes through ‘Containment Development.’ This works by discursively removing the imperative to migrate. Although almost all empirical models suggest ‘development’ (i.e. economic growth) spurs movement including analysis by the European Commission – the EU clings to the position that ‘Economic opportunity, particularly for young people, is often the best way to reduce the pressure for irregular migration’ (page 18 of the Pact). In this, the EU shifts the goal of development from expanding human agency and opportunity, to immobilisation. In its own words, ‘The EU is the world’s largest provider of development assistance [and] this will continue to be a key feature in EU engagement with countries, including on migration issues. Assistance will be targeted as needed to those countries with a significant migration dimension’ (pages 19-20 of the Pact). The European Commission is quite clearly proposing an institutionalisation of containment development.

Sprouting from the foundation myth that aid-spawned development prevents mobility, Africa becomes a space of potential and patriotism, not desperation. Development also means fewer conflicts and declining displacements. One no longer needs to move to realise a desirable future or safety. Indeed, movement not only endangers yourself but threatens the prospects of your family, community and country. With the exception of a narrowly defined subset of refugees and asylum seekers, the Pact further entrenches the idea that Africans should dedicate themselves to achieving prosperity, in situ. Only once people have realised appropriate, but amorphously defined, levels of wealth, education and respect for law – standards established by people outside African—are they ready to enter a global, mobile future. It is with this goal in mind that the European Commission will, ‘launch Talent Partnerships in the form of an enhanced commitment to support legal migration and mobility with key partners’ (page 23 of the Pact). For the skilled and morally vetted, the EU and the world awaits.

For this to work, the EU explicitly recognises the value of creating visible but limited legal pathways. The Pact highlights that ‘Safe channels to offer protection to those in need remove the incentive to embark on dangerous journeys to reach Europe, as well as demonstrating solidarity with third countries hosting refugees. Legal migration can bring benefit to our society and the economy’ (page 22). In practice, these are effectively countermeasures intended to legitimise exclusion rather than open doors. As noted, throughout the Pact and other EU documents,[1] sedentarism should be the default; mobility the exception. Yet pathways are a necessary part of the promise available to those who meet the right, restrictive criteria. Those who behave properly can take this road. But most can not. Those moving via other means become marked, stigmatised. As the Pact notes, ‘developing legal pathways should contribute to the reduction of irregular migration’ (page 23 of the Pact). In reality, it will exacerbate it by rendering almost all moves irregular.

Monitoring as moral policing

The EU aims to predict, quantify and publicise each African move. Each time someone moves (or even contemplates doing so) without authorisation it reinforces the appearance of Africans’ morally compromised lawlessness and justifies further intervention. To do this, the EU is working with partners to strengthen its surveillance of Africans, their behaviour and their moral adherence. New research centres are part of this strategy as are high tech solutions and information systems. One of these, ROBORDER, is an almost nine million euro effort to develop ‘a fully functional autonomous border surveillance system with unmanned mobile robots including aerial, water surface, underwater and ground vehicles, capable of functioning both as standalone and in swarms, which will incorporate multimodal sensors as part of an interoperable network.’ This and similar efforts are essential to its chronoscopic project. As the Pact notes, ‘A seamless migration and asylum process needs proper management of the necessary information . . . An upgraded Eurodac would help to track unauthorised movements, tackle irregular migration and improve return.’ Elsewhere (pages 12-13) the Pact argues that, ‘Interoperability will connect all European systems for borders, migration, security and justice, and will ensure that all these systems ‘talk’ to each other, that no check gets missed because of disconnected information, and that national authorities have the complete, reliable and accurate information needed.’

The Pact’s current proposals complement significant investments in census offices, NGOs and university research centres, which will generate information on African migration like never before.[2] But this is knowledge with a purpose – to regulate, to promote sedentarising interventions and to naturalise the desire to stay fixed in place and out of global time. Indeed, to naturalise these efforts, the EU is sponsoring dozens of programs aimed at localising Africans’ future imagination: through education and advocacy African youth are instructed that migration is a betrayal of nation and family. The MIRROR project (Migration-Related Risks caused by misconceptions of Opportunities and Requirements) aims to identify and ‘correct’ African views about Europe’s potential. These campaigns are set to continue as, ‘Tools such as strategic communication will be further deployed, providing information on legal migration opportunities and explaining the risks of irregular migration, as well as countering disinformation’ (page 20). For those who still wish to move, an assemblage of surveillance and violence will keep them in place.

The illusory lure of futures elsewhere

In disingenuously dangling a global and mobile future to Africans willing to mould themselves into externally defined parameters of moral respectability, the EU asserts a form of temporal, pastoral power over would-be African migrants. Adherence to immigration regulations authored and often imposed by the EU, together with a demonstrated commitment to family, community and country mark one’s suitability to enter a global future. But meeting these legal and moral standards effectively means building a life dedicated to ‘development at home’. It is founded on a fundamental irony: only Africans willing to suppress mobility desires and adhere to EU-authored legal and social moralities can access the fruits of the EU’s prosperity. Conflict and displacement are but further evidence of Africa’s (and Africans’) propensity to violence – a moral failing that can only be rectified through particular, place-bound political and social institutions.

It is important to note that contrary to analyses positing restrictive migration policies as betraying the liberal universalism on which EU polities and futures are founded, the Pact positions ‘migration management’ as an integral part of its reproduction. Warding off its own ‘isolation and divisions’ and ensuring its own ‘freedom, protection and progress’, it effectively imposes on Africa the former and denies it the latter. It justifies raising borders and externalising its project of socialisation and subjectification so that in the future it may eventually allow ‘in’ the threatening, African ‘other’.


[1] See, for example, EEAS. 2017. ‘Speech by HR/VP Federica Mogherini at the European Parliament Plenary Session on the Recent Developments in Migration.’ Text. EEAS – European External Action Service – European Commission. 2017. Also; European Commission, 2019. ‘Opening Statement Ursula von Der Leyen European Parliament.’ Text. European Commission – European Commission. 2019.

_____. 2020. ‘Commemorating 35 Years of Schengen | European Commission.’ 2020.; European Parliament. 2015. ‘Exploring New Avenues for Legislation for Labour Migration to the European Union.’ Directorate General for Internal Policies Policy Department C: Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs.

[2] With substantial support from the EU, the African Union is sponsoring the creation of new migration observatories. See