The New Pact on Migration and Asylum and African-European migration diplomacy

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

Contribution by Andrew Geddes, Professor of Migration Studies and Director of the Migration Policy Centre, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute (EUI); and Mehari Taddele Maru, Part-time Professor, Migration Policy Centre and Academic Coordinator, Young African Leaders Programme, School of Transnational Governance, European University Institute (EUI)
3 February 2021


While labelled as a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, there is much within the European Commission’s proposals as they relate to the ‘external’ dimension of migration and asylum policy that continues to be consistent with a direction of travel established during the 1990s when the EU looked towards closer cooperation with non-member states. This external dimension has become particularly relevant in relation to migration from African countries and an explicit recognition that the attainment of EU objectives requires working closely with African governments and African regional organisations.

In this contribution we draw from a recent working paper that we co-authored for the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute to consider the implications of the Pact for ‘migration diplomacy’ as it relates to migration relations between African and European governments and regional organisations (Geddes and Maru 2020). We also change the focus from the EU perspective and consider the views of African governments and regional organisations in the context of ‘migration diplomacy’ and the associated transnational dynamics.

These considerations are urgent not only in the context of the Pact but also in relation to ongoing challenges (displacement from Ethiopia being the most recent) and also the underlying assumptions that inform EU thinking more generally on migration. There is a long-standing tendency for the EU and its members to view Africa as a potential source of large-scale migration to the EU where relative inequalities of income and wealth, the effects of conflict between and within states and demographic changes are compounded by the consequences of the climate crisis and are then seen as sources of migration pressures on the EU (de Haas 2007). This baseline assumption is important because it has played a substantial role in driving EU actions to tighten external border controls and to develop agreements with non-EU countries with the purpose of reducing flows towards the EU or dealing with ‘root causes’ (Geddes 2021).

In 2017, in its White Paper on the Future of Europe (WPFE) the European Commission outlined visions of the EU’s future development (CEC 2017). As the WPFE puts it, ‘the pressures driving migration will also multiply and flows will come from different parts of the world as the effects of population growth, widespread tensions and climate change also take hold’ (Ibid, p.11). Strikingly, while migration for work, family reasons and study remain key drivers for flows to the EU, the reference in the Commission’s WPFE is to forms of migration shaped by crises – poverty, war, climate change.

This kind of thinking provides an important backdrop for the development of diplomatic relations between the EU and African countries that, from an EU perspective, is driven by perceptions of crises of varying kinds and then designed to stem flows from Africa to Europe. It is, of course, the case that migration from Africa is not a simple unidirectional move towards the EU, but there is concern among EU governments about the potential for large-scale flows. Whether accurate or not, such perceptions have powerful effects.


Migration diplomacy

Migration has become a subject for diplomatic activity and assumed a more prominent place in the foreign policy agendas of African and European states, particularly in the form of formalised, multilateral platforms for migration diplomacy that bring together a wide range of state and non-state actors. Adamson and Tsourapas (2018, 115–16) show how strategies of migration diplomacy are shaped by states’ economic and security interests with the use of ‘diplomatic tools, processes, and procedures to manage cross-border population mobility’ and pursue these interests. Tools of migration diplomacy can include bilateral and multilateral agreements and ‘arrangements’ not qualifying as legally binding instruments such as the Global Compact for Migration. A key focus of these diplomatic processes will be on capacity-building and on persuasion, which is why the ideas that underlie policies are important because they influence the ways in which capacity to attain the objectives of the agreement or arrangement is built.

We now focus very specifically on African-European migration diplomacy to consider the ways in which it is constituted as well as some of the gaps. Addressing these gaps can be a way to build more effective partnerships by enabling a wider range of voices to be heard and for non-EU perspectives on policy challenges to be more central to debate.

The adoption process of the GCM and GCR presented Africa with a unique opportunity not only to articulate and share common priorities, opportunities and challenges but also to affirm its collective resolve to play its part in building an effective global migration partnership. Coming together as 55 countries representing a broad spectrum of stakeholders, Africa’s contribution to the GCM enabled Africa’s priorities and demands to be conveyed to the international community in a well-defined and well-communicated manner.[1] More importantly, Africa used the consultation process to demand that the international community guarantee the protection of fundamental human rights of migrants, including those from Africa. Efficient and sustainable migration governance architecture is unthinkable without the active participation of national and local authorities and local communities in African countries. The multilateral consultations on the formulation of the Global Compacts helped Africa to focus on local, national and continental partnerships and transformative capabilities for fair and effective migration governance within Africa. Crucially, African countries, through the AU and RECs, viewed the GCM not as an end in itself but as a means for building a progressive migration governance partnership at global and continental levels including with the EU.[2]

That said, due to power asymmetries between African and European actors, ‘participation’, ‘consultation’ and ‘dialogue’ on their own are not enough because they can just mean meetings without substantive action on the ground . Participation alone rarely leads to outputs and impacts. Attention must be paid to a shared strategic vision and to the development and implementation of strategic migration governance at local level. Thus far, African-European migration diplomacy has not led to strategic migration governance in Africa. Current African approaches to migration tend to lack a clear and comprehensive policy direction that reflects the national priorities and interests of those same African countries. Instead, there is a focus on the criminal justice system, with the emphasis on irregular migration, refugees and the prosecution of traffickers and smugglers through legislation. A more strategic approach can help shift away from migration management to migration governance with the potential to address the securitization of borders, the criminal approach to most migration-related public work and an undue focus on the negative aspects of migration. 


Strategy first

Strategic migration governance requires not only the development of strategy but also identification of where responsibility for implementation lies. States will retain primary responsibility for stability and the provision of decent living standards meaning that responsibility lies primarily with national governments supported or enabled by sub-regional and regional organisations working with a range of other actors including international organisations and civil society. States bear responsibility for protecting their citizens and are expected to institute normative, institutional, collaborative and financial frameworks for migration governance. Hence, assisted by the international community, it is axiomatic that African countries should be held responsible for providing stability and essential economic delivery for decent living standards. 

This also requires that strategic migration governance has a perspective that looks to the medium and longer terms. Clearly, the challenges related to migration are unlikely to be resolved – and may actually be worsened – by short-term containment strategies at the borders of countries of origin, transit and destination. African-European migration diplomacy should go beyond a response to irregular migration and displacement. Instead, it is necessarily linked to the African development agenda at national, local and international levels. The consequent social stability would make it possible to address the causes, triggers and accelerators of irregular migration and displacement. These require foresight and long-term strategic engagement. Unless governments get the fundamentals of migration governance right, current engagement with the EU will remain on weak foundations, and always brittle. A key problem is that African governments have yet to come up with a necessary degree of political determination and leadership for effective implementation mechanisms at national and regional levels. There is an urgent need for a nationally-owned, politically-led migration governance agenda. Effective migration governance cannot be achieved without acquiring and building the necessary capabilities to implement.

An argument can be made that priority in developing African-European partnerships on migration should have been – but was not – placed on building migration governance structures throughout Africa to develop comprehensive, stand-alone policies, as well as provide strategic thinking and clarity about the benefits and costs of migration. To do this requires a normative, institutional and collaborative state framework – in cooperation with non-state actors – that could facilitate voluntary, safe, orderly and legal mobility and a consequent reduction in forced or irregular migration.


Articulation of national migration policies

A first step to building such an institutional architecture could be national consultative conferences to articulate the policy direction of the countries at the national level dealing with existing normative frameworks on migration at the level of the African Union and Africa’s regional economic communities. Given the transnational nature of migration, effective migration governance requires well-coordinated, coherent and harmonised national and regional collaboration. Such collaboration should extend beyond organisations and Member States to the development of bilateral, regional and global cooperation. 


Diplomats in migration governance

Diplomacy is also necessary to ensure the protection of migrants’ and refugees’ rights and coordination among those involved, including the migrants themselves and the governments in their countries of origin, transit and destination. Regional frameworks and processes foster harmonised policies and shared minimum standards for consistency, cooperation and complementarity among Member States. Diplomacy can also facilitate harmonised policies at regional and national levels, help in the fight against criminal networks involved in human trafficking and smuggling and protection of refugees and the human rights of migrants. All this is likely to require greater numbers of migration diplomats including labour attachés – specifically more diplomats trained in migration governance.

Diplomats are also needed in the negotiation and implementation of agreements aimed at the facilitation of regional free movement and labour migration, which are unthinkable without regional policy harmonization. This is supported under both the GCM[3] and GCR. This, at the regional level, could also foster complementary initiatives such as training, education and job market matching with an impact on migration within and outside Africa. In the Horn of Africa, for example, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has initiated regional- and national-level processes, all of which require dynamic migration diplomacy programmes staffed by diplomats and officers who understand migration governance. 


Progressive norms, regressive implementation

The AU and EU have long stated their commitment to a normative framework, but while progress in norm-setting has been relatively rapid, implementation has been slow. Practical steps are required to provide resources for implementation. African states generally still lack the will (as manifested by low levels of budgetary allocation) , determination, institutional framework and resources necessary to govern migration effectively. Putting into effect those policies advanced in AU-EU policy documents demands coherent, consistent and comprehensive planning, and resourcing of implementation. Governance and institutional inadequacies are attributable primarily to the meagre resources allocated to migration governance in national budgets, and challenges will remain for the foreseeable future unless partners devote larger resources to plug gaps in funding, address institutional weaknesses and help implement the recommendations advanced in AU-EU policy documents. 


Implementation is local

‘Localization’ and local ownership are likely to be crucial implementation mechanisms, a fact recognised in both the GCM and GCR. Migration diplomacy can be a valuable tool for effective local governance of migration in border areas. Building an efficient and sustainable migration governance architecture is unimaginable without the active engagement and devolution of powers, including financial, to national and local authorities and engagement with local communities. Community engagement means considering the particularities of localities and communities, their emerging issues and the priorities of migration source hotspots and border areas. To avoid the common mistake of ‘one size fits all’ or EU-centric ‘our size fits all’ programmes, migration policy requires decentralised planning and implementation to enable migration governance to recognise the necessity of embracing proximity, local expertise and legitimacy and to tailor interventions to local contexts. Localization can encourage local entities to initiate their migration management proposals and potentially help to reduce the negative impacts of securitized migration management and excessive border controls that have substantially undermined the other useful components of cross-border trade, including significant opportunities for peace, mobility, integration and regional prosperity.

A productive path for future AU-EU migration diplomacy would be a focus on localising the migration agenda and devolving migration governance with greater involvement of local populations, allocation of resources and decision-making powers by local authorities as provided under GCMM and GCR [4]– co-opting them as vital participants in finding solutions to the challenges of migration governance. This includes cross-border areas. Clearly, decentralisation demands the capacity to implement and discharge the responsibility that can be developed in the context of enabling the state and local authorities to take responsibility for the governance of migration in the regions and localities they administer.

The EU and other international actors should not be encouraging – or funding – national systems that coercively replace local priorities and disempower local authorities. Migration diplomacy should have as its objective the aim of endowing local authorities with the capacity to govern migration effectively in their areas. Many African countries need a strategy-led migration governance, replacing the current legislation-led migration management. They also need clarity in strategic vision and building the requisite capabilities for implementation at local, national and regional levels. A corollary of this is the urgency of a shift of mission for the EU’s migration partnership with Africa which is not clearly spelt out in the new pact.



Adamson, Fiona B, and Gerasimos Tsourapas. 2018. “Migration Diplomacy in World Politics.” International Studies Perspectives 20 (2): 113–28.

CEC. 2017. “White Paper on the Future of Europe.” Brussels.

De Haas, Hein. 2007. “The Myth of Invasion: Irregular Migration from West Africa to the Maghreb and the European Union.” Oxford: International Migration Institute.

Geddes, Andrew. 2021. Governing Migration Beyond the State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Geddes, Andrew, and Mehari Taddele Maru. 2020. “Localising Migration Diplomacy in Africa?: Ethiopia in its Regional and International Setting.” Working Paper. European University Institute.


[1] Africa’s concerns were communicated at the 2018 international conference that led to the GCM; to the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) acting jointly with the AUC; and to other UN agencies such as the International Organization on Migration (IOM) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), as well as to RECs

[2] UNECA, Global compact consultative meeting agrees Africa needs to drive and won migration narrative, October 31, 2017, available from (accessed 2 November 2017).

[3] See labour mobility under GCM objectives 5 (Enhance availability and flexibility of pathways for regular migration), 6 (Facilitate fair and ethical recruitment and safeguard conditions that ensure decent work) and 18 (Invest in skills development and facilitate mutual recognition of skills, qualifications and competences) and GCR on labour mobility paragraph 42 (A multi-stakeholder and partnership approach), paragraph 95 (Complementary pathways for admission to third countries)

[4] See GCM’s Whole of Society approach and Objective 17 (Eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote evidence-based public discourse to shape perceptions of migration); Objective 15 (Provide access to basic services for migrants); Objective 16 (Empower migrants and societies to realize full inclusion and social cohesion); Objective 8 (Save lives and establish coordinated international efforts on missing migrants); and paragraphs 40—54 on implementation and follow-up, and GCR under paragraphs 3, 37, 62, 67 and 97 all of which require the full engagement of local authorities and communities.