Wednesday, July 24, 2024
CommentaryEU visa restrictions on Ethiopians reflect strained migration relations

EU visa restrictions on Ethiopians reflect strained migration relations

The punitive measures reflect a history of major EU investment in Ethiopia’s migration governance – with few results.

Since 29 April, the European Union (EU) has imposed temporary restrictions on Schengen short-term visas for Ethiopians. These include prohibiting multiple entry visas, longer processing times, and eliminating waivers for certain documentary requirements and visa fees.

The European Commission said the action was due to a ‘lack of response from the Ethiopian authorities regarding readmission requests,’ and shortcomings in organising ‘voluntary and non-voluntary return operations,’ (the latter is how the EU describes deportation).

The restrictions raise concerns about the efficiency and fairness of the EU’s migration policies. Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson NebiyuTedla said the developments were ‘incompatible with acceptable diplomatic practices’ and asked the EU Council to reconsider the ‘unfair’ restrictions.

In 2017, the EU and Ethiopia agreed on admission procedures for the return of Ethiopians from EU countries. Although this agreement was never made public, a leaked statement revealed that similar arrangements were later made between Ethiopia and Norway and Switzerland.

Since then, two EU-Ethiopia working group meetings and two technical meetings organised by the EU Commission have taken place to facilitate implementation of the 2017 procedures. In 2018, the EU and Ethiopia reached a non-binding agreement on the readmission of Ethiopians without visas or the legal right to remain in the EU.

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In 2019, 1,395 Ethiopians staying illegally in EU member states were issued return decisions, but only 215 travelled home – an average return rate of 15 percent. Member states submitted 985 readmission requests to Ethiopian authorities, who issued 41 travel documents – an issuance rate of just four percent.

The overall return rates from the EU are low. Last year, over 83,000 people were returned to countries outside the EU, which the European Commission says is a return rate of 19 percent – not much higher than Ethiopia’s return rate of 15 percent in 2019.

Most people residing unlawfully in the EU initially enter through legal means via airports, but overstay their visas. These numbers far exceed those who arrive by sea or land seeking asylum or other opportunities. Only about one in three people ordered to leave the EU do.

If the problem is overstaying, efforts should focus on finding solutions to this legitimate concern. Instead, the EU’s new measures unfairly target Ethiopians travelling for legitimate reasons, such as education, family reunification, medical treatment or business. Individuals shouldn’t be held accountable for their government’s actions. Imposing additional hurdles on those who enter the EU legally doesn’t address the root causes of irregular migration, but punishes those following the law.

This punitive approach contradicts the principles of good migration governance and contrasts with the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which advocates for accessible and efficient legal migration channels. Experts say for the New Pact to be effective, the EU must critically re-evaluate readmission agreements to return rejected asylum seekers to their home countries or safe third countries.

These agreements must respect international law, particularly the non-refoulement principle, which prohibits returning individuals to a country where they may face persecution, torture or serious harm.

The Ethiopian government needs to address the socio-economic costs of reintegration and protect its emigrants. The country’s growing engagement with its diaspora for economic and political reasons has influenced its stance on admitting returnees from the EU. Ethiopia is willing to repatriate its citizens detained in countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen or Libya, viewing their return from inhumane detention conditions as a humanitarian protection measure.

However, Ethiopian officials don’t see rejected asylum seekers in the EU who are awaiting deportation as being in similarly dire conditions, so don’t prioritise their return on humanitarian grounds. Ethiopian officials also feel the EU hasn’t offered significant incentives, such as development funding, as part of its return agenda, so they are less inclined to help with the return of rejected asylum seekers or irregular migrants.

Even so, why is the EU targeting Ethiopia with these latest restrictions? Past Institute for Security Studies analysis has suggested that the stance of the African Union and most African countries is not to accept forced returns. While the EU’s restrictions could be a tactic to pressure Ethiopia into compliance, it also reflects a history of significant EU investment in Ethiopia on migration governance – with minimal results.

The longstanding EU–Ethiopia partnership, including the 2016 Migration Partnership Framework, raised expectations. However, the framework failed to meet its goals despite substantial EU financial support. The EU criticised Ethiopia for inadequate returns, while Ethiopian officials felt the focus on migrant returns overshadowed broader cooperation.

The new restrictions could indicate a worrying future trend. The EU’s move is symbolic, demonstrating its resolve in handling non-compliant countries and setting a precedent. If successful, it could be applied to other African nations, increasing disparity and leading to a more fragmented migration landscape.

The European Commission is apparently using visa rules to pressure countries to cooperate with deportation procedures. This isn’t new – agreements with Sahelian countries such as Libya and Tunisia show that the EU rewards countries that cooperate on migration governance, and penalises those that are reluctant to comply.

Last July, a European delegation signed a memorandum of understanding with Tunisia that included measures to combat irregular immigration in exchange for increased immigration controls and facilitation of voluntary returns. Between 2014 and 2020, the EU allocated over EUR 700 million to Libya for the same reasons.

The EU’s migration policies must be consistent, fair and effective. Rather than resorting to punitive measures, it should engage in constructive dialogue with Ethiopia to address concerns about irregular migration and foster cooperation. By aligning its actions with its stated goals, the EU can promote a balanced, humane migration system that respects individuals’ rights and supports legal migration pathways. (This article first appeared on ISS)

(Margaret Monyani is a senior researcher on migration at ISS Pretoria.)

Contributed by Margaret Monyani

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