Amanda Bisong, ECDPM blog, 6 April 2020
With global restrictions on mobility being imposed by governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Union (EU) also banned non-essential travel from third countries into the EU area. However, prior to these restrictions, the EU introduced a new visa code which will continue to regulate the short-stay entry of third-country nationals – if and when the current restrictions are removed.
On 2 February 2020, the new visa code, adopted by member states in June 2019, came into effect. The most notable change is the introduction of restrictive processes for countries who fail to cooperate on readmissions. But beyond that, it is unclear to African policymakers and governments how these changes will exactly take shape and what the practical implications are when it comes to migration cooperation with the EU and its member states.
The new code introduces several changes, including increased visa fees, harmonised multi-entry visa procedures and simplified visa application procedures with the aim of facilitating the entry of legal applicants. Visa applications can now be filed six months ahead of the trip, as opposed to the previous practice of three months. This provides more flexibility for travelers to plan their trips in advance and appeal negative decisions where necessary.
The code also ends the practice of travelling to neighbouring countries to lodge visa applications by allowing EU representations to outsource visa processing to other EU member states within the country. For example, persons in the Republic of Benin wishing to travel to Spain will no longer have to lodge visa applications at the Spanish Embassy in Nigeria.
The code also introduces a mechanism for visa facilitation based on cooperation of third countries on return and readmission of their nationals. The European Commission explains that the visa policy is a “powerful element in the discussions with third countries on migration cooperation”. According to the Commission, relevant policies including the visa policy should be used to incentivise partner countries to cooperate on readmission.
This is the first time that a visa policy instrument is used to promote this approach. Yet, it is still too early to determine to what extent the EU will make use of the possibility, whether it will lead to a reduction of the number of positive visa applications, and whether it will indeed have an effect on cooperation on return and readmission.
EU delegations have indicated that that third countries who will not cooperate on readmission may see restrictive visa implementation rules that might be felt by all potential travellers to the EU. These may include short-term visitors like students, business persons and government officials or academics participating in conferences. However, other channels, like family reunification measures, remain unaffected by the changes in the code, as they are governed by national regulations of EU member states.
The EU estimates that about half of all irregular migrants within its territory result from visa overstays. At the same time, the number of short-stay visa applications and issued visas have risen to 16 million visa applications and 14.3 million visas issued in 2018, from 12.5 million visas issued in 2010. This poses a challenge to discussions on legal mobility channels with third countries, as the EU and its member states have argued that countries of origin need to cooperate on the readmission and return of irregular migrants, in addition to discussions on further legal mobility channels and visa facilitation measures.
In response, EU countries have implemented stricter measures in reviewing visa applications, contributing to the increasing number of rejections yearly. The refusal rate of visa applications increased from 8.2% in 2017 to 9.6% in 2018, with Nigeria receiving the highest number of rejections of visa applications in 2018 (see table below). These rejections include students with admission and government officials.
Top 10 countries with highest visa rejection rates in 2018
Source: European Commission
In addition, the EU reports that about 478,155 persons illegally staying in the EU were ordered to leave in 2018, and 170,380 were effectively returned to a third country. However, return rates to African countries remain low: the return rates for Mali and Guinea for instance are 1.7 %and 2.8% respectively. In a bid to address this, EU member states have renewed their efforts towards negotiating and concluding readmission agreements with the aim of increasing the number of returns.
Rewarding cooperation on readmission and return by ‘compliant countries’ with visa facilitation measures will have important implications for African countries. Cooperation on readmission and return between European and African countries is usually bilateral, with the EU playing a coordinating role in supporting its member states towards more successes in return and readmissions.
The EU has several instruments for cooperating on readmission and returns with third countries, such as procedures and memoranda of understanding, which are increasingly becoming informal in nature. Cape Verde is currently the only African country with which the EU has signed a legal readmission agreement. However, it has not been fully implemented, as the visa facilitation aspects of the agreement have not been finalised. Further attempts to sign EU-wide readmission agreements with Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and Morocco have been stalled or are ongoing.
Most African governments believe that bilateral cooperation on readmission is more beneficial to them than an EU-wide agreement. For them, managing returns from selected EU countries through bilateral agreements is easier than the possibility of being overrun with potential returns from all countries, which would be the case with an EU-wide readmission agreement.
European countries on the other hand, supported by the EU delegations, engage in cooperation with African countries. For example, governments (sometimes with EU support) fund the bilateral assisted voluntary return and reintegration projects and can combine these with legal long- or short-term mobility schemes for labour migrants.
Returns, readmission and reintegration of both nationals and third country nationals have remained highly contested between European and African countries in ongoing negotiations, such as the migration discussions in the partnership negotiations between the EU and African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States, or the readmission agreements between the EU and African countries like Nigeria.
Furthermore, African countries would want a situation where possible legal remedies are exhausted by their nationals before they are returned to their country of origin, and where migrants in destination countries, pending the determination of the legal migration status, are protected. They also demand improved conditions for carrying out returns which respect the human rights of migrants. For African countries, cooperation on readmission and returns must be accompanied by reintegration measures, which should include adequate provisions for returning migrants to their countries of origin.
The new visa code envisages that compliance on return and readmission will be assessed based on the number of return decisions given, actual returns effected, number of readmission requests accepted and general cooperation by third countries in issuing identification and travel documents. These stipulated conditions ignore the existing contentious issues (and ongoing negotiations) on how and under what conditions cooperation on returns and readmissions may be achieved with African countries. They also don’t address the concerns of African countries on reintegration.
In view of the changes introduced by the new visa code, some African countries may implement reciprocal measures. Reciprocal visa fees for instance may result in higher fees for some countries. Other African countries may introduce more restrictive visa application practices for EU nationals. However, few countries will adopt this stance, because it may have direct economic implications for countries seeking to attract investment from European businesses as well as more tourists to support budding or struggling tourism sectors.
Furthermore, domestic interests on return and reintegration may outweigh a government’s interest to cooperate with the EU. Most countries will likely ignore the changes and adjust to coping with the new realities. For these countries, implementation of the new code presents an opportunity for discussions on readmission and reintegration. African governments would need to devise cooperation strategies that highlight their interests in return, readmission and reintegration. These strategies – which may be continental, regional or bilateral – would need to focus on defining reintegration systems that fit into the specific needs and context of the different countries.
The changes introduced by the new visa code will be used by the EU to pressure African countries to cooperate on increasing returns, readmission and reintegration. However, in a post-Corona world, the realities of reintegration, returns and readmission may not be a priority for most African countries.
The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.
Photo courtesy of ConvertKit via Unsplash.