What the EU’s asylum response to the war in Ukraine means for Africa-Europe relations

The war in Ukraine is now entering its fifth week. Russia’s tactic involves increasing attacks against civilians, resulting in ever-growing internal displacement and refugee flows. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that about 6.5 million people have been internally displaced and more than 3.5 million have left the country. The immediate response from the EU and its member states has reopened old wounds in the relationship between Europe and Africa, and the situation will certainly affect migration cooperation between the two continents.

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      The EU’s differentiated refugee responses

      The contrast between the warm welcome that Ukrainians have so far received in Poland, Germany and other EU countries, and the treatment of Africans caught in the conflict, has once again opened the box of uncomfortable questions of racism and xenophobia in Europe.

      There are two aspects to this debate. The first is clearly disturbing and shocking: we’ve seen instances of Africans who were prevented from crossing borders to safety and experienced racism when fleeing the conflict. For Africans, these instances drove home the fact that in Europe some are considered ‘less worthy’ than others in situations of need. The AU has rightly condemned these incidents and demanded empathy and support for all who are fleeing the war – notwithstanding their racial identity.

      In the general confusion of conflict, and with disinformation and the instrumentalisation of news also being part of this war, it is hard to tell how systematic these racist incidents are. European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen emphasised that the EU “welcomes all who flee Putin’s bombs”, and, indeed, the European Commission included protection for different groups of people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine in its temporary protection directive, including all third country nationals with permanent residence in Ukraine.

      The second aspect is broader and goes beyond these racist incidents at the borders. Critics compare the current welcoming reaction to Ukrainians in the EU with the EU reaction towards Syrian refugees, African refugees and irregular migrants overall – pointing to inherent double standards and hypocrisy in European asylum responses.

      Within the EU, however, responses are not uniform. In some countries, the reaction to Ukrainians fleeing is markedly different than in previous refugee situations, while in others the ‘welcoming culture’ that developed during the Syrian crisis has resurfaced.

      While it doesn’t fit the notion of moral universalism, it is not surprising that cultural proximity and historic ties matter for refugee responses. Europe is no exception here. In Tigray, Eritreans fleeing their country have been welcomed largely as ‘brothers and sisters’, whereas in North African countries, sub-Saharan African migrants are treated differently than migrants of other nationalities, such as Sudanese or Syrian migrants.

      But there is also some consistency in the EU approach. In EU policy circles, we often hear the argument that protection of refugees mostly does (and also should) take place in countries closer to the region of conflict. With the conflict situated in Ukraine, it is now the EU’s turn, and it may therefore not be surprising that the EU shows more generosity and commitment.

      Moreover, there are of course differentiated responses based on whether migrants likely receive legal protection or not. Migrants entering the EU irregularly through the Western Mediterranean Route during the past years were for instance largely from countries in which protection needs are not immediately clear, such as Morocco.

      Still, the narratives about differential treatment fuel anti-Europe sentiments in Africa and stand in stark contrast to the joint vision that the AU and the EU agreed to during their recent summit. It is those narratives that stick and that will therefore certainly impact the relationship between the two continents. Instead of supporting the notion of a partnership where all Africans and Europeans are seen as equal, it leaves a bitter aftertaste. Yet, it also offers opportunities to address some of the current shortcomings of AU-EU cooperation on migration.

      For the EU, the situation is a moment for reflection on how to overcome differentialism and racism and how to apply humanity in migrant situations more universally. Although of temporary nature, the use of the EU’s temporary protection directive presents a unique opportunity to learn from its implementation, and, if successful, explore the extension of similar freedoms as granted to Ukrainians to other refugee groups more permanently.

      It may be the necessary push to overcome the deadlocks of EU asylum reforms and to flexibilise the principle of requiring asylum seekers to apply for protection in the first EU country they enter. However, much depends on the course of the war, the costs for EU citizens, and whether protection for Ukrainians is indeed temporary.

      For the AU, there is an opportunity to analyse the EU’s responses and understand its nuances, complexities and the fact that the EU, given its size and varied responses, has many different faces.

      Impact on EU support to African migration governance

      In the short to mid term, the situation may affect how much emphasis the EU and its member states will reserve for migration-related activities in Africa through its official development assistance (ODA) and international cooperation instruments.

      The EU’s Global Europe instrument for neighbourhood, development and international cooperation, for instance, has reserved a large amount of funding for migration-related activities on the African continent, including activities to address ‘root causes’. The EU has also built in flexibility to incentivise African countries to cooperate on migration governance. We can expect that there will be at least some reshuffling of priorities to respond to the current crisis financially, including the use of flexibility cushions, though it is not clear if and how this will impact allocations overall.

      Some EU member states may also spend part of their ODA budgets on Ukrainian refugees within Europe in the coming years. While it is too early to tell to what extent this will come at the cost of financial assistance to Africa, the 2015 refugee crisis has shown that there are usually trade-offs when large sums of money have to be deployed for new priorities.

      At the same time, the fallout from the war in Ukraine is also felt in African countries themselves, possibly impacting on migration dynamics warranting a stronger response to cushion effects. In North and East African countries such as Kenya, Somalia, Tunisia, Morocco or Libya, food prices have spiked since the conflict started, compounding an already existing hunger crisis.

      In other parts, energy prices soared. On top of that, there are implications for peace and security. Increased economic hardship, heightened risk for tensions and social discontent triggered by food insecurities are often a strong factor driving migratory dynamics within and from the African continent.

      The EU, already dealing with a massive task of integrating and protecting Ukrainian refugees, will likely have a strong preference for continuing its course of externalising its migration governance. For the EU, the urgency to cooperate with African countries on migrant smuggling and to address irregular migration from the African continent, may become even stronger than it is already now.

      Medium- to long-term implications

      The current crisis in Ukraine will likely affect Africa-Europe cooperation on migration in the medium and long term – especially when it comes to the nascent discussions on increasing labour migration from African countries to the EU by opening up legal pathways and adopting skills and mobility partnerships. Some EU member states are already rethinking cooperation on labour migration and showing more openness.

      The large-scale arrival of Ukrainians, who may enter the labour market in European countries, may change the level of interest in African labour migrants also in the longer term. But much depends on the course of the war, whether Ukrainians, currently predominantly women and children, stay in the EU or can return, whether other family members join, and whether indeed they help to fill some of the labour market shortages in the EU.

      The EU will be faced with several shocks and multiple urgent migration situations also in the future. How it deals with these, the way it will prioritise attention, funding and support, and whether it can keep an eye on several of them at the same time, will be crucial.

      Much of the immediate focus and attention will now be on putting in place the right system for Ukrainian arrivals. But the innovations and flexibilities that are introduced and reflection on how to overcome racism in asylum responses can be a basis for taking AU-EU cooperation on migration forward and for discussing migration priorities in light of a changing geopolitical situation jointly.

      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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