Since the peak of the European refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, the ‘management’ of migration and refugee flows between Africa and Europe is high on academic and policy agendas. A dominant perception is that European development aid has a significant role to play in stemming present and prevent future massive influxes to Europe. This shall primarily occur by way of reducing the root causes of forced displacement and improving migration management.
At least two important facts tend to be elapsed in present debates. First, the majority of cross-border refugees and migrants move between neighbouring countries, i.e. within (sub-) regional spaces. Often times this is related to the limited availability of resources of migrants, but also to benefits of migration to closer by destinations with linguistic or cultural similarities (yet higher levels of political or economic stability). West Africa, where more than 80 percent of international migrants move within the sub-region, is paradigmatic in this regard. Concerning movement outside (sub-) regions, many move to other countries on the African continent. For example, in the Horn of Africa region, the ‘Southern’ route with South Africa involves the largest number.
Second, from a developmental perspective, not all this migration is negative per se, but rather serves people’s aspirations to improve their own and their families’ educational and professional opportunities. While decisions to move are often taken against the background of dire socio-economic circumstances and lacking alternatives in countries of origin, temporary or permanent mobility do represent crucial coping strategies for migrants and their dependent household members. This said, forced displacement is a reality in a sizable number of African countries too, with for instance the Horn of Africa figuring among the major refugee producing and hosting regions in the world.
How do regional and continental organizations in Africa manage the variability of these migration flows, in terms of drivers, patterns and outcomes? Given the pre-dominance of intra-regional migration and the often regional nature of drivers (such as poverty, drought or conflict) this is a pertinent question. Yet surprisingly little is known and discussed about the institutional characteristics, priorities and position of African regional organizations in the governance of migration.
A present research project about regional and multi-level migration governance by the German Development Institute (DIE) addresses this gap. It focuses on two African sub-regions: The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in the Horn of Africa region. Both represent main regions of origin of African migrants and refugees to Europe and have (partly related to this fact) significantly enlarged their migration policy activities in the past years.
As a result of regional and institutional specificities or path dependencies, the two regions show however marked differences regarding prioritized migration patterns and needs.
- The ECOWAS region, founded in 1975 following the Treaty of Lagos, with a long history of intra-regional labour migration in established corridors cross-cutting national borders such as between Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire or Ghana and Nigeria, is most identified with its Free Movement Protocol. The agreement dates back to 1979, thus constituting a mobility liberalization pioneer even in global terms. Formulated with the overarching intention to facilitate economic and trade liberalization between its 15 member states, the Protocol enjoys high acceptance by member states. This is despite the fact that implementation still experiences challenges (partly related to national politics), particularly concerning its more ambitious elements such as the liberalization of intra-regional employment and business establishment rights.
- The IGAD region founded in 1986 as IGADD, Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development, and renamed in IGAD in 1996, was created with the intention to address humanitarian crises commonly affecting its seven member states. Despite becoming a Regional Economic Community (REC) in 1998, the organization till today is most recognized for its engagement in matters of regional peace and security. Its recent pioneering in the implementation of global refugee norms (Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, CRRF) adapting it to the Somali refugee crisis (through the IGAD Regional Framework for Durable Solutions for Somali Refugees agreed upon in 2017) is telling in this regard. This is true although degrees of domestication of the framework by IGAD member states are uneven and the organisation’s enforcement capacities limited.
To summarize, African regional organizations such as ECOWAS and IGAD play an important, but dissimilar role in the governance of migration. Notably, their agency varies between migration policy areas. This is true although both organisations have “on paper” – and as a result of considerable dependency on donor funding – subscribed to a comprehensive approach to human mobility. For example, IGAD’s Migration Policy Framework from 2012 addresses a broad range of issues ranging from enhanced border management, prevention of irregular migration to facilitating labour migration through Free Movement. Similar statements can be made for the ECOWAS’ “Common Approach on Migration and Development” formulated in 2008, the organisation’s main policy strategy framework.
In general, migration-related cooperation in the regional context is pertinent due to the high proportion of intra-regional migration and forced displacement worldwide, resulting in relations of interdependence (and partly shared interests) between the concerned states. Moreover, the examples of IGAD and ECOWAS show that regional organisations can often build upon an established history of migration-related cooperation. This said, the division of labour between continental and regional organizations is a pertinent question, as the African Union (AU) has revamped its migration policy engagement manifesting in its last year’s updating of its Continental Policy Framework on Migration as well as the agreement on a Continental Free Movement Protocol. How to most effectively support the comparative yet context-specific advantages of regional migration regimes in Africa – also addressing policy implementation gaps – would thus make for an important addition to European development debates.
 The member states of IGAD are Djibouti (head office), Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda.