Statewatch article: RefNo# 28994
An employment office in Bamako: the European Union’s transformation of Mali into a migration control laboratory, by Stephan Dünnwald
Statewatch Bulletin; vol 19 no 2 April-June 2009
When talking about Mali, many confuse the country with Bali: "Nice island, I'd like to go there one time". The West-African state actually neighbours Senegal, Mauretania, Algeria and Libya and is perhaps even less well-known than Timbuktu (which is a town in northern Mali). According to statistics Mali is the fourth poorest country in the world; except for cotton nothing much is produced for export. The country has no coast, so tourism is restricted to small groups that arrive to observe the life of the Dogon or to experts in mud-brick architecture or open field burning. Development aid forms a significant part of the country’s revenue. Although the Americans and Chinese are competing with France for good relations with the government, most of the money that enters the country comes from Malian migrants sending money back home, so-called remittances. Around 60 to 100,000 Malians live in France and a growing number work in Spain's construction or agricultural sector.

Their journeys to Europe however, are becoming ever longer and expensive. Off the African coast the European border agency FRONTEX is forcing migrants back to the mainland with the aid of ships and helicopters. Morocco, Libya and other states receive benefits for helping the Europeans to keep the sub-Saharan migrants at arms length. African coastal states deport refugees and migrants and Mali is increasingly becoming the hinterland at whose borders they are dumped. Mali is not only a country of origin but also one of transit for Africans on route to Europe. So it is not as surprising as it may seem at first sight, that Luis Michel, European Commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, opened the European Union’s first Migration Centre with Mali's president Amadou Toumani Touré in the country's capital Bamako. The Migration Information and Management Centre (CIGEM) marks a new European strategy in dealing with migration.

The history of an experiment

CIGEM is the result of European migration politics. Over the past years the EU's southern borders have been massively militarised, with Spain playing a leading role. The 14 km-wide Straits of Gibraltar was the departure point for many Africans trying to reach Europe in small boats. Many were looking for work, but many were also refugees from civil wars in western and central African states. Not all survived the passage and many drowned, their bodies washed-up on the Spanish coast. Spain then instituted an early warning system to shield its borders forcing migrants to head for Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish enclaves on the African mainland, which were rapidly fortified. The Canary Islands became the next destination, with departure points in Mauritania and Senegal. The European border agency FRONTEX deployed ever more naval units in the Mediterranean Sea and off the west African coast and reported "successfully" diverting thousands of migrants and refugees back to their points of departure. From an African perspective, Europe increasingly resembles an armed fortress with the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean serving as watery graves for many uncounted passengers.

Europe is pressing ahead with its diplomatic fight against migration. Readmission agreements are being negotiated in exchange for entry facilitation with economic support going to the authoritarian regimes of north African coastal states. Furthermore, these states are supported in their fight against unwanted migration on the mainland. Migrants in transit are first detected, then rounded up and transported to the southern borders, to a “No Man's Land” between countries with, if they are lucky, only the most basic provisions. Mauritania has set up an interment camp for refugees who are picked up but cannot be deported.[1]

This process was promoted in bi-lateral negotiations between Spain, Italy and France and at the Euro-African conferences at Rabat and Tripoli which reiterated the importance of migration. At the most recent conference since the ministerial conference in Rabat in 2006, migration is mentioned alongside development aid: apart from highlighting the importance of migration to the receiving states, it also referred to its new (old) role - that migration should be regulated and legal and contribute to the development of African states. Shortly after the Rabat conference, development and aid Commissioner Luis Michel and representatives from France, Spain and Mali announced the decision to set up the centre in Bamako.

First deterrence, then work?

The EU’s first announcement said that it wanted to free-up 40 million Euros to establish an employment agency that would open up legal avenues for work in Europe [2]. The amount rapidly diminished and a mere 10 million Euros was granted by the European Development Fund in its framework programme for 2007-2011; references to labour recruitment also vanished from the text. The Commission's plans were met with fierce opposition by some European Member States who had no interest whatsoever in recruiting African workers. Even Spain and France, under whose aegis this project was promoted, withdrew and limited themselves to bilateral recruitment agreements. By now, the recruiting of labour aspect was mentioned only cryptically in CIGEM's concept papers. Rather than strengthening legal migration channels, the centre's focus became the fight against “illegal”, or rather irregular, migration. Roland Johansson, project coordinator and political advisor of the EU delegation in Bamako, however, does not see it that way, although he does concede that for the time being, labour recruitment is not on the centre's agenda". As soon as you put the idea out there expectations are created, even when you are talking of very low numbers." His comments are about potential migrants, but also reflect the attitude of EU Member States which automatically envisage new waves of immigration.

We are sitting in an EU delegation’s air-conditioned office with a panoramic view over the Niger, lined with bountiful vegetable gardens. Johansson is cautious regarding his expectations. The centre, he explains during the course of the conversation, is still at an early stage. Evaluation is very important, he says, and it remains to be seen which aspects of the project will be maintained and which dropped. Johansson is a level-headed Scandinavian who stresses that the EU is entering new territory with this centre. "Luis Michel’s idea was to set up such a centre in every country. This is the pilot project. It is ahead of its time. There will surely be legal migration to the EU, even if very limited in the early stages. When relevant contracts have been signed with Mali and if the Members States want, the centre could take over the administration of the recruitment of such labour."

As neither one nor the other is imminent (only Spain appears to be negotiating with Mali over small numbers of migrant labourers), the centre is pushing ahead with its other tasks. The centre is supposed to carry out new research on migration in Mali and the region and arrange for the exchange of Malian experts working abroad; in short trips home they should convey their expertise to natives. Moreover, the centre should support the reception and provision of voluntary and deported returnees and inform Malians who want to go to Europe of the risks of irregular migration and offer alternatives. Finally, the centre should also ensure that remittances by Malians abroad are better used to support the country's development.

When considering these broad tasks one can observe that none of these projects is really new. Migration research is already being conducted intensively at numerous social science institutions in Mali and France. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), co-financed by the European Union, is currently researching irregular migration in Mali and the wider region and developing political strategies to fight it [3]. The exchange of experts is already taking place through a programme entitled TOKTEN, financed by the UNDP (United National Development Programme). CIGEM is merely attaching itself to the existing (not very successful) programme.

Finally, the support of returnees and deportees is also not new in Mali. Voluntary returnees are supported by various national programmes, in France, for example, by the CODEV programme in the framework of the French government's co-development approach. At least on paper, Mali’s Ministry for Malians Abroad and African Integration helps Malians deported from Europe to reintegrate in Africa by arranging collections from the airport and providing initial assistance. In practice this is rare - this work being carried out mostly by non-governmental organisations. This ministry has fostered relations with Malians abroad for some time with a special focus on the money they bring into the country. However, no clear approach has been developed as to how these remittances could be re-channelled into Malian development goals, which has been the concern of the associations set up in France, and to a lesser extent elsewhere, by Malians.

With regard to fighting irregular migration the centre has not developed a convincing strategy. Information campaigns on the dangers of irregular migration to Europe began in 2003 in Mali and other African states; one can assume that the population is more than aware of the risks. Johansson admits that information campaigns that do not offer alternatives are futile, but alternatives are difficult to create and the centre’s sole initiative involves training courses. This ignores the fact that Mali has a surplus of trained professionals who have no chance of obtaining employment in the meagre labour market without “connections”. Johansson cannot provide an answer to the question as to whether there are not too many applicants for such a small centre: "The target group is too big. With regard to return, the number is manageable." Almost nobody in Mali has a secure job and many dream of Europe. If the intention is to provide opportunities in the country for these youth a few training courses will not extend far.

Europe exports its contradictions to the African continent

Without concrete proposals for labour opportunities, the CIGEM remains powerless, dabbling around with old and partially unsuccessful projects. The aim of the centre's current work plan according to Johansson is "... to do something more positive on the migration question, not only FRONTEX and others things to stop or reduce the flood, but to take the initiative to find out what can be done with regards to the migration issue in countries of origin beyond general development aid...". It might do this on paper, but not in practice.

Instead, the contradictions of Europe's migration politics have become evident in Mali. Motivated by the Euro-African summits, the European Commission, led by Luis Michel, sped ahead but the Member States have not followed this initiative.

The job centre in Bamako has become a branch of migration prevention. Despite the EU needing around 1.5 million additional - and mainly unskilled - cheap workers in coming years, (as the European Commission information film 'Illegal immigrant workers' informs us), most Member States resist legal immigration from Africa. Not even a small door will be opened to these migrants even if it results in pressure being taken off irregular migration. This is only partially because African migrants are not wanted, also important is the Members States' interest in retaining immigration firmly in national hands and not devolving any competencies to the European Commission. So the Commission stands alone with CIGEM in Bamako and the new message from the European Union to Africa is the old one: don't expect any help from us.

Perhaps the most long-lasting effect of CIGEM will therefore be the imposition of Europe's own contradictions onto the Malians. The EU finances and therefore controls the centre, but its management and the implementation of its projects are consigned to the Ministry of Malians Abroad, with the involvement of some other ministries. Johansson looks anguished when he explains why the project has not really progressed after more than a year. The project is not being neglected, he says, on the contrary, it has the highest priority. But cooperation with the Malian authorities is protracted because they have not carried out projects with international donors nor the European Union. Things take time, even if Johansson is trying to speed them up.

Malians meanwhile have to train themselves in European bureaucracy. They also have to deal with the accusation that they have been bought cheaply by the European Union to prevent migration in their own country in European interests. The European imbalance, which leaves national states to decide upon immigration requirements while organising a unified fight against migration, is reflected at CIGEM, where no one is talking of a job centre anymore.

This article first appeared in the journal “Hinterland” of the Bavarian Refugee Council..

[1] Zoé Lamazou “Un “Guantanamo” en Mauretanie” Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2008, p.21

[2] Compare Berliner Zeitung, 9.2.07 “EU Job-Center mitten in Afrika”

[3] Délégation de la Commission Européenne au Mali: La Lettre de Bamako. p.8

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