EU: Tracking the Pact: Reinforced cooperation against migrant smuggling with Balkan and African "partners"


The EU’s Pact on Migration and Asylum reiterated the long-standing priority for the EU and its member states to work more closely with “third countries” to control migration. In practice, this has led to serious abuses and even deaths, as smugglers engage in increasingly-complex and dangerous circumvention of border controls and police operations. Nevertheless, the EU is pushing ahead with new initiatives seeking to formalise cooperation with Balkan and African states on anti-migrant smuggling operations.

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The EU has long sought to step up cooperation with non-EU states on migration issues, including action against migrant smuggling. A number of operational initiatives have been ongoing for some time, as set out in this document (pages 10 and 11, pdf).

The new Pact on Migration and Asylum calls for more such activities as part of "mutually beneficial partnerships with key third countries of origin and transit", and as the documents outlined below indicate, a number of steps are being taken. These partnerships may not be so beneficial for people on the move.

An "operational platform" for the Balkans

Council of the EU: NOTE from: Presidency to: Strategic Committee on Frontiers, Asylum and Immigration: Western-Balkans-Initiative and "Operational Platform Eastern Mediterranean Route" - Presidency discussion paper (10742/20, LIMITE, 18 September 2020, pdf)

The document notes:

"The Eastern Mediterranean / Western Balkans region is of great strategic importance for the EU in terms of migration management."

Significant work is underway:

"SCIFA reached broad agreement on 15-16 July 2020 on the need for the Western Balkans partners to carry out a structured needs assessment that the EU’s tailor-made support is carried out in a coordinated manner in the areas of: integrated border management, strengthening of asylum systems and reception capacities, return and readmission and the smuggling of migrants... Many Member States, FRONTEX, eu-LISA and EASO expressed their willingness and desire to contribute to a more structured dialogue with the Western Balkan partners and to support the development of a common gap and needs assessment. The Commission underlined its readiness to play a strong active role in this context." (all emphasis in quotes added)


"A concrete first proposal for the implementation of this operational approach is to take into account the ideas discussed at the Ministerial Conference organised by Austria on 22 and 23 July in Vienna."

At that conference, ministers agreed to establish a "Operational Platform Eastern Mediterranean Route", as set out in the Vienna Declaration on effectively combating irregular migration
along the Eastern Mediterranean Route (pdf):

"The Ministers emphasize the need for a pro-active, permanent and structured joint approach, based on concrete steps and delivering concrete results, involving all stakeholders, such as the Western Balkans, EU and Schengen states, the European Commission, responsible EU agencies, ICMPD as well as other relevant international partners."

The declaration gives the job of establishing this "platform" to "the experts of interested partners," who were tasked with "quickly drawing up a concept and a working method… taking into account all existing initiatives and suggesting a concrete set of coordinated operational measures."

The platform was still under development in mid-September, as set out in the German Presidency's note to SCIFA, cited above. That note also gives some further detail of those involved in the process:

"Western Balkan partners, interested EU Member States, Frontex, EASO and Europol as well as the EU Commission and other relevant actors will be involved in the definition of the process and in future activities carried out under the coordination mechanism. EU Delegations should be also closely involved in the shaping of future activities."

There will be no parliamentary scrutiny, civil society consultation or democratic oversight of any sort, despite the ongoing disasters caused by 'anti-smuggling' and 'border security' activities in the Balkans.

For example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, thousands of people seeking to travel to the EU face the prospect of spending winter living in camps or sleeping rough, due to the impossibility of continuing their journeys – in part because of the violence meted out by Croatian and other police forces who regularly engage in illegal pushbacks at the EU's borders.

EU agencies themselves have confirmed that the "need to bypass reinforced borders several times" means "demand for facilitation [i.e. smuggling] services in the Western Balkans region is high," yet the only response offered is a mixture between harsher measures and measly humanitarianism.

This is precisely the recipe set out by the German Presidency in its note on the Balkans, which also refers to the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The Presidency has sought support from other member states for further humanitarian actions in BiH (the EU has so far donated over €60 million to the country for this purpose).

There is, however, no recognition of the fact that EU and member state support for a years-long crackdown on the ‘Balkan Route’ has contributed to this problem – and that the activities of a new security-focused ‘Operational Platform’ will likely exacerbate the situation.

"Operationalising anti-smuggling and border management cooperation with African Partners"

Council of the EU: NOTE from: Presidency to: Strategic Committee on Frontiers, Asylum and Immigration: Migration Cooperation with African Partners: Operationalising anti-smuggling and border management cooperation with African Partners of 13 July 2020 (10743/20, LIMITE, 15 September 2020, pdf)

Another note from the German Presidency to SCIFA, circulated a few days before the one looking at cooperation with states in the Balkans, examines operational cooperation with "African Partners" - namely, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Mauritania.

It refers to a "virtual conference" hosted by Italy in July, with the cooperation of the European Commission. The Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson and Olivér Várhelyi, the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, both attended. France and Spain also sent representatives.

According to the Presidency's note, all those present agreed on the need for increased operational cooperation against migrant smuggling and on border management in African states, and "enhanced efforts" will be made to put plans into practice. Those efforts may also "be extended to other aspects of migration management in close coordination with the Member States and North African Partners".

The Presidency document sets out the proposed "Team Europe" approach for the next steps. EU delegations are to take a leading role "on the ground":

"…the Commission will take forward the work on operationalising anti-smuggling and border management cooperation with African Partners, together with the EEAS and representatives of the Council Secretariat and of the Member States willing to support this initiative, relying on the input of the relevant EU delegations and Agencies. The purpose will be to steer dialogue and coordinate EU and Member State activities with each of the five African Partners… EU delegations in the partner countries are therefore ideally placed to drive coordination on the ground with each partner country, under the overall coordination to be ensured at headquarter level by the European Commission, the EEAS and the Member States supporting the initiative."

The European Commission and the European External Action Service have been tasked with undertaking a mapping exercise of ongoing activities undertaken by the EU and its member states with the five African states in question.

Any "gaps" identified will "be the target of new activities and projects at EU or Member State level." This will be part of "developing comprehensive, mutually beneficial balanced partnerships with key countries of origin and transit," the same wording used in the Pact on Migration and Asylum.

As with the Balkans initiative, there is no space for input outside that of EU and national officials. The final point of the Presidency’s proposed approach is:

"Member States are to be appropriately involved in the framework of the SCIFA and the High-Level Working Group (HLWG) [another Council forum] regarding the road map, the status of implementation of the initiative and the extension of the initiative to other aspects of migration management."

In her speech at the video conference (link), Commissioner Johansson made a number of suggestions as to what this cooperation could look like:

  • "Partnerships which could strengthen law enforcement to fight smuggling… EU Member States contribute with staff and expertise."
  • "Information exchange lies at the heart of combating migrant smuggling networks… We could explore using the Africa-Frontex Intelligence Community (AFIC), and working closely with Afripol."
  • "Immigration officers from Europe already work side by side with colleagues from your countries. We can build on this experience and strengthen cooperation and deploy more personnel."
  • "Border management is essential to combat smuggling. We should continue capacity building and training for coast guards and providing equipment. That includes the establishment of maritime rescue coordination centres. And making sure these centres are effective tools to improve our cooperation."
  • "Communication to warn people and counter disinformation is another key element… We could do much more to inform people about the risks of smuggling."

Johansson recognised that "Some of those smuggled are refugees in need of protection," but spent the vast majority of her speech remarking upon new ways to prevent smuggling – which would also deprive those people of protection.

Johansson also made some remarks on the "long tradition of fighting this common threat" maintained by the EU's partners:

Earlier this year, the Commission made €3 million available from the Internal Security Fund to finance "common operational partnerships" involving at least two EU member states and one non-EU state. This is the latest in a long line of EU funding geared towards boosting the capacity of non-EU countries to detect, investigate and prosecute migrant smuggling, as the call for proposals (pdf) makes clear. The deadline for proposals was at the end of August; succesful projects have not yet been made public.

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