A bottomless pit: billions more euros for externalised border controls

In view of the recently concluded mid-term review of the EU’s budget, funding for the externalisation of migration control has been at the top of the political agendas of EU member states and institutions. In the words of the European Commission and the European External Action Service, funding “ensure[s] that the actions undertaken… continue delivering results.” A substantial increase in the EU budget is on the cards, at the same time as a possible shift towards a supposedly new “preventive model” for external migration control.

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Image: m.p.3., CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Funding externalisation under the 2021-2027 EU budget

Under the current budget, EU border externalisation initiatives are funded through three Commission Directorate-Generals: Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), International Partnerships (DG INTPA) and Migration and Home Affairs (DG HOME). They oversee a variety of different funds that, either in whole or in part, provide what in EU jargon is called “external funding” – that is, funding for projects outside EU territory.

DG NEAR is responsible for the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA III) as well as the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) funds earmarked for the EU’s “neighbourhood.” DG INTPA administers NDICI funds which are destined for countries beyond the EU’s immediate neighbourhood. This fund, also referred to as “Global Europe,” channels the biggest share of external funding.

DG HOME is responsible for the Asylum Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), the Border Management and Visa Instrument (BMVI), and the Internal Security Fund (ISF). With regard to externalisation, the AMIF focuses “on supporting actions that are not development-oriented and serve the interest of internal Union policies.” The ISF focuses on enhancing cooperation with third countries “in areas of relevance to the Union’s internal security,” including “combating cross-border criminal smuggling networks.” A report by Statewatch and the Transnational Institute explains in more detail how the home affairs funds finance border externalisation.

Finally, certain agencies, such as Frontex, the European Asylum Agency (EUAA) and Europol, hold their own budgets which may be used for migration and border related projects beyond EU borders.

NDICI: institutionalising “containment development”

NDICI is fundamental to the external dimension of EU migration control. With a budget of €79.5 billion, it replaces and merges ten different external funding instruments into one. It is the EU’s main development instrument and, as set out in the founding legislation, 93% of NDICI funds must comply with Official Development Assistance (ODA) criteria, such as recipient country ownership. ODA is supposed to promote and specifically target the economic development and welfare of developing countries.

At the same time, the NDICI Regulation sets a target for 10% of the total fund to be “dedicated particularly to actions supporting management and governance of migration and forced displacement.” As the Commission’s report on the use of external funding instruments for 2022 shows, 13.6% of the total committed in 2022 was dedicated to migration. This not only underscores the often-raised criticism of diverting development aid for migration control purposes, but also represents a risk to the integrity of ODA. Evaluations of funding under the NDICI by CeSPI and Oxfam have further cemented these concerns.

Some of the projects funded under NDICI are a direct continuation of projects financed by the European Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), a €5 billion initiative launched in 2015 which fostered what has been termed the “containment” approach to development. Through this, development interventions for issues such as job creation or adaptation to climate change are based on the idea that addressing these “root causes” will diminish majority world citizens’ ambitions to move to Europe.

A draft action file produced by the Council of the EU’s Operational Mechanism for the External Dimension of Migration (MOCADEM) in January 2023 shows that NDICI is seen as a direct continuation of the EUTF. There is therefore an evident path dependency and normalisation of such migration-related interventions creeping into broader development aims.

This instrumentalisation of development is further highlighted by the built-in “flexible incitative [sic] approach” of NDICI. This “positive” conditionality mechanism aims to reward countries for their willingness to engage in, for example, fighting against smuggling and trafficking or showing cooperation on deportation and readmission. However, making access to development aid conditional on migration control objectives has been criticised, not least because it goes against the EU’s own development principles and leads to ineffective assistance when funding does not go where it is most needed.

For the EU’s “Southern Neighbourhood”[1] there is a “Multi-Country Migration Programme for the Southern Neighbourhood” (MCMP) which is supposed to “provide a flexible source of funding”, allowing for special measures and “country-specific actions that… offer to selected countries an incentive to go beyond what their country MIP [multiannual indicative programme] offers, in line with a flexible incitative approach”. In Sub-Saharan Africa this approach is operationalised through the action “Flexible Mechanism for Migration and Forced Displacement”. However, there is a lack of transparency regarding what is funded under this mechanism, which has so far mobilised €200m, and how countries are selected to receive additional funding.

Member states in the driving seat

While civil society and the European Parliament lament a lack of oversight and transparency of NDICI projects, member states have increased their role through the “NDICI Coordination Group on Migration,” which was set up specifically for member states to oversee migration programming under the NDICI.

Member states are also highly involved in the Team Europe Initiatives (TEIs). These are initiatives involving EU and national institutions and agencies “around which European funding instruments and modalities coalesce to bring a transformational impact“ in a selected priority area – one of which is irregular migration. NDICI projects are supposed to support these initiatives, but other funding methods and partners are also used.

For example, the TEI on the Central Mediterranean brings together the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS), along with 11 EU and Schengen member states,[2] which have together mobilised €1.13 billion in national and EU funding. The TEI on the Atlantic/Western Mediterranean Route is taken forward by the Commission and the EEAS, with nine EU and Schengen member states,[3] which have so far mobilised €908 million. Even if “Team Europe” is essentially a branding exercise, it is one which provides another way to create alliances for further externalising migration control.

Mid-term review: more funding for migration control

The mid-term review of the current EU budget, the Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF) 2021–27, was finalised this spring. It was launched by the Commission in June 2023, with the institution calling for an increase in the EU budget due to the economic situation and the war in Ukraine, which had “pushed the resources of the EU budget to the point of exhaustion.”

Several important changes have been agreed. Earlier this year, the Council gave final approval to a total of €64.6 billion in additional funding, which was approved by the Parliament. Of this amount, €7.6 billion is for NDICI, aiming at, amongst other things, the “continuation of actions previously undertaken through the EU Trust Fund for Africa.”

Increases in NDICI funding

Syrian refugees (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon)

€1.6 billion

Syrian refugees (Türkiye)

€2.0 billion

Southern Neighbourhood

€2.0 billion

Western Balkans

€2.0 billion


€7.7 billion

An additional €2 billion will go to the AMIF and BMVI funds, as well as the budget of the EU Asylum Agency (EUAA). This is to address “urgent challenges and needs related to migration and border management” and the implementation of the Pact on Migration and Asylum, including the heavily criticized border procedure.

Increases in EU migration and border control funding

Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund (AMIF)

€0.8 billion

Border Management and Visa (BMVI)

€1.0 billion

European Union Asylum Agency (EUAA)

€0.2 billion


€2 billion

Finally, the maximum amount of the Solidarity and Emergency Aid Reserve (SEAR) has been increased by €1.5 billion. This fund is dedicated to both natural disasters on European territories and natural disasters and humanitarian crises in non-EU states.

A Spanish Council presidency paper discussed in the following section gives some indication of how the additional funding may be used.

Spanish presidency paper: proposals to improve the “effectiveness” of externalisation funding

A November 2023 document illustrates both the priorities of the Spanish Council presidency (in place from July-December 2023) and grants some insight into how the increased funding may be used. It builds on an earlier presidency paper that called for the necessity “to achieve more and better funding for the external dimension of migration.”

The paper contains several suggestions to render internal EU coordination more efficient. It proposes strengthening existing Council working parties or establishing a new ad hoc Council mechanism to monitor the use of funds more closely. It also calls for more regular and systematic dissemination of information on externalisation funding, including the improvement of online databases such as the Financial Transparency System (FTS) and EU Aid Explorer.

A “migration marker” used by EU officials to track the use of NDICI funds for migration purposes could be extended to other funds, the paper suggests. It also strongly emphasises the need for more “executive and short-term funding mechanisms” to prevent irregular migration, and highlights that the development objective of NDICI restrains the more operational needs required for a “preventive model”.

The Spanish presidency’s proposed “preventive model” (a term coined in September 2023) deviates from the more common, but equally contested, understanding of a preventive approach that focuses on “root causes”. Instead, it is primarily concerned with operational border and migration management efforts in non-EU states: for example, the purchase of vehicles, vessels, and surveillance equipment; or meeting the needs of forcibly displaced persons hosted by partner countries. To back up this approach, the paper says EU member states “should consider the possibilities of strengthening other funding tools of our external dimension toolbox.”

Whose crisis?

According to the Spanish Presidency, a “preventive approach” is necessary because longer-term actions focusing on root causes both fail to “effectively address the migration crises that have already erupted” and “to prevent impending crises that are building up.” This framing overshadows the structural reasons that cause “crises” to emerge in the first place and demonstrates the productivity of crisis labelling.

Firstly, labelling something as a “migration crisis” shifts the focus from the humanitarian crises produced by the absence of safe and legal pathways to a perceived crisis of state sovereignty. In doing so, it silences the fact that migrants encounter crises on their journeys, which are themselves the result of restrictive migration governance and the absence of legal pathways.

Secondly, crisis and emergency framing has been used by EU agencies and member states to derogate from legal norms and safeguards. An emphasis on operational cooperation with third states is likely to enhance this trend.

Thirdly, EU-funded border and migration control capacities in non-EU countries are likely to aggravate the very crises they aim to solve – rendering available pathways more dangerous without significantly reducing migration. This possibility is particularly concerning given the use of the “more for more principle,” heralded by the Spanish presidency as ensuring “genuine involvement of partner countries.” Ultimately, this means that more financial, material and other resources are given to the countries most willing to cooperate in the EU’s migration containment agenda.

Putting “capacity building” into perspective

The Spanish presidency’s emphasis on operational support and the “more for more principle” are not new. Two decades ago, the EU set up its first financial instrument dedicated to the provision of financial and material support to non-EU countries for migration and border management operations. Meanwhile, the “more for more principle” was first introduced in 2011 under the EU’s Global Approach to Migration and Mobility (GAMM).

Since then, scholars have considered how this so-called capacity building has helped frame migration control initiatives as technocratic, neutral and apolitical. Other research has shown that it reproduces Eurocentric categories of migration governance that do not neatly map onto, for example, less state-centric notions of mobility in countries such as Niger. Further, research has warned of the possibility of it negatively affecting freedom of movement within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Finally, scholars have pointed to the often self-serving nature of capacity building as such, often profiting and being driven by the European (and global) border-industrial complex.

Migration control considerations that require strengthening the security apparatus of partner states are a central element in capacity building initiatives. Strong concerns have been raised by journalists and rights groups. These concerns pertain to human rights abuses and a lack of scrutiny.

EU funding for so-called migration management has resulted in pushbacks of refugees and migrant workers to the deserts of Morocco, Tunisia, and Mauritania. Finally, rights groups have repeatedly warned over the negative human rights implications of some projects funded under the NDICI in Tunisia and Libya, especially those building the capacities of the Tunisian and Libyan coast guards. Furthermore, recurrent drownings have been reported at the hands of the Senegalese navy, which has received support from the EU and its member states, in particular Spain, for almost two decades.

Concerns also relate to the question of who is being funded. For example, prior to the outbreak of the current civil war in Sudan, EU migration funds have reportedly indirectly supported the Rapid Support Forces. Another recurrent question raised by journalists pertains to the question of what (else) is happening with donated materials. In Senegal, vehicles donated by the EU through the EUTF were used to violently repress democratic protests in 2023.

Finally, there is the collateral damage accepted by EU policy makers. These concerns have been raised strongly in regard to the EU’s anti-smuggling agenda in pre-coup Niger, but also more recently in the context of the EU- Mauritania deal and its linked support for capacity building. Here, observers have raised strong concerns over how these measures aggravate acute risks for the Afro-Mauritanian community, (further) inflaming racial tensions and social polarization in the country.

Besides these concerns, shifting geopolitical alliances on the African continent also puts in question the future feasibility of the EU externalisation agenda. The ongoing political reconfigurations are likely to impact the EU’s ability to be an “agenda setter”. This is most starkly illustrated by the 2023 military coup in Niger which has resulted not only in the suspension of security cooperation and financial support to the country by the EU, but also the abrogation of the much-criticized 2015 law against migrant smuggling by the Nigerien government. In a statement announcing the repeal, the military government stated that the law "did not take into account the interests of Niger and its citizens."

Put differently, the shifting geopolitical context has enabled African states to challenge the EU and EU member states as hegemonic actors. Therefore, an additional question emerges: whether the EU is at risk of undermining its relations with non-EU countries when it pushes them to adopt migration policies which contribute to the global racialized exclusion of their citizens, negatively affect local economies and lead to human insecurity.

Besides the wider concerns raised above, policies that perpetuate longstanding asymmetric and unequal relations in the field of migration and beyond, are untenable in the longer term. Working towards establishing truly mutually beneficial relations is not only advisable but necessary. The emphasis on enhancing operational cooperation in the EU’s external migration and border management, mirrored both in the proposed MFF budget increase and the Spanish presidency paper, instead falls within the longer-term, broader logics of the increasingly challenged toolbox of EU security and migration control.

Ways forward

Billions more euros are being made available for EU migration and border control externalisation initiatives through the mid-term revision of the EU budget. The Spanish presidency paper offers a glimpse behind the scenes of the negotiations and offers some idea of what moving towards a “preventive approach”, centred around operational capacity-building, means in practice.

While the risks of such an approach are not unknown, the key to challenging it is to build a better understanding of what is happening on the ground. To do so, European civil society needs to develop and reinforce alliances with partners in countries affected by EU policies, to enable joint challenges and confrontations to the externalisation agenda. Civil society may also make use of the concern of some member states – or, at least, the Spanish delegation – over the opacity of EU spending on externalisation. This may make it possible to exert pressure for more transparency of EU external migration funding and its translation into projects on the ground.

Leonie Jegen and Zina Weisner for migration-control.info


[1] Encompassing Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia.

[2] Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Italy, Malta, Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland

[3] Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland

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