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A New EU migration Agenda: the Valetta Conference

The EU is confronted with a migration challenge of a scope that it has not seen before. In 2014 and 2015 the number of refugees entering the EU through the Central Mediterranean route has peaked.[1] The number of refugees from Eritrea, increased from 1,889 in 2012 to 35,559 in 2014.[2] The rising numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea have exposed critical shortcomings in the current EU’s common migration policy. The crisis is a reminder that migration is no longer only an EU internal policy matter, but requires a process that engages African countries.

The largest group of migrants entering through the Central Mediterranean route are Syrian refugees, whilst the second largest group originate from Eritrea, located in the Horn. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea (COIE) issued a report in June 2015, analysing the root causes for migration of Eritrean refugees.[3] The COIE estimated that 5000 Eritrean refugees were leaving the country each month. The pattern of repression and violations of human rights in Eritrea concurs with the view by international organisations that most asylum-seekers from Eritrea merit asylum. The UN Country of Origin information reflects this analysis and the EU ASEO office follows this international line. In most EU countries these guidelines are followed.[4]

In a bid to respond to the new and increased migration challenge through the Mediterranean Sea route, an international Summit has been called for by the European Council, which will take place on 11 and 12 November 2015 in Valletta (Malta) to discuss migration issues with African and other key countries. The Valletta meeting is expected to focus on assistance to partner countries, to strengthen cooperation on migration and a better targeting of development cooperation and investments in Africa. The organisation of the Valletta Conference is spearheaded by Ambassador Pierre Vimont, as special advisor to EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker.

The EU response to the new migration challenges has been hampered by several problems, which the Valletta Conference could address. This article discusses key issues in relation to the agenda of the Valletta Conference.[5] It identifies four critical areas:

  • Internal and external dimensions of EU policy
  • Burden-sharing and EU solidarity on migration policy
  • The facilitation of migration through ICT
  • Incentivising

The overall policy setting in the EU: internal and external dimensions

The EU migration agenda has been largely defined as an internal policy domain. The Valletta Conference seeks to extend the negotiations of migration policy to departing and transit countries. In order to do so effectively, the EU will require deep knowledge of the countries and region concerned, their internal dynamics, the diplomatic possibilities and challenges as well as the security dimensions. The migration and human trafficking challenges in the Horn and northern African region are connected with patterns of cross-border issues relating to government surveillance and repression, organised crime, terrorism and security problems.

This provides important challenges to the EU. The EU institutions involved in the preparations of the Valletta conference will be required to break through vertical policy domains and develop a more coherent horizontal approach to the internal and external dimensions of migration policy. Such a horizontal approach must also subsume the policy domains of external relations, development policy as well as security policy under the comprehensive umbrella of migration policy. Migration policy hitherto seen as predominantly an internal EU policy is no longer a viable  option. Various NGO’s, but also the UN Special Representative of the UN SG of Migration and development, Peter Sutherland, the UN High Commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres and the DG of the IOM, Bill Swing, have called upon the EU to be more ambitious and suggested a series of additional measures: ‘EU leaders must look beyond the present situation and work closely with transit and origin countries both to alleviate the immediate plight of migrants and refugees and address in a more comprehensive way the many factors that drive them to resort to such desperate journeys by sea. Enforcement alone will not solve the issue of irregular migration, but could increase the risks and abuse faced by migrants and refugees.[6]

In the context of a growing number of Eritrean refugees the European Commission attempted earlier to establish an interdepartmental group on Eritrea. However, due to the vastly different mandates, understanding and frames of the officials representing different parts of the administration, the meetings were not successful and were stopped after a few initial attempts.[7] This experience demonstrates the urgency of expanding mechanisms to link internal and external dimensions of migration within an EU policy context.

At the start of his mandate, the new President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, indicated that external and internal policies should be better integrated. The organisation of a joint meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and the Ministers of the Interior prepared the European Council of 23 April 2015. This set a clear example of how both internal and external policy angles are being brought together at a political level.[8] The Valletta Conference builds on this, with a crucial role given to the High Representative, Federica Mogherini, leading the EU European External Action Service (EEAS).

Defining EU responsibilities: the issue of burden-sharing

The Dublin Convention, which has established the principle that countries of first entry are responsible for the granting of asylum in the EU, is increasingly under discussion. In view of recent developments, it has been especially unsatisfactory that the new Dublin- III Regulation (No. 604/2013) left this principle of responsibility unaltered. The German Experts Council for Migration elaborated an interesting proposal for fair reception burden sharing in Europe as an alternative to the Dublin principle.[9]

In preparation for the EU Council of 23 April 2015, the European Commission proposed a system of burden-sharing to respond to the uneven distribution of asylum seekers in Europe.[10] This would include resettlement of refugees among European countries. This would help the EU countries on the Northern Mediterranean who receive the largest numbers of migrants as well as those North European countries (such as Sweden and Germany) who receive and support the largest numbers of asylum-seekers.

A policy of burden-sharing would need to be accompanied by sharing of expertise between EU Member States in supporting and integrating asylum-seekers and creating a knowledge base to effectively share these responsibilities. Such a policy would aim to overall increase standards of support to asylum-seekers and ensure that asylum-seekers are processed and supported in all EU Member States. Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister Bert Koenders, announced on 26 August 2015 the aspiration for The Netherlands to increase capacities (in terms of assisting asylum seekers) in all EU member States as a means of preparing for increased European burden sharing.[11]

The role of ICT in migration from Eritrea: mobile money revenue streams

The classical theory of push and pull factors of migration influences the policy proposals by the EU. This frame of push and pull is also used extensively by the ideologues of the Eritrean military regime to explain motives of Eritrean refugees as economic rather than political.[12] However the explanatory power of the push and pull theory seems to be increasingly inadequate.[13]

New theoretical frameworks point to the notion of facilitation in explaining new migration patterns. Such facilitation has enabled new ICT innovation which includes communication and mobile money.[14] The mobile money provides an important part of income streams of organisations and groups that smuggle and traffic migrants.[15]

Mobile money is also an important part of the motivation for migrants. In Eritrea families depend almost entirely on remittances, and increasingly young people, often minors, are sent abroad to help ensure the revenue of the families. In addition to such income streams from refugees are the infamous additional taxation (2% tax or diaspora tax) and the ‘voluntary’ contributions raised from diaspora communities, often with considerable pressure and even threats. Moreover, the extortion of refugees trafficked and held to ransom is an increasingly widespread problem, affecting refugees in Sudan, South Sudan, Libya and Chad, and rising demands for financial contributions of relatives in diaspora communities.[16]

New human trafficking and extortion practices are facilitated by mobile phone communications in which victims of such practices are requested or forced to seek such payments as ransoms for their release.[17] Such collection of ransoms is facilitated by mobile phone communications and mobile money transfers. While minors are often lured out of Eritrea by ‘no fee’ – deals, they are forced to seek financial contributions once they have become dependent upon trafficking networks and are isolated from support systems.[18] Collection of financial resources from relatives in the diaspora is then pursued by approaches through mobile phone communication along the routes at critical stages where payments are demanded. The new forms of trafficking are especially of great concern, when extortion is carried out by mobile phone communications with relatives, whilst victims of trafficking are being tortured during such conversations. The emotional pressure of such calls creates pressure for relatives to respond to the demands for payments.

Various dimensions of responsibility in relation to such criminal activities need to be considered, including the responsibility of regulators, governments and private actors with a view to curb such practices.


The European Commission has announced its approach to incentivise positive collaboration of governments in curbing migration, especially focused on Eritrea as the second largest producer of refugees on the Central Mediterranean Route. The European Commission announced an aid package of over 300 million euros for the coming period, in exchange for proposals by the Eritrean government to take action to stop migration.[19]

Two actions have been given prominence in this deal. The promise of the Eritrean government to limit the duration of the military conscription which is generally regarded as an important driver of refugees from the country, given the dismal circumstances in the military training camps and the lack of future prospects for the Eritrean military conscripts. While the Danish report claims that the Eritrean government has stated that it would limit the hereto unlimited military conscription[20], sources from within the country have nor reported any awareness of such a policy. On the contrary, several reports have mentioned that older people have been called for military training and that this has been disruptive and created fear and anxiety amongst families and communities in Eritrea.[21] Secondly it has been reported that the Eritrean government would end the shoot-to-kill policy at the Eritrean-Ethiopian border; however, during a recent visit to the refugee camps at the border, first hand reports were received, stating that newly arriving refugees had been shot and injured.

Various Member States of the EU have sent missions to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, to seek assurances that the Eritrean government is changing its policies. However, it is questionable whether these new policies are being implemented in the country. Moreover, the overall repressive measures remain in place. For instance the COIE failed to get access into the country to carry out its research and also the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea has not had access into the country. Moreover the political prisoners, such as the journalist writer Dawit Isaac remain in prison and none of the political prisoners have been released so far. Yet the lifting of the repressive measures will be a key factor in curbing migration, as Eritrean refugees flee mostly to escape the overall repression and lack of freedom in the country.[22]

The European Union will therefore need to have a clear policy on incentivising. Without such a clear strategy the risk will be that the EU will fail to curb migration and on the contrary, will support a repressive regime that is exacerbating the outflow of refugees by failing to meet the most basic human rights standards.


The Valletta Conference will provide a critical forum to identify new and imaginative policies on migration and to begin to address some of its root causes. This agenda is challenging. It requires that the EU administration comprehensively address migration and combines understanding of the internal and external dimensions of it. The solidarity of the EU in finding joint approaches poses an equally important challenge, crucial in finding joint solutions for fair burden-sharing and developing effective and sustainable responses to the migration crisis. Looking at root causes that exacerbate the migration, the role of new ICT technologies and money transfer mechanisms should be understood in terms of the facilitation these technologies provide in illegal extortion of migrants, causing unspeakable human suffering. Finally the European Commission needs to develop a clear policy of how to incentivise policies to curb migration and ensure that such incentives are benchmarked in terms of what is needed to effectively decrease the drivers of migration. Development cooperation should be clearly benchmarked. Understanding repression as an important factor in the exodus of migrants is an issue that also needs to be addressed at the Valletta Conference.

Mirjam van Reisen is Professor of  International Social Responsibility, Tilburg University and Founding Director of the Europe External Policy Advisors (EEPA). She is member of the Dutch Council on International Affairs and chair of the Committee on Development Cooperation. She can be reached at


[1] Even though the Central Mediterranean route has been widely exposed in the media, the largest number of migrants entering the EU are through overstay and enter the EU illegally (usually by plane).

[2] Frontex, Annual Risk Analysis 2015, p. 16. See: (accessed 26 August 2015)

[3] Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, Report 2015 See:

[4] Reports carried out in a number of EU Member States challenged the Country of Origin Information analysis, notably Denmark and the UK. However the basis of these recent reports has been challenged by human rights organisations and it has been suggested that these reports have been ill-conceived and possibly politically motivated. See: Reisen, van, M. Flawed Danish Migration Report shows Need for Realistic Benchmarked Approach on Eritrea. EEPA: Brussels. 2015. Available on:

[5] See: (accessed 26 August 2015) (accessed 26 August 2015)

[6] See Press Release 23 April 2015. Joint Statement on Mediterranean Crossings:

[7] In interviews undertaken with EU officials in 2013 the differences in framing of the EU policies towards Eritrea were highlighted. Development cooperation policy was framed from a bilateral government-to-government perspective. The issue of increasing numbers of Eritrean refugees in the region could only be addressed as part of the European Humanitarian policy (ECHO). The human trafficking problem was approached as an internal policy agenda. The problem of the vertical policy making in silos was addressed in a meeting held in 2012 in the European Parliament to discuss the new realities of human trafficking as emerging in the Sinai desert and affecting especially Eritrean refugees.

[8] Despite these efforts, many have indicated that the measures the European Council agreed are to be considered a first step only. Various NGO’s, but also the UN Special Representative of the UN SG of Migration and development, Peter Sutherland, the UN High Commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres and the DG of the IOM, Bill Swing called upon the EU to be more ambitious and suggested a series of additional measures. The Valletta Conference could be seen as a response to these calls.

[9] Sachverständigenrat deutscher Stiftungen für Integration and Migration, European Refugee Policy. Pathways to Fairer Burden-Sharing.  Policy Brief. SVR GmbH, Berlin: 2013.

[10] Announced by Commissioner Frans Timmermans in the European Parliament. The Vice-President of the European Commission based the proposal on the urgency and emergency of the migration crisis the EU is facing and pointed to the inadequacy of the Dublin III framework in formulating a response to the emerging crisis.

[11] Radio News, 26 August 2015

[12] See  for instance in this interview with three YPFDJ members (members of the youth wing of het only political party in Eritrea) in which they explain that the Eritrean refugees are motivated by economic considerations:

[13] Grezel, L., Eritrean Exodus: Refugee Routes to Europe, capstone, Amsterdam University College, Amsterdam: 2015.

[14] See Bernal, V. Diaspora, cyberspace and political imagination: the Eritrean diaspora online. Global Networks 6, 2. 2006. Available on:

[15] Reisen, van M., & Rijken, C., The Human Trafficking Cycle. Sinai and Beyond. Wolld Publ. Nijmegen. 2013.

[16] Interviews MvR 2015

[17] Reisen, van, M., and Rijken, C., Sinai Trafficking: Origin and Definition of a New Form of Human Trafficking. Cogitatio. Vol 3. No 1. 2015. Online:

[18] Interviews carried out in July 2015 in Ethiopia.

[19] International scholars expressed their concern over the policy of incentivising Eritrea to curb migration in a statement sent to EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The statement is published here:

[20] Danish Immigration Service. Eritrea – Drivers and Root Causes of Emigration, National Service and the Possibility of Return Country of Origin Information for Use in the Asylum Determination Process Report from the Danish Immigration Service’s fact finding missions to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Copenhagen. 2014.

[21] Interviews 2015.

[22] Reisen, van., M. & Mekonnen, D., EU development cooperation: the contours of global and national engagement. In: Human Rights and Development in the New Millennium. Towards a Theory of Change. (eds. Gready, P. & Vandenhole, W.) Routledge: London. 2014.

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