More than a million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, with thousands dying in the attempt to cross by sea. EU development policy has swung into action, in an attempt to address the “root causes” of the movement of people. But this rapid reaction has led to some poor decisions, with the potential to waste a lot of money, and potentially cause serious harm.

A good example of this is the European Aid project supporting Sudan (whose president is wanted for genocide), an effort to improve Sudan’s border controls and detention facilities. The EU Development Commissioner Neven Mimica wrote recently in the Sudan Tribune:

Dialogue on Migration was launched between Sudan and the EU in February 2016… [the Sudan Foreign Minister] expressed his Government’s interest in engaging further on tackling irregular migration, combating migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings, and adopting measures to prevent illegal crossings. He also expressed his Government’s openness to work with the EU on return and readmission.

The EU should not be building detention camps for dictators

The EU project document notes specific requests from the Sudan government for assistance with improved border infrastructure and “reception centres” at Gadaref and Kassala, towns in Eastern Sudan close to the Eritrean border. So Europe is planning to support one dictator wanted for human rights (in Sudan) to arrest and return refugees fleeing from another dictator (in Eritrea), so that they can’t find their way to Europe. A recent UN inquiry into human rights in Eritrea found that "The Eritrean government’s systematic use of extrajudicial killing, torture, rape, indefinite national service and forced labour may amount to crimes against humanity.”

And Sudan’s new focus on Eritrea is already ‘working’—with Human Rights Watch drawing attention to Sudan’s recent deportation of hundreds of Eritrean refugees. Whilst the EU apparently trusts the government of Sudan to respect the human rights of foreign refugees, the same Sudanese government is simultaneously bombarding its own citizens, with hundreds of people fleeing attacks from their own government.

The officials behind the project apparently recognise the risk that the equipment could be “diverted for repressive aims,” but seems to worry most about the criticism that might come from “NGOs and civil society for engaging with repressive governments on migration (particularly in Eritrea and Sudan)."

From building walls to addressing root causes of movement?

Not all of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa is being spent on controls on the free movement of people. Actually, not even the majority of it. Rather than trying to directly stem the flow of people, the majority of spending is going on ‘development’ or ‘livelihoods’ projects—the theory being that by improving the material situation of displaced or vulnerable people, they won’t need to move in the first place.

But are these projects likely to actually reduce migration? Even putting aside the whole question of effectiveness and how much of humanitarian assistance should be given in cash rather than material goods (most of it), let’s just assume that these projects will be successful at improving the living standards of the intended recipients. In his CGD paper "Does Development Reduce Migration?,” Michael Clemens reviews what the research says at both the macro and micro level about the relationship between income or wealth and migration. At the individual (micro) level, there is generally a weak or positive relationship between income and likelihood to migrate. Richer people are more likely to move not less. At the national (macro) level, he writes:

The unmistakable pattern is that, for countries below something like $6,000-$8,000 GDP per capita (at US prices), countries that get richer have more emigration.

A likely explanation seems to be credit constraints. There are a lot of people who would like to move to a richer county but can’t afford the trip. Making them just a bit richer enables them to do so. There is also something interesting about that $6,000-$8,000 GDP per capita mark. It’s pretty close to the level of the global poverty line proposed by Lant Pritchett based on the average poverty lines in rich countries ($15 a day or $5,475 a year, in 2000 prices). The implicit assumption of EU policy is that lifting people above a ~$2.00 a day poverty line will stop them wanting to emigrate, when in reality people who are still living in what we would definitely call poverty in the West are not content with $2.50 a day, and are pretty keen to try and escape it. Then it’s only when people escape this higher level of ~$15 a day global poverty that they start becoming less likely to want to uproot their whole life in search of greater prosperity.

So how rich are the countries getting money from the EU Emergency Trust Fund? None of them are above $2,000 GDP per capita, suggesting that if anything we might expect spending on these development projects to increase migration rather than decrease it. None of this is to say that we should not be pursuing aid projects to improve the well-being of people living Darfur or Eastern Sudan—if we think those goals can be achieved cost-effectively then we should—keeping in mind that we shouldn’t expect that these projects are going to reduce the flow of people to Europe.

Putting poverty to one side, the more important drivers of migrant flows to Europe seem to be violence, conflict, and rights abuses. Just look at the list of the top origin countries for people claiming asylum in the EU—Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea. But instead of talking to the government of Sudan about the violence and abuse they are inflicting on their citizens, we are going to run some livelihoods projects for the Sudanese in Darfur and help them lock up Eritreans. Did I mention that Sudan kicked out 13 international humanitarian organisations from Darfur in 2009, just maybe contributing somewhat to the continued need for humanitarian assistance today?

A counterproductive ‘carrot’ and a stick that is a ‘gun’

The EU strategy to deal with the refugee crisis is designed to reduce the numbers of people attempting to move to Europe—by persuasion and by force. The persuasion is likely to be entirely counterproductive, and this kind of pressure, outsourcing our dirty work to some of the most brutal tyrants, should be beyond the pale for a people that so pride ourselves on our fundamental values of respect for human dignity and human rights. This is indeed a strong contender for the worst aid project in the world.