Migrants sit on their belongings in the back of a truck as it is driven through a dusty road in the desert town of Agadez, Niger, May 25, 2015.
Akintunde Akinleye / Reuters

On September 8, six days after the body of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee, was found on a Turkish beach, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said in an overdue statement, “We can build walls; we can build fences. But imagine for a second if it were you, your child in your arms, the world you knew torn apart around you. There is no price you would not pay, there is no wall you would not climb. . . .” Although he later announced that Europe would open its doors to 160,000 migrants and resettle them in various member countries over the next few years, the EU has not changed its long-term strategy to keep refugees out. In fact, the European Commission has made plans, quietly, to beef up the offshore processing of refugees, including by building a temporary migration processing center in Niger.


In May, the European Commission published the Agenda on Migration with little fanfare. This communiqué stressed the importance of dealing with the “crisis in the Mediterranean” before the pressure became “intolerable.” It also recognized the link between the fragile security situation in the Middle East and Africa and the recent uptick of Middle East and African asylum seekers in Europe. So far this year, over 350,000 migrants have arrived at Europe’s borders.

Migrants pass by a Hungarian soldier as they cross the border from Serbia near Roszke, Hungary, September 14, 2015.
Bernadett Szabo / Reuters

In order to stem the tide, the EU planned to pilot a processing center for Africans seeking humanitarian visas in Europe and, if that is successful, to build other centers in the Middle East and the Maghreb. Around 90 percent of all West African migrants, roughly 100,000 people each year, pass through Niger on their way to Libya to reach Europe, triggering crises like the one last month (which has been largely forgotten but not fully resolved) when thousands of West African migrants in Calais, France, sought to cross the Chunnel into the United Kingdom.

The center will be located in the Nigerien city of Agadez and housed by the International Organization for Migration. It is designed to provide immediate assistance to migrants in transit, inform them about the potential risks of traveling to Europe, register and profile them, and help those who are refused EU entry to return to their country of origin if they wish to do so.

In its Agenda on Migration, the EU claims that it is committed to a “common approach to granting protection to displaced persons in need of protection.” But beyond the generic wording, the document is remarkably silent about the rationale behind the center and how it will actually affect the migrant crisis in Europe. In February, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius visited Niamey, the Nigerien capital, but did not provide any further details about this project. At the time, Nigerien civil society and Bakary Seidou, who was the leader of the parliamentary opposition, heavily criticized the fact that the project was shrouded in so much secrecy.   

Despite the information black hole, the timing of the release of the EU’s agenda does offer some insight into its plans. The idea for a migrant center—a form of extraterritorial asylum processing—tends to appear on Brussels’ agenda whenever member states start feeling queasy about the inflow of people escaping humanitarian disaster zones. In March 2003, the administration of British Prime Minister Tony Blair championed such an offshore approach for Iraqi asylum applicants. (In the aftermath of the U.S. and British invasion of Iraq, thousands of Iraqi refugees had tried to escape.) Blair’s proposal ultimately failed to gather sufficient support and was severely condemned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as an attempt to abandon Europe’s humanitarian values, particularly since the United Kingdom failed to even explain where extraterritorial centers would be located and, therefore, whether the country could ensure migrants’ safety. Similar proposals by Germany and Italy in 2004 also lost steam because there was no suitable location to process these asylum applications.

Faced with one of the largest migration flows since World War II, the EU must devise a coherent humanitarian strategy that embodies the principles its leaders and advocates like to call upon. The secrecy around Brussels’ plans for Agadez indicates that Europe is shirking that challenge.

In 2007, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published an advisory opinion outlining lengthy legal criteria that extraterritorial processing must meet in order to comply with international law. The report emphasized the so-called principle of non-refoulement. In short, a country cannot return migrants within their borders to a place where they might face persecution, torture, death, or irreparable harm. In Niger, where Brussels will run the center jointly with the UNHCR, it is questionable whether a processing center can meet that standard.  

For one, the Nigerien city of Agadez, where the pilot program is to be launched, is anything but safe. Known as a hub for human and drug traffickers, weapon dealers, disgruntled Tuareg rebels, Boko Haram fighters, and marauding bandits, it is not a suitable refuge for anyone. The Nigerien government has long recognized this and has banned foreign citizens from entering all of northern Niger unless they are accompanied by a Nigerien military escort. Western embassies regularly advise their own citizens not to travel to Agadez and its surrounding areas. The EU has yet to explain why it thinks that an area that its diplomats regularly shun is suddenly an appropriate place for offshore refugees to seek out.

Processing a large number of migrants also requires close cooperation with the Nigerien government, which could likely turn into another problem. Western donors are poetic when it comes to reassuring the world about the democratic credentials of their latest security ally in the war against terror. Perhaps the administration of President Mahamadou Issoufou enjoys more democratic legitimacy than any other government in that region, but that does not mean that power holders in Niamey are incorruptible. The EU will inevitably have to funnel resources through administrative channels that, for decades, have had a reputation for diverting public resources on a large scale—namely, the Nigerien security forces, which have consistently proven unable to intercept the wide network of human traffickers across the country in general and in Agadez in particular.


France, Germany, Italy, and Malta have been particularly supportive of extraterritorial processing in recent weeks, since all four have been on the receiving end of the surge of refugees. Their representatives may have pressured Brussels to stop African migrants from entering the EU. Germany’s latest domestic rhetoric is particularly noteworthy. Although its progressive stance toward highly qualified refugees from Syria received international praise, Berlin is markedly less enthusiastic about the prospect of African migrants, who lack the skills the German labor market requires.

The experience of other industrialized nations provides ample evidence that extraterritorial processing results in humanitarian disasters. The United States pioneered extraterritorial facilities in Guantánamo Bay in the early 1990s. Australia processes asylum seekers in offshore facilities in Papua New Guinea. Human rights organizations sharply criticized both nations for the harsh and humiliating conditions prevalent in their centers. Both facilities experienced riots and hunger strikes over abusive treatment after detainees were refused adequate legal and medical assistance. Australian and American facilities are run by private companies, which focus on making profits and operate without accountability. 

Men, with belongings, proceed towards a bus loading point during an evacuation of Nigerian returnees from Niger, at a camp for displaced people in Geidam, Yobe state, Nigeria, May 6, 2015.
Afolabi Sotunde / Reuters

Perhaps that is why the EU chose a Nigerien site, where any emerging crises will remain well out of sight and thus, out of mind. An unfolding humanitarian crisis in Niger’s far-flung north will not provoke the same indignation as dead bodies on the shores of Italy and Greece. Donor-dependent Niamey will not ask too many critical questions or worry too much about whether the center meets international legal standards.

The more important question, then, is whether extraterritorial processing has any value at all. The Niger center’s main function is to inform migrants whether or not they are entitled to enter the EU on humanitarian visas. How the center will arrive at its decision is unclear. Europe lacks a common asylum policy. Inquirers may well be confronted with 20-odd potential future scenarios. Maybe most important, the center is of no use to those who do qualify for asylum, since the center cannot make any legally binding decisions. So, of what help is the processing center to those who do qualify? Will the EU send migrants back on the notoriously dangerous route to Europe?

Meanwhile, even those who fail to qualify for humanitarian visas certainly are unlikely to return to their countries of origin. Most of those arriving in Agadez would have already traveled thousands of miles under extremely dire conditions. They have paid traffickers for the complete route to Europe. A conversation with a Nigerien administrator acting on behalf of the EU is unlikely to make them change course midway. Nor will the processing center likely deter the traffickers in the area from pushing on. The EU will have to sort out these issues as its plans for Agadez solidify. Future centers in the Middle East and the Maghreb are already in the pipeline.

Faced with one of the largest migration flows since World War II, the EU must devise a coherent humanitarian strategy that embodies the principles its leaders and advocates like to call upon. The secrecy around Brussels’ plans for Agadez indicates that Europe is shirking that challenge. Instead, it wishes to settle for a shortsighted, ineffective, and questionable humanitarian solution. For that, African migrants will continue dying in the Sahara desert and on the European shores.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • SEBASTIAN ELISCHER is Assistant Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Florida. He is a co-editor of the Africa Yearbook and has published extensively on African politics.
  • More By Sebastian Elischer