There is need for a reset of the EU-Africa partnership

The EU has approached its engagement in the Sahel region with a military or migration deterrence lens for too long.

Banner for European Union - African Union Summit in Brussels
European Union - African Union Summit meeting held in Brussels, Belgium on February 17, 2022 [Anadolu Agency/Dursun Aydemir]

The sixth European Union (EU) – African Union (AU) Summit taking place in Brussels this week could not have come at a more critical moment. Of the 20 countries the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has identified as at greatest risk of a new, or significantly worsened, humanitarian crisis in the year ahead, more than half are in Africa. The African continent is also home to almost one-third of the world’s refugees. Meanwhile, just 11 percent of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated from COVID-19, in stark contrast with 70 percent in the EU.

Given that the pandemic has undermined years of hard-won progress by African communities, civil society and governments towards the Sustainable Development Goals, both the EU and AU must urgently get this important work back on track – jointly driving progress towards a more resilient and sustainable future for the African continent.

In this context, a fundamental reset of the EU-Africa partnership is badly needed. This Summit is a chance to discuss this and make it a reality. However, in order to start afresh, we must consider where efforts to date have so far fallen short – and what can be done differently.

One example is its approach to the complex and protracted crises in the central Sahel. The causes are many and they illustrate a broader “system failure” that is driving new and worsening crises around the world. The EU’s response in the region cannot be focused on short-sighted security approaches and migration deterrence. The picture on the ground makes it crystal clear that the protection situation in the central Sahel is moving in the wrong direction. It is becoming more dangerous, not less.

Since 2017, the number of violent attacks on unarmed civilians – including shootings, abductions and reports of sexual violence – in the central Sahel has soared by 620 percent, while the number of fatalities increased by 476 percent to more than 1,800. Women and girls experience additional brutality, and reports of gender-based violence in Mali soared by 40 percent in 2021 alone.

This uptick in violence, combined with a deadly brew of climate change and COVID-19, has tipped more than eight million people into severe food insecurity. Access to basic social services, including food, is getting more difficult every day, and contributing to record levels of displacement. Internal displacement has increased tenfold since 2013 to more than 2.2 million, with many people forced onwards into ever more perilous journeys.

African partners have long demanded better protection and the expansion of safe, legal pathways for people on the move in Africa. Enhanced opportunities for legal and circular migration and mobility can bring mutual benefits, providing employment opportunities that meet labour market needs and driving development gains. Yet, recently leaked EU proposals continue in the same direction of prioritising security and border management.

This week’s Summit needs to be a watershed moment, not only for the EU and AU to reset their partnership, but to reorient their priorities and ensure they are working in lockstep towards the same humanitarian, development and diplomatic goals. A transformation is needed in three key areas.

First, both blocs must show bold leadership and take concrete action to address humanitarian needs in Africa. In the Sahel, this will involve further ramping up humanitarian funding to match the escalating needs. In 2021, only 41 percent of the funds required by the humanitarian community to respond to urgent needs in the Central Sahel were met – the lowest percentage since 2015. These emergencies do not only require more humanitarian aid, but better aid. The EU and other donors need to scale up multiyear funding that is accessible to front-line actors including local and women-led organisations.

The EU and AU must also prioritise efforts to address the many and severe access barriers which prevent humanitarian actors like the IRC from providing aid to the people who need it most, and ensuring that all partnerships – including security partnerships – are contingent on respect for international humanitarian law (IHL). Structural reforms, tackling corruption and impunity, and upholding rights must be at the centre of the EU’s peace-building efforts, not a box to be ticked.

Second, the EU, in particular, must grasp this opportunity to reset the approach to migration – shifting away from the current heavy focus on deterring and preventing people from reaching Europe, and forging a new approach centred on protection, rights and opportunities. This Summit should be a chance to expand safe and legal routes to protection, significantly ramp up EU resettlement, and harness the positive potential of migration.

Lastly, both blocs must forge an inclusive response and recovery to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ending vaccine inequity and promoting the economic inclusion of displaced populations, in particular, will be critical to driving meaningful progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. This can only be achieved through distributing life-saving vaccines through COVAX, waiving IP rights to the vaccine, scaling up training and support to health workers in Africa, and empowering front-line organisations to deliver vaccines in the hardest to reach environments.

Meanwhile, with support from the EU, African leaders should address the regulatory barriers that are preventing refugees and other migrants, especially women, from accessing job and business opportunities and include them in national recovery plans. Facilitating greater economic inclusion will enable refugees to provide for their own socioeconomic needs, as well as stimulate post-COVID-19 recovery. Leaving displaced populations behind will only exacerbate and prolong the effects of the pandemic.

Jutta Urpilainen, the EU’s international partnerships commissioner, said she wants the EU-AU Summit to be “game-changing”.  If that is to happen, it cannot simply be a talking shop. We need to see concrete outcomes towards promoting human development, resilience, equalities and an inclusive path out of the pandemic. The failure to do so would be a dereliction of duty that will be felt first – but certainly not last – by vulnerable people in the Sahel and the rest of the African continent.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.