Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Conceptualising EU Returns Governance as ‘Anti-Politics’



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Guest post by Almamy Sylla and Signe Marie Cold-Ravnkilde. Almamy is an assistant professor at l’Université des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines de Bamako (ULSHB). His doctoral research focused on the return routes of Malian migrants from Côte d'Ivoire and Libya between 2002 and 2018. Signe is a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) interested in the politics of security, migration and development, in particular in the Sahel region of West Africa. Signe is part of the collaborative research project Borderwork: Migrants, Brokers and European Border Governance in West Africa, based at DIIS. This project examines the human, social and political consequences of Europe’s border externalisation into West Africa. The blog has been edited by Alice Troy-Donovan, an intern on the Borderwork project. This post is featured as part of a Themed Week on Border Externalisation in Africa. It complements Almamy and Signe’s recently published article in Geopolitics, En Route to Europe? The Anti-Politics of Deportation from North Africa to Mali, and is based on extensive fieldwork in Mali, including interviews with deportees and representatives from government bodies, migrant associations, NGOs and other civil society groups. The article will be free to access for the next month, as part of a collaboration between Border Criminologies and Geopolitics that seeks to promote open access platforms.  

‘La maison des Maliens de l’extérieur’ (reception centre based in Bamako, Mali) (Photo: Philibert Sylla)

The EU spends an increasing amount of money on initiatives that seek to curb irregular migration to Europe while presenting their aims as primarily or partially motivated by humanitarian and development concerns. This policy logic is not only present in EU-funded projects which seek to address the ‘root causes’ of migration, but also in how the EU manages the return of migrants from its member states, or from so-called ‘transit’ countries through which migrants pass while journeying to Europe.

Our research focuses on migrants deported from Algeria to Mali as part of EU-funded migrant return and ‘reintegration’ schemes. Using the concept of the ‘anti-politics machine’ developed by James Ferguson (1996), we argue that the humanitarian discourses surrounding such initiatives serve to mask both the violence of expulsions and the long-standing dissatisfaction and resistance expressed by deported migrants and NGOs involved in the implementation of joint EU-IOM reintegration schemes in Mali.

The anti-politics machine

James Ferguson introduced the concept of the ‘anti-politics machine’ to criticise the discourses and practices surrounding development projects, which he based on an in-depth case study of a development initiative carried out in Lesotho between 1975 and 1984. He posited that ‘development’ had become a form of governance which imposed technical solutions on structural problems (such as poverty), a kind of ‘anti-politics machine’ which ignores the local political realities in which it works. And yet, at the same time, development enacts its own (largely unnoticed) political operation by strengthening the presence and bureaucratic power of the state.

Using Ferguson’s concept, we argue for an understanding of the EU’s return regime, and its facilitation by the EU-IOM collaboration, as a form of ‘anti-politics’. This helps us to understand how the EU frames what are violent expulsions of migrants as a humane form of migration ’management’, apparently seeking to reduce harm and save lives.

Voluntary return schemes as ‘soft’ deportation

The EU has heavily invested development funds in ‘assisted voluntary return and integration’ (AVRR) programmes facilitated by the IOM under its Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. Four Trust Fund projects focus on returning migrants to Mali. So-called ‘voluntary’ return is a two-part process which involves returning migrants defined as being ‘en route to Europe’ to their countries of origin, and, upon return, preventing (re-)migration through funding projects for their ‘sustainable reintegration’. Such projects tend to focus on job-creation for returning migrants and aiding socio-economic development within regions which are perceived to have a high emigration rate.

These development discourses serve to mask the actual conditions in which deportations take place, often involving the violation of migrants’ human rights. Several reports recount how migrants returned from Algeria to Mali are stripped of their belongings, including mobile phones and identity papers, while children are often separated from their families (Human Rights Watch 2020). According to Amnesty International, the Algerian authorities transport migrants to a remote desert area 15 kilometres from the Nigerien border, from where they are forced to continue on foot on a six-hour journey (Amnesty 2018).

Re-politicising returns

The recent Geopolitics Special Issue in which our research features, explores EU border externalisation practices from the perspective of African states and migrants. This approach is particularly pertinent to the issue of returns, where the EU’s technocratic language of effective ‘management’ masks the highly politically contentious nature of deportations within Mali.

On 19th February 2020 a large group of deportees sent back from Algeria stormed ‘la Maison des Maliens de l’Exterieur’, a reception centre located in the capital Bamako responsible for the registration, accommodation, and profiling of returning Malian migrants. The centre passes on the data it collects to the IOM, which in turn decides whether a migrant is eligible for return and reintegration programmes. The protests centred on migrants’ inhumane treatment during the return process, and the mismanagement or even absence of ‘reintegration’ support which they had been promised on return.

The protests in Bamako are situated in a historical trajectory of migrants’ protest against deportation from North Africa. Mali has shown more resistance than any other West African country to the EU return regime, with organised collective action by returning migrants stretching back to the mid-1990s.
During 10 months of fieldwork between 2018 and 2020 in Bamako conducting more than 50 interviews with deportees and NGO workers, one major grievance emerging from our interviews was the seemingly arbitrary eligibility criteria for reintegration schemes. For instance, migrants applying for these schemes must be repatriated from a country along the pre-defined ‘European migration routes’ (Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, or Niger post-2015) – a criterion which is based on donor priorities rather than a needs-based assessment carried out among returnees.

Many people we interviewed felt they were being used by state agents and organisations as a justification for receiving EU funds for reintegration projects, while the support they were promised after returning to Mali often never materialised. Even for those who do manage to access support, it is often so inadequate as to leave them in a more precarious situation than before they left Mali. Such projects fail to compensate for the hugely damaging impact of the deportation process itself. The depoliticised language of EU returns governance thus serves to sugar-coat both the violence of deportation and the long-standing anger and resistance of Malian deportees.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Sylla, A. and Cold-Ravnkilde, S. M. (2022) Conceptualising EU Returns Governance as ‘Anti-Politics’. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/05/conceptualising [date]

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