Externalizing Asylum

A compendium of scientific knowledge

Outsourcing Asylum to African States? An endeavour destined to fail

Franzisca Zanker, Senior Researcher, Arnold-Bergstraesser-Institute (ABI), Freiburg


Rwanda is not the first country to be addressed by European states in the matter of accepting third-country asylum seekers. The current debate is rather the most recent endeavour in an ongoing externalization effort that tries to convince African countries by various carrot and stick methods to take back their own “rejected” nationals, and ideally, even third-country nationals. The difficulty of successful cooperation pinpoints the unlikelihood of outsourcing asylum ever becoming a viable option for potential African partner countries.


In the last few years, the UK has pushed forward plans to deport asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda, in order to process their asylum claims there. The plans have been rejected by the Supreme Court, pushed through with revised laws anyway, only to be further put on hold with elections scheduled weeks before the next deportation flight to Rwanda is planned. In the meantime, immigration officers have detained hundreds of refugees, with many more living in absolute fear of potential removal to Rwanda. The idea is not new, and goes back to years of discussions, inspired by the Australian model of outsourcing asylum under the so-called “Pacific Solution.”[1] It has caught the imagination of German policy-makers, with the idea under heated discussion.[2]

One element that politicians keep circling around is whether they can consider Rwanda as a safe country, though critics warn that the track record of human rights as well as civil and press freedoms and allegations of refoulement speak for themselves.[3] If it were not Rwanda, then perhaps some other African country would be willing to accept externalisation. Yet, the one question that European policy makers too rarely ask themselves: would African countries be willing to accept asylum seekers? Under what circumstances could such a model even work? Drawing on my research that looked at the tenuous relationship between European and African countries when it came to accepting forced return, I argue that outsourcing asylum to African countries is an endeavour destined to fail.


Protection of Migrants on Humanitarian Grounds

Unsurprisingly, we can find examples of African states seeking to protect their own citizens from harm and this can include refugees and other migrants. A breaking point for many African states was release of CNN footage in late 2017 that showed African migrants held captive and sold for their labour in Libya under terrible conditions. Outrage followed, states recalled their ambassadors and made damming statements about the situation and Libya’s responsibility therein.[4] The International Organisation of Migration (IOM) started a comprehensive programme of voluntary return, returning migrants to their countries of origin. Beyond that however, individual African states also evacuated hundreds of their own citizens like for example Nigeria who repatriated nearly 5,000 migrants on their own accord.[5] A few years later, in light of devastating racist attacks on African migrants in Tunisia in 2023, several countries, starting with Guinea, also evacuated their citizens. [6]

In 2019, the African Union (AU), Rwanda and UNHCR also agreed to an evacuation plan of refugees to Rwanda, where the conditions of seeking asylum and waiting resettlement places where certainly safer than in Libya. Rwandan officials underlined that the very idea of the scheme was in order to protect African refugees: “Rwanda has not taken any money to honour the commitment to host African refugees from Libya. It was our proposal and we are committed to it. We believe in African solutions to African problems. We don’t have to wait for someone from outside to help us.[7] Notable to this Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM) is the role of the AU as one of the partners, and the outspoken commitment by Rwanda. Between 2019 and March 2024, UNHCR evacuated 2,242 refugees and asylum-seekers to Rwanda.[8]

An earlier ETM was also made with Niger (in 2017), and whilst over 4,000 asylum seekers have been evacuated to Niger since, the process resulted in difficulties in resettlement, protests over conditions and a generally challenging situation.[9] Both ETMs are primarily funded by the EU. Evacuation from abysmal conditions in Libya is not the same however, to agreeing to process asylum seekers from Europe. African governments recognise that despite the precarity, experiences of racism and other forms of discrimination, for many asylum seekers or migrants a stay in a European context – may it be temporary – is preferable.[10] Indeed, beyond humanitarian protection, attempts to outsourcing asylum have been widely rejected, as we can see in the discussion on the acceptance of third nationals.


Narrowing of Legal Provisions for Accepting Third Nationals

In the Cotonou Agreement from 2000 – a treaty signed by the EU and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States, the commitment of signatories to accepting return and readmission is specified in its Article 13, includes the possibility of readmission of third country nationals and stateless persons. In other words, under this Agreement, countries may have to accept returns of persons who might not even be their own nationals from European states (and, technically, vice versa).

The only country where this ever came a plausible scenario was Cap0 Verde had signed a mobility agreement with the EU in 2008, and a later readmission agreement in 2014, which made accepting third nationals (that entered the EU irregularly via Capo Verde) possible. There are no official records available of any third national being returned to Capo Verde despite this agreement.[11] Moreover, the Cotonou Agreement was replaced by the Samoa Agreement, signed, though not by all partners, in November 2023, after many years of tense negotiations.[12] The new agreement has dropped the provision on third nationals, in fact it states “…the obligations set out in this paragraph [on return and readmission] apply only with regard to persons who are considered as their nationals in accordance with their respective legal system” (Article 74, Chapter 4).

This does not bode well for potential outsourcing of asylum to African countries. The African Union has strong record of speaking out against any such attempts, noting already in 2015 “the African Union is not in support of, and cannot endorse the establishment of the so – called processing centers in Africa… [they] are de facto detention centers that will constitute a serious violation of human rights and re-victimization of migrants” and in 2021 (in response to Danish plans to outsource asylum to Africa), “such attempts to stem out migration from Africa to Europe is xenophobic and completely unacceptable”.[13]

Nevertheless, would individual countries perhaps agree to accept asylum seekers despite all this, like Rwanda has done? Let us look at the cooperation on returns with African states in order to find out.


From Carrot to Stick: The Tricky Path to Return Cooperation

The EU as an institution, in addition to bilateral agreements at the individual level have spent many years trying to improve migration cooperation with their African partners, with a focus on a root-causes approach that seeks to stop migration beyond the continent. As central part of this focus, is the emphasis on return of African migrants that are not eligible to seek asylum in Europe or have no legal status for other reasons (such as visa overstayers).

Return and readmission has been a recurrent theme, going back to the early 1990s. Two major bilateral instruments include Mobility Partnerships (MPs) and the less binding Common Agendas for Migration and Mobility (CAMM), with the former providing a framework to negotiate bilateral readmission agreements with the EU. Fast forward to 2024, there are nine MPs – one in Africa namely Capo Verde, and two CAMMs, in Nigeria and Ethiopia.

A new European Agenda on Migration was launched in 2015, closely followed by the New Partnership Framework on Migration with Third Countries in 2016. The latter included five African priority countries, namely Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal and aimed to create more tailored approaches through migration compacts.[14] The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Stability and Addressing Root Causes of Irregular Migration and Displaced Persons in Africa (EUTF for Africa) launched in 2015, which was worth over €5 billion by the time it finished by the end of 2021, supported the root-causes approach.

A “carrot”-approach – we will provide plenty of development funds if you agree to cooperate on a variety of externalisation measures including returns – quickly transitioned into a (threat of) a “stick”-approach, resulting in actual negative consequences for countries not adequately cooperating, namely visa sanctions. In fact, by 2020, a revised EU visa code came into force that specifically allows visas to be used as leverage with third countries, including restrictive measures related to processing and fees if a country is not cooperating on returns.  Visa sanctions were applied against The Gambia in 2021, and only fully lifted in April 2024, after “The Gambia has substantially and sustainably improved its cooperation on readmission.”[15] In the same month, the EU imposed visa sanctions on Ethiopia – multiple entry visas no longer possible, time for visa-processing increased, visa fee can no longer be waived for diplomatic passport holders – for allegedly insufficiently cooperating on accepting returns to Ethiopia. [16]

Despite these extensive efforts to improve migration cooperation with an emphasis on returns, the success has been very limited. Only a fraction of those awaiting return actually do so[17], for a whole range of reasons, including that returns of even their own nationals is not in the interest of African states, discussed next. If anything, distrust between the continents has grown, negative sanctioning has increased, and we are far from concluding any new migration partnership deals in Africa South of the Sahara,[18] the compacts as envisaged in 2016 New Partnership Framework are no longer under discussion, let alone coming close to any kind of readmission agreement of the kind with Capo Verde.


Resistance to Accepting Returns from the EU

Though most migration research still tends to focus on countries in the Global North, there is an emerging literature that considers the migration interests of states in the Global South, the diplomatic strategies and the ways and reasons they act in particular ways. [19]

The research is still in its infancy, and countries are not homogenous nor are they fixed on one path. Yet, in particular focusing on previous research, we can note a few trends: countries face significant domestic pressures whereby return is highly unpopular for a number of reasons, including the violence of forced returns and the loss of remittances when migrants return home. Cooperating with the EU on return can come at the costs of electoral votes and even stability, with returnees using threats of violence against the grievance of forced removal.[20] In Mali, a 2009 protest campaign led by Association Malienne des Expulsés and the Forum pour un Autre Mali managed to shut down the negotiations and ultimately completion of a readmission agreement.[21] At the same time, African countries are not immune to the immense pressure from the EU and its member states, and will sometimes bow down to promised (and much needed) development funds, capacity-building projects and of course diplomatic pressure like the visa sanctions, as above. Given the pervasive inequalities in international relations between states, the playing field is in no way a level one.

how do states respond to this? Not how policy makers rushing to sign outsourcing agreements may expect. Take three countries as an example: the Gambia, much to the anger of many European diplomats, imposed a moratorium on any further deportation flights from the EU in 2019, which ultimately took many years to fully overcome. Whilst a non-binding ‘good practice’ agreement on return between the EU and the Gambian government was signed in November 2018, after which deportations started to increase, they led to protests and calls that not all technical stipulations were being met by the EU. The moratorium came at a time when the Gambian government was facing increasing domestic turmoil. Senegal has a long tradition of cooperating with France and the EU on issues related to irregular migration to the Canary Islands, including joint monitoring of Senegalese waters.[22] Yet, despite many years of lobbying a formal migration agreement between the EU and Senegal has never been signed and the return issue has been (negatively) discussed in election campaigns.

In Nigeria too, despite many years of intensive lobbying, a readmission agreement between Nigeria and the EU has still not yet been signed, despite the country signing a Common Agenda on Migration and Mobility with the EU in 2015. In consequence, a planned vocational training project that would have been financed by the EUTF to the tune of €50 million was not implemented, after the 2016 readmission agreement negotiations failed.[23] For Nigeria, attracting remittances and diaspora investments for national development and growth are arguably more important, and any agreement with the EU could threaten this. African states do not tend to easily agree with return cooperation, but given their asymmetric position of many states on the receiving end of deportations, incompliance strategies can also more be reluctant and reactive, such as refusing to comply with identification missions for ‘rejected’ asylum-seekers awaiting deportation in the EU along other forms of ‘micro-refusals’.[24]


Where does this leave the EU with outsourcing plans?

In the early days of the Rwanda scheme, the British press claimed Ghana was another potential partner. In response, the Ghanaian Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted a press release that they had not been in talks with the UK on such a plan, nor do they intend to do so, just like they have no intention of accepting third nationals.[25] Not every country is as open on their refusal to accept such ideas (the tweet has since been removed), but it gives an indication of how officials feel about such ventures. Why Rwanda has agreed to the scheme is likely to be linked to a number of reasons including geopolitical gains.[26] Humanitarian arguments may be part of the official rhetoric and hold wider societal resonance, but the plight of evacuating refugees from Afghanistan can hardly be compared to those in Europe.

Given that most refugees remain in the Global South[27] and increasing anti-European sentiments tied to a resurgent discussion of colonial continuities it is likely that any form of outsourcing asylum will be highly unpopular with local populations. Moreover, the idea of outsourcing asylum is another illustration of seething injustice of who is allowed to be mobile under what circumstances that continues until today. There are many reasons why outsourcing asylum to countries in Africa makes little sense – human rights for one, as well as the high costs for a relatively low number of people on the other hand. But more than that, experience with forced returns which has received decades of funding and policy attention to very limited results highlights how this strategy is very unlikely to work.



[1] Rose Jaji, “Externalization, the Commodification of Asylum, and Implications for International Refugee Law,” Externalizing Asylum (blog), June 14, 2024, https://externalizingasylum.info/externalization-the-commodification-of-asylum-and-implications-for-international-refugee-law/ .

[2] Simon Langemann and Mark Schieritz, “Migrationspolitik: Sollen wir Flüchtlinge nach Ruanda schicken?,” Die Zeit, June 12, 2024, https://www.zeit.de/2024/26/migrationspolitik-europa-ruanda-afrika-fluechtlinge-gerald-knaus

[3] Dominic Casciani, “Rwanda Scheme: UN Agency Warns of New Abuses Evidence,” BBC News, June 10, 2024, https://www.bbc.com/news/articles/cq55yqn0322o; Human Rights Watch, “Rwanda: Human Rights Watch Researcher Barred,” May 16, 2024, https://www.hrw.org/news/2024/05/16/rwanda-human-rights-watch-researcher-barred

[4] Franzisca Zanker, “Beyond the Eurocentric Gaze – Refugee and Migration Governance in Africa,” in Worlds Apart? Perspectives on Africa-EU Migration, ed. Adeoye O. Akinola and Jesper Bjarnesen (Fanele Publishers, 2022).

[5] Kwaku Arhin-Sam, “The Political Economy of Migration Governance in Nigeria” (Freiburg: Arnold Bergstraesser Institute, 2019).

[6] Franzisca Zanker and Nermin Abbassi, “Tunisia: President’s Offensive Statements Targeted Black Migrants – with Widespread Fallout,” The Conversation, March 16, 2023, http://theconversation.com/tunisia-presidents-offensive-statements-targeted-black-migrants-with-widespread-fallout-201593

[7] Edmund Kagire, “Rwanda Never Received Money to Host Refugees from Libya – Kamayirese,” KT PRESS (blog), September 10, 2019, https://www.ktpress.rw/2019/09/rwanda-never-received-money-to-host-refugees-from-libya-kamayirese

[8] UNHCR, “UNHCR’s Emergency Transit Mechanism Centre in Rwanda,” accessed June 14, 2024, https://www.unhcr.org/uk/unhcr-s-emergency-transit-mechanism-centre-rwanda

[9] Laura Lambert, “Extraterritorial Asylum Processing: The Libya-Niger Emergency Transit Mechanism,” Forced Migration Review, no. 68 (2021): 18–21; Leonie Jegen, “The Political Economy of Migration Governance in Niger” (Freiburg: Arnold Bergstraesser Institute, April 2020).

[10] Franzisca Zanker and Judith Altrogge, “Protective Exclusion as a Postcolonial Strategy: Rethinking Deportations and Sovereignty in The Gambia,” Security Dialogue 53, no. 5 (2022): 475–93.

[11] Experts believe that the EU was able to return some third-nationals, see Gemma Hennessey, “Migration-Relevant Policies in Cabo Verde” (Oslo: Peace Research Institute Oslo, 2021), 14, https://www.mignex.org/cpv

[12] Maurizio Carbone, “Double Two-Level Games and International Negotiations: Making Sense of Migration Governance in EU-Africa Relations,” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 30, no. 4 (October 2, 2022): 750–62, https://doi.org/10.1080/14782804.2022.2106954

[13] African Union, “Statement by H.E. Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma Chairperson of the African Union Commission on the Occasion of the Valletta Summit on Migration,” 2015, https://au.int/fr/node/25444; African Union, “Press Statement On Denmark’s Alien Act Provision to Externalize Asylum Procedures to Third Countries,” August 2, 2021, https://au.int/en/pressreleases/20210802/press-statement-denmarks-alien-act-provision-externalize-asylum-procedures

[14] The revised Common European Asylum System adopted in April 2024, further emphasises a focus on return.

[15] European Council, “The Gambia: Visa Fees down to Normal Level,” April 12, 2024, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2024/04/12/the-gambia-visa-fees-down-to-normal-level .

[16] European Council, “Ethiopia: Council Restricts Visa Provision,” April 29, 2024, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2024/04/29/ethiopia-council-restricts-visa-provision/

[17] Franzisca Zanker et al., “Challenges in EU-African Migration Cooperation: West African Perspectives on Forced Return,” MEDAM Policy Brief, no. 2019/5 (2019).

[18] The focus of this article is not on Northern African countries including Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia who have signed migration partnership agreements, though their impact are highly questionable.

[19] e.g. Fiona B. Adamson and Gerasimos Tsourapas, “The Migration State in the Global South: Nationalizing, Developmental, and Neoliberal Models of Migration Management,” International Migration Review 54, no. 3 (2020): 0197918319879057, https://doi.org/10.1177/0197918319879057;  Lorena Gazzotti, Melissa Mouthaan, and Katharina Natter, “Embracing Complexity in ‘Southern’ Migration Governance,” Territory, Politics, Governance 11, no. 4 (2023): 625–37, https://doi.org/10.1080/21622671.2022.2039277

[20] Franzisca Zanker and Judith Altrogge, “The Political Influence of Return: From Diaspora to Libyan Transit Returnees,” International Migration 57, no. 4 (August 1, 2019): 167–80, https://doi.org/10.1111/imig.12578

[21] Clara Lecadet, “From Migrant Destitution to Self-Organization into Transitory National Communities: The Revival of Citizenship in Post-Deportation Experience in Mali,” in The Social, Political and Historical Contours of Deportation (Springer, 2012), 143–58.

[22] Luna Vives, “The European Union–West African Sea Border: Anti-Immigration Strategies and Territoriality,” European Urban and Regional Studies 24, no. 2 (April 1, 2017): 209–24, https://doi.org/10.1177/0969776416631790

[23] David Kipp, Nadine Knapp, and Amrei Meier, “Negative Sanctions and the EU’s External Migration Policy,” SWP Comment 2020/C 34 (Berlin: German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), June 2020), https://www.swp-berlin.org/10.18449/2020C34/

[24] Henrietta McNeill, “Deportation as a Neo-Colonial Act: How Deporting State Influence Extends beyond the Border,” Political Geography 102 (April 1, 2023): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2023.102845; Franzisca Zanker, “A Typology of Resistance: The ‘Hot Potato’ of European Return in West Africa,” Territory, Politics, Governance online first (April 27, 2023): 1–20, https://doi.org/10.1080/21622671.2023.2198579

[25] Graeme Demianyk, “Ghana Slaps Down Boris Johnson’s ‘Operation Red Meat’ In Humiliation For UK,” HuffPost UK, January 18, 2022, https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/ghana-operation-red-dead-meat-boris-johnson_uk_61e6f512e4b05645a6ed0b63

[26] Yotam Gidron, Israel in Africa (London, UNITED KINGDOM: Zed Books, 2020).

[27] According to the latest report by UNHCR 75% of refugees are hosted by low and middle income countries, see UNHCR, “Global Trends Forced Migration Report 2023” (Geneva: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, June 2024), https://www.unhcr.org/global-trends-report-2023