EU Spending to Build Fortress Europe Risks Breaking Aid Rules

Published: 21st September 2023

More than one in three migration activities identified in Niger, Libya and Tunisia, funded by EU aid, risk breaking international aid rules 

The EU is in danger of violating global and EU aid rules by using aid to halt migration. This is according to Oxfam’s new report, From Development to Deterrence, which sheds light on how the EU employs its aid budget to outsource migration control to countries in Africa. The report reveals that 6 out of the 16 identified migration activities in Niger, Libya and Tunisia potentially breach aid rules. These 6 activities total €667 million, with the total funds analysed amounting to approximately €1 billion. 

The report underscores the EU’s strategy of increasingly using aid to deter migration rather than promote development and eradicate poverty. More aid is directed towards activities that hinder migration and pose potential risks to people’s human rights rather than promoting safe and regular migration and economic growth through migration. In Niger, the EU disproportionately allocates the migration portion of its aid budget to control migration and secure borders. Only one out of the eight activities analysed in the country support safe and regular migration. In Libya, none of the migration-earmarked aid is channelled towards fostering safe and regular migration to the EU.  

This use of aid risks contradicting both international and EU aid rules. The OECD, which oversees global aid rules, defines aid as the “promotion of economic development and welfare of developing countries” and states that “activities that neglect the rights of forcibly displaced persons and migrants do not qualify as aid”. The EU’s own rules state that EU aid aims to achieve “the reduction and, in the long term, the eradication of poverty”.  

Stephanie Pope, Oxfam EU migration expert, said: “European aid is being used as a tool to stop migration instead of what it is meant for: stopping poverty. The EU risks plundering its aid budget to build Fortress Europe while blackmailing non-EU countries into taking on Europe’s responsibilities when it comes to asylum and migration.”  

“The EU is increasingly repurposing its already stretched aid budget for migration deterrence, at the expense of development, all in pursuit of advancing its agenda of Fortress Europe”, said Pope.  

In certain instances, the EU employs aid to rectify the problems it has caused by other EU spending. The EU is involved in training and purchasing vessels for the Libyan coastguard, who is responsible for intercepting migrants at sea and returning them to Libya — a country notorious for violating migrants’ rights. Subsequently, the EU uses its aid budget to evacuate migrants from Libya due to the deplorable conditions. The EU also channels EU aid to the Tunisian coastguard. This is despite documented reports of human rights violations by the Tunisian authorities.  

Anissa Thabet, Human Mobility Coordinator for Oxfam North Africa, said: “While poverty and inequality are on the rise in Tunisia, the EU is busy averting its gaze by striking up deals that put Tunisia’s economic development second to EU migration concerns. Instead, the EU must broaden the range of regular and safe routes for people on the move and ensure aid is used for ending poverty, not for externalising Europe’s borders”. 

In Niger, European pressure to criminalise smuggling and detain migrants has forced more migrants towards perilous underground migration routes. UN reports indicate that authorities in the desert region between Niger and Libya are responsible for over 60 percent of physical abuse against migrant women. Nonetheless, the EU channels funds - earmarked for aid - to these authorities for migration purposes despite their dismal human rights track record. 

Konate Papa Sosthène, Country Director at Oxfam Niger, said: “The implementation of EU policy in Niger is brewing a humanitarian crisis at the border with Algeria. Instead of tackling poverty, aid is being rerouted to slam the brakes on migration to Europe. Meanwhile, foreign aid to Niger barely scratches the surface with 4 in 10 persons living in extreme poverty in 2021.” 

Oxfam’s report also highlights concerns regarding transparency and accountability. Access to public information detailing how aid is spent is limited and there is an absence of clear definitions for various terms. For instance, 3 of the activities examined in Niger pertain to ‘migration management’, yet this term lacks a clear explanation.   

Pope said: “When it comes to migration, in many cases, we are in the dark about how EU taxpayer funds, meant to combat poverty, are actually being used. The lack of transparency is troubling, especially since we are halfway through the EU aid budget cycle. The European Parliament must be able to step in and ensure that every euro allocated for EU aid is spent in the right way." 

Pope said: “In the face of the EU failing to agree on how to manage migration within Europe, it is resorting to using aid to stop people from reaching Europe in the first place. Instead, the EU needs to create safe pathways for people to reach Europe and use aid for its proper purpose: ending poverty.”  

Notes to editors

Stephanie Pope, Oxfam’s EU migration expert, is available for interview and comment. 

Oxfam’s report, From Development to Deterrence, is available to download. 

Download the methodology note here based on OECD’s categories, principles and criteria. 

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) is the international body responsible for deciding what counts as aid. It states that official development assistance has as its main purpose the “promotion of economic development and welfare of developing countries”. In December 2022, they published guidance on the eligibility of official development aid for migration-related activities, outlining the criteria for assessing which migration-related activities can be counted as aid.   

The EU’s founding document, the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, Article 208 states that the “Union development cooperation policy shall have as its primary objective the reduction and, in the long term, the eradication of poverty.”  

According to the World Bank, more than 10 million people in Niger (41.8% of the population) were living in extreme poverty in 2021. 

Read the UN’s Report, Nowhere but back: Assisted return, reintegration and the human rights protection of migrants in Libya, which details the conditions in Libya.  

Read the UN Women Factsheet, The gendered impacts of migration in Niger, with statistics on the physical abuse against migrant women from Niger.  

Oxfam calls on the EU and European countries to work together to create an asylum system that works. Oxfam wants the EU to: 

  • Stop striking up dubious migration deals with non-EU countries to outsource the EU’s responsibility for people seeking safety.  

  • Use aid to fund activities that combat poverty like investing in healthcare and education and fostering job creation. 

  • Create a handbook with clear definitions of terms related to migration activities to enhance transparency regarding migration activities selected for NDICI/ aid funding by the EU Commission.  

  • Ensure easy public access to all documents pertaining to the spending of EU aid to allow for greater accountability and scrutiny. 

  • Make migration rules that share fairly the responsibility of welcoming people across Europe.  

Contact information

Jade Tenwick I Brussels, Belgium | | mobile +32 473 562260   

Emma Borin | Brussels, Belgium |

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