Migration agreement with Egypt: EU backing the wrong horse


The European Commission has signed a new agreement with Egypt. One of the aims is to reduce migration to Europe. But this will most likely not succeed.


"Current events confirm once again the vital role that Egypt plays in the stability and security of the region. And these challenging times have shown the value and strength of our bilateral cooperation and relationship. It is therefore only natural for us to intensify our partnership," explained EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on 17 March 2024 in Cairo. She travelled there together with the heads of government of Belgium, Greece, Italy, Austria and Cyprus to sign a Joint Declaration for an EU-Egypt Strategic Partnership with Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi. Part of this partnership is the €7.4 billion in financial aid that the EU has promised Egypt over the next three years: €5 billion in loans to boost the country's economic transformation, €1.8 billion in guarantees to support private investment and €600 million in funding, including €200 million for migration management.

The EU Commission President had already announced her intention to conclude a migration agreement with Egypt in the autumn of 2023. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for a strategic partnership between the EU and Tunisia was to serve as a model in this regard. In that agreement, the EU promised Tunisia technical, economic and financial support – in return for which Tunisia undertook to take back its own citizens and tighten controls on irregular migration to Europe. Although the agreement now concluded with Egypt is broader in scope, it is nevertheless in line with the EU Commission's strategy of linking economic and financial support for North African countries to stricter migration control.

"Deferred" problem

The EU and Egypt have been close partners in the area of migration control since 2015. However, the interests are quite different: While the European Union has primarily focused on preventing irregular migration over the past nine years, the Egyptian military regime has a major interest in the migration of its own citizens: During this period, remittances from the diaspora amounted to 20 to 30 billion US dollars per year, thus accounting for just under 8% of gross domestic product in 2020.   

In terms of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and the EU-Egypt Association Council, however, it is mainly cooperation in the area of migration management and migration control that has repeatedly been on the agenda. At first glance, this appears to be quite successful from a European perspective: Since 2018, hardly any boats carrying migrants have set sail for the European Union from Egypt.  However, a closer look reveals a different picture: 20% of migrants who made it across the Mediterranean to Italy in 2022 were Egyptians, making them the largest national group. With the stricter control of Egyptian waters, the main migration route for Egyptians to the EU has shifted to Libya.  And thus to the route where it has been shown that migrants are exposed to the greatest danger of exploitation, torture and sexual violence.

Lack of prospects in their own country

The reason for the increase in migration figures is the massive state repression and human rights violations combined with Egypt's disastrous economic situation. Inflation reached 38% in September last year, with 30% of Egyptians living below the poverty line in 2023 and foreign debt amounting to 93% of GDP. Instead of using the money raised to plug budget deficits or fight poverty, President al-Sisi is focusing on dubious, costly projects, such as the construction of a new capital city in the middle of the desert. The country is on the brink of economic collapse.

The regime's repression of its political opponents is brutal. Journalists, lawyers, activists, opposition members and human rights defenders are imprisoned, tortured and killed because of their work or activism. The enforced disappearance of government opponents is also a daily occurrence. Human rights organizations estimate that there are currently up to 70,000 political prisoners in Egyptian jails, where they are exposed to inhumane conditions. It doesn't take much to fall into the clutches of the secret service: Even a video on TikTok showing two female influencers dancing was enough for the regime to sentence them to two years in prison for "violating family values“. Anyone who deviates from the values and rules laid down by the regime can almost already hear the prison cell door slam shut behind them. All of this means that young people, in particular, no longer see any prospects for themselves in Egypt and want to leave the country.

Precarious conditions for migrants in Egypt

The situation of migrants and refugees, currently coming to Egypt mainly from the neighbouring countries of Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, is no less difficult. Although the country has signed several international agreements on the protection of refugees, such as the Geneva Refugee Convention, it does not implement the obligations associated with this. Egypt does not have an asylum system, therefore, it is the UNHCR that takes on the task of registration, granting refugee status and resettlement. As refugees have no access to the Egyptian health and education system and the residence and employment laws exclude them from formal employment, they are also dependent on the UNHCR in these areas. 480,000 refugees are currently registered with the UNHCR in Egypt. Due to years of severe underfunding (only 37% of the required funding has been secured for 2024), there is a lack of capacity to even come close to registering and caring for the refugees actually in the country. Many of them therefore work in the informal sector and live in precarious conditions. There are a total of 6 million migrants in the country, so the number of those entitled to refugee status is probably considerably higher than the number actually registered with the UNHCR. 

No protection for the vulnerable

Officially, the registered refugees at least have a residence permit issued by the UNHCR, which represents guaranteed protection against deportation. However, the Egyptian security forces often do not recognise this. Hence, registered refugees as well as non-registered migrants face the threat of arbitrary arrest and deportation. The prison conditions are repeatedly described as inhumane: There is a lack of adequate food, especially for imprisoned children and pregnant women, with prisoners also often denied access to medical care. Nor does the UNHCR have access to unregistered migrants in detention, meaning they cannot apply for asylum. In the case of deportations, particularly to Eritrea, Egypt also regularly disregards the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the deportation of persons if it can be assumed that they are at risk of torture or human rights violations in the destination country.

A reality check is urgently needed

Objectively speaking, the previous agreements between the EU and Egypt have not resulted in fewer Egyptian migrants arriving in Europe. All they have achieved is to shift the migration routes. Egyptians are making their way to Europe because they want to escape the disastrous policies of Egyptian military rule. In the event of the country's economic collapse, the "irregular migration" from Egypt, which the EU seems to fear so much, could hardly be prevented. While Egypt benefits from the migration of its own citizens to Europe, the regime is doing everything in its power to prevent migration from Egypt's neighbouring countries to the EU, including the use of methods that are not compatible with international law. In addition to the direct advantages for Abdelfattah al-Sisi if it is only his own citizens that can seek their fortune in Europe, this allows him to use the large number of migrants living in Egypt as leverage to obtain further financial support from the EU.

Bearing this reality in mind, it becomes clear that the Egyptian president is far from being the stable and reliable partner he claims to be and that the EU is all too keen to see him as. Nor should the experience of the MoU concluded with Tunisia to curb irregular migration and border protection measures encourage a repetition of that outcome. In addition to human rights violations against migrants, who were abandoned by Tunisian security forces in the desert on the border with Libya without food or water, the number of people crossing the Mediterranean from Tunisia to Europe also increased in the summer of 2023: By the end of June 2023, around 66,000 migrants had arrived in Lampedusa. After the MoU was signed, it was not fewer but, rather, significantly more migrants that made it to the Italian island. By mid-September, the number had almost doubled to 118,500, the majority of whom had set out from Tunisia.

A return to our own values

In the Joint Declaration for a strategic EU-Egypt partnership, respect for human rights and the rule of law does not even play a subordinate role. This is a missed opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past. Instead of prioritising the short-term prevention of migration by all means above everything else and thereby strengthening one of the most brutal regimes in the region, the EU and its Member States should instead endeavour to actually help stabilise Egypt in the future. To achieve this, good governance and respect for international law and human rights must be at the heart of relations. Economic cooperation must also be linked to compliance with these conditions. In addition, much more attention should be paid to supporting civil society and improving the livelihoods of the population. In this way, the EU and its Member States would then ensure, in their relations with Egypt, that they also live up to the values on which the EU was founded: i.e. human dignity, democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

The first version of this article was published here: www.boell.de

The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.