BRUSSELS (AP) — Buoyed by the success of its refugee deal with Turkey, the European Union announced Thursday that it has earmarked hundreds of millions in euros for Niger to try to prevent people from leaving Africa in search of better lives in Europe.
With arrivals in the Greek islands down to a relative trickle, the EU is now looking to stop people from Western Africa moving north to Libya and taking unseaworthy boats in desperate attempts to cross the Mediterranean. Niger is a main transit route, and 2016 has been a record year for migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, which are estimated at nearly 4,750.
As EU leaders gathered Thursday for a summit in Brussels, the European Commission announced that it would provide Niger with 610 million euros ($640 million) in development aid to tackle the root causes of poverty but also to fight human smuggling and boost border controls.
"It's unbearable, these dramas happening in the desert and at sea, and Niger is ready to do its part to bring this suffering to an end," Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou told reporters in Brussels.
Critics say the EU deal with Turkey — which returns refugees arriving in Greece to Turkey — flirts with the limits of international law and ignores the plight of people in serious need.
"Migrants, including refugees, are stuck in dangerous and degrading conditions on Greek islands, because EU governments see this as the only chance to send them directly back to Turkey," said Raphael Shilhav, migration policy adviser at aid group Oxfam.
But despite the criticism, the EU agreement has cut migrant arrivals from thousands daily last year to around 100 on average each day now. This outsourcing "success" has encouraged the EU to seek similar deals to manage migration with Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal.
Debate has swirled about whether to agree to similar arrangements with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt and Pakistan but the deals are proving extremely expensive.
Still, EU leaders were set Thursday to order a follow up of the idea as long as enough resources are available to do so.
In another move, the Commission announced that Germany and Italy have launched a new 100 million-euro initiative with the International Organization for Migration to protect people on the migrant route in Africa and help reintegrate those who agree to return home.