Migration and Cooperation in the Mediterranean: Beyond Divergent Priorities

Sara Benjelloun

Research associate at LPED and LMI-MOVIDA social science research centres

Migration policies developed in the Euro-Mediterranean region are strongly influenced by the image of a fortress Europe that is under siege and that seeks to control and counteract migratory movements in the Mediterranean. Reinforced by the rise of rightwing and extreme right-wing populism in recent years, this view has largely shaped the European Union’s relations with its Mediterranean neighbours, to the extent that migration is arguably one of the most important issues shaping Euro-Mediterranean relations today.  

 The current Euro-Mediterranean migration governance system reflects the European security-migration nexus in which different forms of cooperation interact and intersect with each other, creating a complex regulatory regime (Alter & Meunier, 2009; Betts,  2011; Ahouga, 2013). The aim of this analytical article is to shift the focus away from the European Union (EU) in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the priorities of the southern Mediterranean countries, which are grappling with complex migration realities.  

It is important to cross perspectives of the North and South of the Mediterranean on migration so as to grasp the issues at stake in their entirety and to allow for a mutually beneficial partnership in this area.   

European perspective on main policy areas and cooperation priorities   

Since the introduction of free movement in the 1980s, the EU has become involved in the processing of the entry and exit of non-nationals, which had previously been a  matter of sole state discretion. Migration and asylum issues have since become areas of shared competence between the EU and its Member States. The Europeanisation of migration management has been mainly directed towards the fight against irregular immigration, which is widely perceived as a security threat (Bigo, 1998; Gabrielli,  2007). This conception is formalised in the Schengen agreements themselves, in  which migration seems to have been viewed from a security perspective in the same way as terrorism or organised crime (Brochmann, 1999). The development of this perception owes much to the amalgams that often associate illegal immigration with jihadist terrorism and trafficking of all kinds (Alami M’chichi, 2005). The attacks of  11 September 2001 reinforced this European security approach and consolidated  the security conception and treatment of migration (Rakkah, 2009). In the aim of rationalising incoming migration flows, European states have sought to involve third  countries of origin and/or transit of migration flows in migration management and control through various national, bilateral, or multilateral initiatives.   

A series of multilateral mechanisms involving countries on both sides of the  Mediterranean has been developed by European states over the past two decades to  form what is now the Euro-Mediterranean system of migration governance. The latter  is the result of various exploratory attempts by European states to contain irregular  migration.   

The Barcelona Declaration of 1995, which constitutes the founding act of the Euro-  Mediterranean Partnership, aims to create a free trade area. It does not mention free  movement of persons, which is enshrined as one of the four fundamental freedoms  of the EU. The Barcelona Declaration betrays the primacy of a Eurocentric logic by  devoting two paragraphs to migration in which it is notably foreseen to “establish  closer cooperation in the areas of illegal immigration” and to “adopt the relevant  provisions and measures, by means of bilateral agreements or arrangements, in order  to readmit [partners’] nationals who are in an illegal situation” (Barcelona Declaration,  1995).   

It is from the 2000s onwards that migration has become a salient issue in Euro-  Mediterranean cooperation. This was reflected in the re-launch of the 5+5 Dialogue  in 2001¹, which established regular meetings between foreign ministers and interior  ministers. Migration issues are an integral part of the Conference of Ministers of the  Interior of the Western Mediterranean (CIMO), notably through the working group on  the movement of persons and the fight against irregular migration. The European  Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) launched in 2004 complements the EU’s Mediterranean  policy by proposing to neighbouring countries the deepening of political relations and  greater economic integration. These two European initiatives crystallise the issues of  cooperation in the fight against irregular immigration. 

In addition to these, regional dialogue frameworks on migration have been created,  such as the Rabat and Khartoum processes, which are intended to be spaces  for dialogue and consultation in order to respond together to development and  migration-related issues. In reality, these are more mechanisms aimed at influencing  the framework of representation of the migration phenomenon towards a greater  securitisation and judicialisation of the migration fact. This is because the various  works within the framework of these processes focus much more on the means  to combat irregular migration than on the organisation of legal migration and the  strengthening of synergies between migration and development. 

Through its various initiatives, the EU has been, unsuccessfully, trying for more than  two decades to conclude readmission agreements with the southern Mediterranean  neighbourhood. The fears aroused by the events that have shaken some Arab  countries have led the European states to develop a new partnership offer: the Mobility  Partnerships. This proposal, which targeted Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and  Jordan², is not legally binding. They are commonly perceived as a declaration of  intent for an exchange of concessions: visa facilitation for nationals in exchange for  the signature of a readmission agreement for nationals and third-country nationals.  Although readmission is a main European priority, it is clear that negotiations on these  agreements have stalled due to resistance from southern Mediterranean countries. 

Southern Mediterranean countries are only timidly participating in the numerous  European initiatives. In order to address the lack of cooperation on migration, the EU  seems to be gradually introducing a certain “migration conditionality” (Perrin, 2009;  El Qadim, 2018). Indeed, the European Council held in Seville in June 2002 already  provided for the insertion of a clause on the joint management of migration flows (as  well as on compulsory readmission in the event of irregular situation) in any future EU  agreement with a third country.

Faced with the rise of populism and the various electoral deadlines, European actors  are engaging in various strategies to prompt the southern Mediterranean countries  to become more involved in the external management of migration flows. At the end  of September 2021, France decided, for example, to drastically reduce the issuance  of visas to Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian nationals. This decision was made to  sanction their governments, that were considered uncooperative in granting the  consular passes necessary for the readmission of people back to their countries of  origin. 

Southern Mediterranean countries’ perspective on main migration policy areas and  cooperation priorities   

The external migration governance of the EU since the 2000s has strongly influenced  the political framework of the migration phenomenon in the southern Mediterranean  countries. This was reflected in the adoption in the early 2000s of restrictive  legislation. For example, Law 02-03 relative to the entry and stay of foreigners and  to irregular emigration and immigration, which was adopted by Morocco in 2003,  heavily criminalises irregular migration and transit. Similar security provisions were  subsequently adopted in other Maghreb countries, notably Tunisia (Law 2004-06 of 3  February 2004), in Libya (amendment in 2005 of Law 6 of 1987) and finally in Algeria  (Law 08-11 of 25 June 2008 on the conditions of entry, residence and movement of  foreigners in Algeria) (Perrin, 2009).   

The external dimension of European migration policies seems to ignore the migration  realities of the southern Mediterranean countries and their priorities (Del Sarto, 2010).  Contrary to the prevailing perception, the Maghreb and Mashrek countries are not only  countries of origin or transit, they are also countries of settlement for many migrants,  asylum seekers and refugees. This can be illustrated by the 2 million foreigners who  were living in Libya under Gaddafi, for example (Perrin, 2011). Also, the population  movements generated by the consequences of the events that have shaken the Arab  world in the last decade have mainly been towards neighbouring countries. Of the 6.6  million Syrian refugees worldwide, 5.6 million are hosted in countries neighbouring  Syria — mainly Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan (UNHCR, 2021).   

The EMM5-EuroMeSCO survey “revealed that the area of migration policy considered  by the respondents as the most important for their respective countries is “Building  economic opportunities and addressing the root causes of irregular migration”.  Indeed, 75% of respondents rated this area as being of high or very high importance. 

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

This indicates that respondents want to limit irregular migration. To this end, they  prefer substantive work to be carried out upstream, by addressing the root causes of  the phenomenon through the creation of economic opportunities, rather than through  the strengthening of border management or downstream through the improvement of  return and reintegration mechanisms. The latter area is considered the least important  (55% of respondents considered it as high or very high vs. 20% low and very low). 

The data broken down by country, however, reveals important differences in the  assessment of this area between countries. Indeed, return and reintegration  mechanisms enjoy a high degree of interest for respondents in countries hosting large  foreign populations such as Lebanon (90% of high or very high answers) where a high  number of Palestinian and Syrian refugees live. Return and reintegration schemes  are also an important issue for Palestinian respondents (75% of high or very high  answers), as the right to return is one of the main demands of the Palestinian people. 

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

Through their answers, the respondents call for a rethinking of migration management  by placing the treatment of human beings at the centre of migration-related issues.  Indeed, the second and third most important areas for respondents were “Countering  smuggling of migrants and trafficking in human beings” and “Addressing the needs of  migrants in vulnerable situations and of forcibly displaced persons, including asylum  seekers, refugees, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)” (see graph 1). 

This approach was really manifested by Morocco in 2013 when they initiated a new  migration policy to promote a humanistic treatment of migration and migrants. The  national strategy on immigration and asylum adopted by Morocco is unique in the  region and has resulted in concrete progress, such as two large-scale regularisation  operations for migrants carried out in 2014 and 2017 and the adoption of a law against human trafficking. Even though driven by geostrategic interest and suffering  from incomplete implementation, the launch of the Moroccan migration policy marks  a major paradigm shift in the Mediterranean region (Benjelloun, 2021). 

The survey also addressed cooperation between Southern and Eastern Mediterranean  countries and their neighbours — other than the EU or EU Member States — in areas  of migration policy. The received results show broadly the same levels of perceived  importance for areas of migration policy. This again reveals the willingness of  policymakers, experts and civil society representatives from Southern and Eastern  Mediterranean countries to cooperate, together, to tackle the root causes of irregular  migration, smuggling and trafficking in human beings in addition to addressing the  needs of migrants in vulnerable situations. 

Source: Compiled by the IEMed based on the results of the EMM5-EuroMeSCo Euromed Survey

Beyond divergent priorities 

From the above, it appears that northern and southern Mediterranean countries  have divergent views on priority areas of cooperation in migration management.  While Europe continues to focus on the security approach to migration, southern  Mediterranean countries call for the adoption of policies that are more comprehensive  and more in line with their migration profiles. Indeed, a number of countries in the  southern Mediterranean have become in recent years, partly as a result of European  migration policies, countries of settlement for migrants.

These new realities require  that Mediterranean cooperation frameworks be particularly concerned with the  reception and integration of migrants.  It seems necessary for the EU to operationalise, in collaboration with its southern  partners, cooperation instruments for the conduct of a constructive dialogue that  will allow for a better understanding and reconciliation of the priorities of both sides.  These actions will enable all stakeholders to be fully involved in finding common  solutions and thus contribute to the construction and redefinition of comprehensive  migration management policies in the Mediterranean area (Papagianni, 2013). 

The recent actions of the European Commission in favour of a New Pact on Migration  and Asylum as well as the New Agenda for the Mediterranean can constitute adequate  frameworks for cooperation and dialogue. Indeed, one of the objectives of the New  Pact on Migration and Asylum proposed by the European Commission in September  2020 is to address the concerns of third countries. To this end, the EU promotes the  conduct of tailor-made and mutually beneficial partnerships. Furthermore, the new  Mediterranean agenda, presented in February 2021, calls on countries on both shores  to jointly address the challenges of forced displacement and irregular migration and  to promote legal and safe channels for migration and mobility. Adequately mobilising  this new framework for migration partnership is key to reconcile diverging priorities. 


1. The Forum for Dialogue in the Western Mediterranean, better known as the 5+5 Dialogue, is the oldest Mediterranean meeting framework.
Launched in 1990 in Rome, this subregional forum, which is intended to be informal, was not very active until the early 2000s. It brings together
five countries on the northern shore (Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and Malta) and the five countries of the Arab Maghreb Union (Morocco,
Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania).


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