Transatlantic Take

Conditioning or Cutting Aid Is Not Effective Against Irregular Migration

Timo Tonassi
8 min read
Photo Credit: Mike Hardiman / Shutterstock
In March 2019, President Donald Trump announced his intention to cut all U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

In March 2019, President Donald Trump announced his intention to cut all U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. This was motivated by dissatisfaction with the three Northern Triangle countries’ efforts to stop irregular migrants from travelling to the United States. Ongoing squabbles between Congress and the administration over the proposed cuts leave it unclear to what degree the slash in aid will materialize—but for now the administration has suspended most aid to the Northern Triangle.

While it may be harsher and more direct, Trump’s approach to these three countries is not altogether different from European proposals for managing irregular migration. Debates in Brussels revolve around making improved migration control a condition for aid to countries in the western Sahel and the Horn of Africa. While the EU does not bluntly threaten them through Twitter, the use of aid money as a carrot and stick has, for example, found its way into its Migration Partnership Framework, which seeks to prevent irregular migration from African “priority partner countries” and to foster greater return of irregular migrants to these countries.   

In the last five years, the United States and Europe have at times experienced high levels of irregular entries, especially due to people lacking legal alternatives for entry to claim asylum. In Europe, 2015 and 2016 saw record-breaking immigration from Western and South-Central Asia, as well as increasing flows from sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany, for example, 1.8 million people applied for asylum between 2014 and 2018, of which many had entered the country irregularly. In the United States, in the first 10 months of 2019, 608,000 irregular migrants from the Northern Triangle alone were apprehended at the southwestern border. While arrivals there traditionally were young men from Mexico seeking work in the United States, since 2016 they have been consistently outnumbered by flows from Central America, among them increasing numbers of family units from Guatemala and Honduras, many of whom seek asylum.

"European and U.S. policymakers have increasingly viewed the aid link as a strategic opportunity to increase pressure on countries of origin and transit."

Irregular migrants arriving in Europe and the United States have several things in common. First, they leave their home countries for a wide range of interrelated reasons, including economic, political, familial, and security ones. Second, due to lacking legal alternatives, they often attempt to enter their destination countries irregularly to find work or to apply for asylum, exposing weaknesses in Western migration-management systems—such as those pertaining to border protection, human rights, and the management of asylum cases. Third, many migrants seeking asylum or work in the EU or the United States come from countries that are major recipients of aid originating from the same countries that they are trying to enter irregularly.

In recent years, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have increasingly viewed the aid link as a strategic opportunity to increase pressure on countries of origin and transit to prevent irregular migration. The United States (with the Northern Triangle) and the EU (with the western Sahel region and the Horn of Africa) are experimenting with ways to peg the delivery or withdrawal of aid to countries efforts to curtail it. Attempts to reduce irregular migration, however, cannot revolve around asymmetrical quid pro quo approaches pertaining to aid, for three reasons.

Root Causes

First, withholding aid to encourage countries of origin to stop irregular migration makes little sense. Even if they respond to such threats, take action, and manage to reduce it, their reward in the form of continued aid would likely, at least at first, spur further migration. The logic that sees aid as a quick fix to mitigate root causes of migration and decrease the need for irregular emigration is partially flawed and not applicable to low-income and lower-middle-income countries. Significant amounts of aid are dedicated to tackling root causes, which the EU and the United States deem to revolve around lacking economic opportunities, violent conflicts, and poor migration management. However, there is little evidence that aid can meaningfully influence some of these factors. There is also very little evidence that economic growth promptly reduces irregular emigration in poor countries. Most studies strongly suggest the opposite. They reveal, paradoxically, that growth, at least initially, increases irregular emigration because it provides more people with opportunities to attain the financial resources to move abroad.

It is estimated that it is not until countries cross the threshold of GDP per capita of approximately $10,000 (at purchasing power parity—PPP) that they are likely to cease being countries of emigration. Currently, none of the Northern Triangle countries have a GDP this high. But countries like Guatemala or El Salvador with a GDP per capita of well over $8,000 (PPP) are nonetheless far closer to reaching that level than most of the EU’s Migration Partnership Framework countries, which include Niger with a GDP per capita of roughly $1,000 (PPP) and Ethiopia with $2,500 (PPP). But, regardless of the differences in their levels and speeds of socioeconomic development, viewed through this lens, the Northern Triangle countries and the EU’s Migration Partnership Framework ones will all likely remain irregular emigration countries in the near future at least. That said, irregular migration does not simply follow the logic of GDP patterns. It is sensitive to many other factors, such as demographic transitions, which, at least in the case of the Northern Triangle, may contribute to a reduction in irregular migration in the coming years.

Financial Weight

Second, aid is only one factor that the EU and the United States employ to influence foreign governments’ handling of irregular migration. Neither has enough leverage on countries of origin or transit to make demands through aid alone. Aid is certainly helpful and desirable to some countries, but other factors, such as remittances, have far more financial weight when it comes to stemming flows of irregular migrants. Many governments have no significant interest in discouraging irregular migration; withholding or conditioning aid will do little to change their mind. In Africa and the Northern Triangle, the economic benefits of remittances from migrants underline the limited effectiveness of aid conditionality.

"The economic benefits of remittances from migrants underline the limited effectiveness of aid conditionality."

In 2018, the Northern Triangle countries received close to $20 billion in remittances. By comparison, the 2018 funding for the United States’ Strategy for Engagement in Central America, which significantly increased aid to the region, originally was budgeted at around $600 million. For Northern Triangle governments, curtailing irregular migration could in the long run come with a high economic cost and likely lead to the anger of citizens who partially rely on remittances for their livelihood. For example, in 2018 12 percent of Guatemala’s real GDP (around $9 billion) came from remittances, the vast majority of which from the United States. Similarly, many countries in the western Sahel—such as Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal—have a limited interest in stopping flows of migrants to Europe or to accept migrants who are returned, as their remittances greatly outweigh aid. For example, in 2017 Nigeria received around €8 billion in remittances from Europe alone. In contrast, overall development assistance for the country was about $3.4 billion that same year.

The Security Focus

Third, redirecting aid to benefit current migration-related security interests may be self-defeating in the long run. Not all migration-related EU or U.S. aid to countries of origin or transit is meant to reduce irregular migration through improving their socioeconomic circumstances. The EU and the United States increasingly employ aid to intercepting, returning, or redirecting irregular migrants before they can reach their territories. Months after threatening to cut all aid for the Northern Triangle, the Trump administration announced it would maintain targeted assistance in these countries for better law enforcement and border security. The EU’s Emergency Trust Fund directs significant funds to improving border security and migration management in strategic African countries. Aid for such externalized border-management activities may reduce the number of irregular arrivals in the EU or United States in the short term, but the longevity and sustainability of such “successes” are compromised through a lack of alternative legal pathways for migrants, say for employment purposes. Currently, providing legal pathways from the Northern Triangle to the United States are hardly considered as an option, while under the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa only a very small fraction of projects foster the creation of legal channels. Security measures are therefore likely delaying rather than solving some of the challenges associated with irregular migration. And foreign governments may well interpret such behavior as a Fortress Europe or an America First approach, neither of which are helpful to forge ties to conjointly manage irregular migration.

"This approach may seem fruitful—but there remain serious questions about its long-term sustainability."

That development aid, as it is currently conceptualized, has a limited ability to promptly reduce irregular migration, does not mean that it is unhelpful. Properly targeted and stable aid could help countries of origins absorb economic shocks, thereby mitigating surges of irregular migration, since households often use it to diversify their income for more economic predictability and stability, especially in times of crisis. On the other hand, conditioning or cutting aid adds to economic unpredictability in countries of origin. The same is true—particularly in the EU case—when promises, like that of increased legal pathways, are made but not kept. This impedes a better and more predictable management of the irregular migration associated with a country’s long-term economic development.

While the right to leave any country and to return to one’s own country is spelled out in the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the EU and the United States are nonetheless trying to use aid as part of their broader strategies to push countries toward increased enforcement against irregular migration, while also continuing with plans to outsource migration-related processes. Irregular arrivals from the Northern Triangle to the United States and from the western Sahel and the Horn of Africa to Europe have recently declined, so this approach may seem fruitful—but there remain serious questions about its long-term sustainability. If the EU and the United State truly want to support partner countries on a path toward more security and economic prosperity, as they claim, migration and—in the absence of legal alternatives—irregular migration should be understood as a possible byproduct that one can shape rather than a dangerous side-effect to be stopped. Both therefore must reconsider their current strategies and find a better use for aid to manage rather than to deter irregular migration.