The Donor Side of Refugee Rentierism and Migration Management Aid

Nicholas R. Micinski, University of Maine and Kelsey P. Norman, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy

 

Introduction

Much of the literature on refugee rentierism has focused on how refugee-hosting states extract aid and other support from donor countries through threats of deportation and blackmail, or through collaboration and back-scratching (Adamson and Tsourapas 2019; Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2020; Micinski 2023; Norman 2020). This literature can be understood as a corrective to previous studies on border externalization that too often dismissed Global South countries as agentless. As Lynch and Tsourapas (2024) assert, the refugee rentier concept helped shift understandings of migration governance in the Middle East—and the Global South more broadly—away from Western academic and policy concerns. Instead of prioritizing the impact of conflict-induced and irregular migration on Global North countries, the refugee rentier concept helps to understand the interests of host states, countries of origin, and migrants and refugees themselves.

Yet, in developing this corrective, the interests of donor countries that willingly engage in refugee rentierism, and the mechanisms through which donors agree to pay rents, have been left out. In other words, why do donor states agree to being blackmailed? While numerous studies in this volume focus on the diffusion, payoffs, and negotiating strategies of refugee and migrant hosting states, our paper examines the donor side of rentierism. It analyzes the geopolitical interests of the European Union (EU) and its member states that donate migration management aid, which we theorize as a subcategory of refugee rentierism. Building on our previous work, we define migration management aid as a new form of development funding that leverages conditionality and influence from the donor side. It also restructures migrant and refugee policies in recipient states, with the goal of restricting irregular migration (Norman and Micinski 2023).

To explore these questions, our paper investigates the donor incentives and benefits behind the implementation of the 2015 EU Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF), which provided more than €5 million across the African continent. The paper uses content analysis of more than 1,000 policy documents from the EU and elite interviews with EU, UN, and government officials involved with the implementation of EUTF funding.[i] We find that, in addition to undermining democratic institutions in host states, refugee rentierism erodes European democratic institutions by encouraging the negotiation and signing of agreements behind closed doors with no public debate. It circumvents normal financial accountability mechanisms and obscures responsibility for human rights violations funded by EU aid. Refugee rentierism ultimately props up authoritarian rulers willing to implement the EU’s migration agenda, while also undermining EU governance, rule of law, and the rights of migrants and refugees.

 

Background

Building on its colonial history, and especially since the creation of the EU, Europe has used neoliberal trade policies and border externalization measures to influence countries on its periphery, including those of MENA. In the realm of trade, these policies were framed as mutually beneficial under the framework of the 1995 Euro–Mediterranean Partnership and later the 2004 European Neighbourhood Policy. However, the policies ultimately disadvantaged MENA states by forcing them to remove import tariffs to the benefit of European producers (Del Sarto 2021). Through training programs, and sometimes by directly installing EU officials within the bureaucracies of MENA countries, Europe strengthened EU-friendly economic and bureaucratic elites and attempted to engineer a business environment conducive to European interests. Europe’s externalization of migration, security, and border control preferences, which has been high on the EU’s agenda since the end of the Cold War and especially after the 2004 enlargement of Europe’s eastern bloc, used a variety of measures to influence countries on its periphery. This included collaborating with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), convincing MENA states to sign readmission agreements, and providing training and equipment to security forces in MENA states with questionable accountability mechanisms (Lavenex 2006; Geddes 2005).

While agreements such as the 2015 EU–Turkey deal or the 2017 deal with Libya are not new, Europe’s fear since the 2015 “crisis” has led it to engage in more brazen deals than it was willing to previously, and to provide enhanced funding for these. The EUTF, which was established at the Valletta Summit on Migration in November 2015 and is worth approximately €5 billion, is an example of this new crisis mentality (Norman and Micinski 2023; Zaun and Nantermoz 2023; Welfens and Bonjour 2023). The resources from the fund were allocated for “the creation of jobs and economic development, basic services for local populations, stability and governance, and migration management” (European Commission 2017). The logic behind the EUTF is that migrants will not choose to leave their home countries and embark on migratory journeys if EU development aid improves the economic circumstances and opportunities in their home countries. This logic contravenes empirical evidence that in the poorest countries, economic and social development increases people’s capabilities and aspirations and therefore tends to coincide with an increase in migration in the short to medium term (de Haas 2007). Nevertheless, the EU has pursued these “pseudo-causal narratives” with increased vigor since 2015 (Zaun and Nantermoz 2021). The following section explains why migration management aid is so appealing to the EU, despite its inefficacy and the known risks.

 

Donor Interests in Refugee Rentierism

Donor interests in engaging in refugee rentierism can be divided into two categories: domestic and international (see Table 1). Domestic interests are defined as the goals of European governments that are primarily related to political, cultural, or economic outcomes within their territory. International interests are goals related to foreign policy outcomes with the impacts occurring primarily outside of their territory. Domestic interests include decreasing immigration; addressing real or perceived challenges with migration state capacity; leveraging responses to migration as part of an electoral strategy; implementing the most cost-effective policy; and facilitating deportations. International interests include rewarding allies who implement EU priorities; using foreign aid—specifically migration management aid—to achieve foreign policy goals like regional stability or preventing the spread of conflicts; and promoting good cooperation with Middle Eastern and African states. While donors’ domestic and international interests in migration management aid often overlap, they are sometimes in tension with each other. This leads to divergent preferences and resulting policies from domestic and foreign policy actors within donor governments.

 

Table 1: Domestic and Foreign Policy Interests

Domestic Interests Foreign Policy Interests
Decreasing immigration Rewarding allies
Addressing migration state capacity Promoting regional stability
Electoral strategy Facilitating “good” cooperation with partners
Perceived cost-effectiveness
Facilitating deportations

 

Domestic Interests

The first and most overt domestic interest for donor governments is to decrease immigration to the EU. In fact, the full name of the EUTF is the “EU Emergency Trust Fund for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa”. It specifically targets the “root causes” of migration to Europe to prevent irregular (i.e., undocumented) migration. Europe’s increased interest in and willingness to use aid to contain migrants and refugees in the Middle East and Africa partly stems from its desperation to prevent another migration crisis like that of 2015. The violence of border guards toward migrants and asylum seekers and the highly publicized, inhumane conditions in refugee camps on Greek islands shocked the European public. While violence toward migrants and the use of camps is commonplace in much of the world, Europe was unprepared to witness it within the Schengen Area. This situation could have been manageable for the EU had it allocated responsibility for the one million asylum seeker arrivals across EU member states. Instead, the result was an existential crisis, with political breakdown in the EU Council, the temporary suspension of Schengen rules, and divergent approaches to asylum seekers across the bloc. Unable to agree on an internal political solution, the EU quickly turned to an old playbook: blocking migrants and asylum seekers from ever reaching European shores (Norman 2020a).

The second benefit for donors in refugee rentierism is the opportunity to address both the real and perceived challenges with migration state capacity for their domestic migration institutions. As one million asylum seekers walked across European borders from Greece to Germany in 2015, many European governments discovered that their national migration agencies did not have the capacity to house, feed, or provide medical care for those in need in the orderly manner to which Europe is accustomed (Micinski 2022). In addition, it was not in the interest of European governments to provide generous support, as they feared it would attract other asylum seekers and force governments to disproportionately shoulder the burden of hosting refugees. Instead of investing in the migration state capacity of its member states, the EU chose to leverage its foreign aid to influence refugee-hosting states in the Global South to prevent onward migration. For example, the European Commission dispersed €3.137 billion from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (2014–20) to its member states. However, it allocated €5 billion via the EUTF to build the migration state capacity of North and sub-Saharan African states, and more than €8 billion to support Türkiye, Lebanon, and Jordan’s capacity to host refugees. In fact, the EU was so concerned that it changed the way it reported aid to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), reclassifying support for refugees in donor countries as official development aid (OECD 2023). EU officials made the case for investing in the state capacity of refugee-hosting countries in the Global South to reduce the strain on domestic migration institutions in Europe. Of course, the EU is not a unitary actor within its external migration policy. Different European Commission departments compete for control over funding and influence abroad, including Migration and Home Affairs; Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations; the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument; the European External Action Service; and Frontex.

Third, donor governments use refugee rentierism to pander to their domestic base as part of their wider electoral strategies. During election campaigns, politicians often amp up their anti-immigration rhetoric to fearmonger and appeal to right-wing constituents (Joppke 2020). From 2015, European politicians frequently advocated for using aid to prevent migrants from ever reaching Europe and deporting those who do. For example, Mette Frederiksen, the leader of the Social Democratic Party in Denmark, proposed ahead of the 2019 general election to host asylum seekers in North Africa while they await processing, similar to the UK–Rwanda deal (MacDougall 2022). The Danish government went so far as to open an office in Rwanda ahead of the 2022 elections (Government of Denmark 2021). The Danish deal is a prime example of refugee rentierism, in which a donor state provides aid in exchange for hosting refugees. Frederiksen shifted her party’s stance on immigration further to the right, in part because of the growing popularity of the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party. European politicians justified these policies on the grounds that they would “break the business model of traffickers” and “address the root causes of irregular migration,” rather than reinforcing the responsibility of EU member states to provide asylum. Ultimately, European governments want to be perceived as competent, in control, and taking action on migration via deals that signal to the public that their governments are addressing the issue. This is despite numerous studies showing that development aid does not actually prevent emigration from the world’s poorest countries (Berthélemy, Beuran, and Maurel 2009; de Haas 2007; Clemens and Postel 2018).

A fourth reason donors are sometimes willing victims of “blackmail” is because engaging in refugee rentierism is perceived as less costly than hosting refugees in Europe. When faced with the choice of hosting one asylum seeker in Europe for approximately €10,000 during their first year, versus €200 per year in Türkiye,[ii] donors will prefer the seemingly more cost-effective strategy (OECD 2017; European Commission 2023). In reality, refugee situations are increasingly protracted. This means that the EU may end up paying €200 per year over the course of many years to support refugees elsewhere, instead of making a one-time payment of €10,000 to support a refugee’s integration into a European country and eventual self-sufficiency. Nonetheless, a shortsighted view means policymakers still prefer the initially less costly option. For example, the Sweden Democrats party argued:

“Sweden lacks the resources to pay for a domestic reception of the world’s poor and needy, something that the 2015 crisis showed. Sweden must […] instead focus on concrete solutions and humanitarian efforts on the ground, in the immediate vicinity of the crisis, where our limited resources can be of greater benefit” (Government of Sweden 2020).

Coupled with the fear of political pushback from voters if they open additional routes for refugees or are perceived as “soft” on migration, donors are concerned about maximizing the use of their limited resources. This is a prescient domestic interest because national budgets and national debt are contentious political issues for constituents. Therefore, governments must justify why they are willing to spend millions on aiding refugees abroad when there are other pressing needs at home.

Another domestic reason for donors’ participation in rentierism is that many of the deals incorporate agreements that facilitate the deportation of irregular migrants or asylum seekers who receive negative decisions on their cases. EU member states have signed at least 243 bilateral readmission agreements, which often link cooperation on deportations with foreign aid (Jaulin et al. 2021, 54–55). The EU has also negotiated 16 readmission agreements that apply to all EU members, and nine mobility partnerships. Donor countries view migration management aid as a tool to get migrant-sending countries to take back their citizens. Readmission agreements are a domestic interest for donors because they are concerned with large, undocumented populations that cannot be removed from their territory without the cooperation of a sending or transit state. Governments use aid and other incentives to increase the number of nationalities eligible for deportation because they want to demonstrate that they can implement the restrictive migration policies they campaigned on.

One final reason donors are keen to externalize their migration policies is that migration management aid and other forms of rentierism have less transparency and fewer accountability mechanisms. European governments negotiate migration agreements in secrecy with few opportunities for civil society to influence their content or hold them accountable for what is negotiated, especially when deals are made at the supranational EU level rather than the national level (Guiraudon 2000). After agreements are signed, some donor states refuse to provide the details of agreements because of their implications for national security and foreign policy. For example, the 2008 Treaty on Friendship, Partnership, and Cooperation between Italy and Libya contained various formal and informal arrangements, including the establishment of joint patrols along the Libyan coast and reparations paid to Libya (Del Sarto 2021). France also has an array of formal and informal agreements on migration-related policy and security cooperation with its former colonies in North Africa, as Yahmi (2024) demonstrates.

The EU avoids responsibility for human rights violations funded by migration management aid because the migration deals outsource repression to countries along the external border or further afield. It is not a coincidence that most of the migration deals are with authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Türkiye, Morocco, Sudan, Libya, and elsewhere (see Alexandre Bish 2024). While EU member states must nominally follow human rights and EU law when it comes to asylum, their authoritarian allies do not. Migration management aid also helps donors circumvent traditional financial accountability mechanisms. In 2015, when the EU established the EUTF, the constitutive agreement declared the 23 African countries covered by the EUTF in “crisis,” thus “given the Trust Fund’s objective in a crisis and post-crisis situation, flexible procedures appropriate to the local environment will be used to ensure that the Fund is effective and responsive” (Spijkerboer and Steyger 2019, 502). As a result, the EUTF became a more flexible funding instrument that was not subject to open competition required by EU public procurement laws. Unsurprisingly, some scholars question the legality of the “crisis” designation.

 

International Interests

There are also international benefits to engaging in rentierism for donor countries. These include leveraging migration management aid to reward allies, attempting to ensure regional stability and prevent the spread of conflict, and promoting good cooperation—often through neo-imperialist measures—with former colonies.

First, EU member states disburse billions to their allies in exchange for restrictive migration policies that prevent onward migration to Europe. But donors reward their authoritarian allies with migration aid when they implement EU priorities more generally, not just in the migration sphere. The EUTF was wound down in 2021 (although grant disbursement and implementation continues) and was replaced with the €79.5 billion fund colloquially titled “Global Europe,” which supports cooperation with third countries around the world (not just Africa) and broadens priorities beyond migration (European Commission 2021b). Within Global Europe there is a specific program for migration, which is allocated €573 million (European Commission 2021a). There are also “Team Europe” initiatives that funnel money into partner states to block migration on the Central and Western Mediterranean routes. Together, the EUTF, Global Europe, and other Team Europe initiatives provide powerful incentives for countries in MENA and further afield to implement EU priorities.

While the EU claims that all of the projects supported by EU funding must respect EU law and human rights, the European Commission has not hesitated to continue to make new deals with authoritarian governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Türkiye.[iii] In July 2023, the European Commission signed a sweeping memorandum of understanding with Tunisia that provided €105 million in exchange for stricter border control and cooperation on countering human trafficking, €150 million for budget support, €10 million for student exchanges, and €65 million to improve schools. The EU also offered an additional €900 million in economic assistance contingent on Tunisia adopting proposed International Monetary Fund reforms (Al Jazeera 2023). Civil society groups criticized the deal, which reinforced President Saied’s increasingly authoritarian rule—despite his dissolution of parliament, racist scapegoating of Black migrants, and imprisonment of opposition leaders. Tunisia is the most recent example of the EU turning a blind eye to the repression and human rights violations of its authoritarian allies because they are partners on migration.

Second, donor countries spend billions on migration management aid because they are concerned about regional stability and preventing the spread of conflict and displacement that could result in increasing numbers of migrants and asylum seekers arriving at Europe’s doorstep. The EUTF founding document explicitly links the funding to stability: “to contribute to better migration management as well as address the root causes of destabilisation, forced displacement and irregular migration” (European Commission 2015, 6). This builds on the aims of previous regional programs including the 1995 Euro–Mediterranean partnership and the 2004 European Neighbourhood Policy, which also purported to promote democracy among countries neighboring the EU to prevent instability. Ultimately, donors are concerned that repression, violence, or civil war could lead to increased forced migration, which could spread conflicts to neighboring countries and destabilize entire regions. This would have knock-on effects and damage the EU’s strategic foreign policy interests, like trade, resource extraction, and counter-terrorism.

Of course, as several papers in this volume document, host states use this prerogative to extract rent from donor states. They threaten instability should donor states attempt to minimize or cut off aid. Egypt, a country of 100 million citizens, claimed in 2022 to host nine million foreigners in a “refugee-like” situation. This outlandish figure was directed at EU donors to incentivize them to increase financial assistance. One EU official explained that while they knew the number was fantastical, they also understood the veiled threat, stating: “This number coupled with the economic situation [in Egypt] is convincing. Egypt has 100 million people with 9 million migrants, and the economic situation is a game changer. Egypt is ‘too big to fail,’ but if it fails it would be a disaster. So Europe is listening.”[iv] Ultimately, Europe’s willingness to go along with such threats further empowers refugee-hosting countries to continue using this type of tactic to press for additional funding.

Furthermore, donors are interested in migration management aid because it can be portrayed as good cooperation with African states, therefore avoiding the image of European neocolonialism. Despite some negative press around migration deals, the EUTF is often spun by European officials as best practice in development cooperation. This is a win-win for both the EU and African countries and helps beneficiaries facing deep poverty. While some of the projects do help destitute people in the least developed countries, most of the EUTF goes to transit countries closer to the EU that produce or provide transit opportunities for irregular migrants, rather than to the poorest or neediest countries. The EUTF has frequently selected European development agencies (such as GIZ, AFD, or AICS) as implementing partners.[v] This means that the EU was effectively paying European “experts” to implement migration management projects in their former colonies (Spijkerboer 2021, 5–6). In theory, the EU would have more control over projects to prevent corruption or misuse, but this neglects the agency that recipient country governments—and particularly their security agencies—have in both project design and evaluation (Snider 2018; Norman and Micinski 2023). Nevertheless, donor countries continue to uphold the EUTF as a vehicle for the EU to work jointly with African states to combat human trafficking and cooperate on development for mutual benefit.

 

Conclusion

In sum, donors engage in refugee rentierism because it serves both their domestic and foreign interests. Domestic interests include attempting to decrease immigration, building the capacity of other host states, rallying votes in elections, and because it is perceived as cost-effective, allowing them to increase deportations of irregular migrants. In addition, policies used to outsource migrant and refugee-hosting are less accountable to domestic institutions and regulations. International interests include rewarding allies and attempting to maintain regional security by preventing conflict and maintaining the status quo. Furthermore, many of the strategies are touted as good partnerships and win-win means of promoting development.

In reality, domestic and international interests can be in conflict, and can also backfire for donor countries. Turkish rentier behavior toward the EU is a case in point, with implications for domestic Greek politics. Four years after the implementation of the EU–Turkey Deal—which is already widely perceived as a victory in migration diplomacy for Turkish President Erdoğan—Türkiye allowed thousands of migrants and refugees residing in Türkiye to attempt to reach Europe via Greece in March 2020. In some cases, individuals were forcibly bused from Istanbul to the Greek border. The response on the Greek side was harrowing, with migrants captured, tear-gassed, beaten, detained at a secret detention facility, and eventually expelled back to Türkiye without due process (Norman 2020b). After negotiations, the EU was willing to increase its funding for refugees in Türkiye if Ankara agreed to put an end to the thousands of individuals attempting to cross the Turkish–Greek border. Not only was this an embarrassment for the EU, but it worked to further harden domestic political opinion against migrants and refugees. This ensured that Greek public opinion was in opposition to more liberal, humane policies during the lead-up to the 2023 national election (Irgil, Norman, and Tsourapas 2023).

The human rights implications of European willingness to engage in rentierism are also harrowing. Under the EUTF, Sudan received funding to improve the capacity of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the paramilitary force that grew out of the Janjaweed militia group responsible for committing atrocities in Darfur. The RSF was selected under the EU-funded 2014 Khartoum Process to patrol the Sudanese border (Baldo 2017; Hassouri 2023). The EUTF funding to Sudan helped the RSF purchase surveillance technology, equipment, and provided training for border guards. This increased the group’s repressive capability and its ability to use brute strength against Sudanese nationals and migrants alike. The long-term implications of this are visible in Sudan’s current civil war between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces. The war began in April 2023 and has killed at least 12,000 people (though actual figures are likely higher) and displaced eight million people from their homes as of early 2024. Europe’s intentions may have been to promote regional stability to prevent irregular migration, but the result has been instability, death, and mass displacement.

Beyond the shortsighted international implications of Europe’s participation in refugee rentierism, there are profound impacts for Europe at home as well. Since at least the creation of the Schengen Area in 1985 and the subsequent construction of “Fortress Europe,” the EU has turned a blind eye to the fate of migrants and refugees contained outside its borders. As long as these individuals did not reach European soil, they were not entitled to European rights. Their treatment elsewhere was also generally kept out of the sight of European citizens. But the EU’s increasing willingness to now bend its own principles at home—in addition to what it funds abroad—to finance refugee rentierism, foretells a new level of democratic decline. In the case of the EUTF, Europe’s willingness to avert its own accountability mechanisms to rapidly implement projects across the African continent undermines its commitment to rule of law, good governance, and human rights, not just abroad—as has long been the case—but also domestically.

 

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[i] These interviews were conducted between 2022 and 2023 in Egypt, Kenya, and Ethiopia, with remote interviews conducted regarding Sudan. Interviews are covered under IRB-FY2021-213 at Rice University and IRB- 2022-03-24 at the University of Maine.

[ii] This calculation is based on reports of financial assistance programs available to Syrian nationals in Türkiye. It is an estimate as support varies by household size, location, and a number of other factors by which the Turkish government and international organizations measure “vulnerability.”

[iii] For more on the history of Tunisian and European cooperation, see Yahmi (2024).

[iv] Interview with a de-identified EU official, Egypt 2023.

[v] The full titles of these acronyms are Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Agence française de développement (AFD), and Agenzia Italiana per la Cooperazione allo Sviluppo (AICS).