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Regional Profile

Legal Framework

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was established in 1975. Composed of 15 Member States (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Togo), ECOWAS seeks to foster the ideal of collective self-sufficiency for its Member States. As a trading union, it is also meant to create a single, large trading bloc through economic cooperation.

ECOWAS is the oldest of the eight RECs recognized by the African Union (AU). Over four decades, it has developed multiple institutions, organs, systems and policies to foster regional integration. ECOWAS is a multi-purpose regional organization with an ever-expanding agenda. The revision of treaties and the transformation from an ECOWAS Secretariat into a Commission, ostensibly with more authority, were carried out with the aim of closing the gap between an expanding agenda and its implementation. Thus far, ECOWAS is the only REC in Africa with a well-functioning Community levy , that assures a flow of own revenues able to finance ECOWAS’ operational costs and programs. Nevertheless, the regional organization remains dependent on donors, and the implementation of its programs and policies varies substantially. The ECOWAS region includes fifteen very different countries. Several are characterized as fragile states and are at risk of violent conflicts or upheavals. The geographical size, nature of the economies and economic endowments differ substantially from landlocked least developed countries - such as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso - to Africa’s biggest economy and most populous nation, i.e. Nigeria. The effectiveness and decisiveness of ECOWAS’ policy implementation varies by sector. Peace and security have the strongest track record, while in other sectors there is demonstrably less political traction at national level to engage in regional cooperation and implementation on the ground.[1]

[1]Jan van Heukelom. (2017). “ECOWAS: Political traction with Africa’s oldest regional organization. Policy Brief”. ECDPM, Maastricht.

Relevant legislation and policies

The ECOWAS Free Movement Protocol (1979) - A/SP1/5/79: it allows citizens from ECOWAS Member States to enter and reside in the territory of any other Member State in the ECOWAS region, as long as their papers are valid. Furthermore, ECOWAS’ protocols commit Member States to provide valid travel documents to citizens, and grant them the right of residence so as to be able and seek income-generating activities. The ECOWAS Free Movement Protocol was planned to be implemented in three phases. The first phase, which granted the right to freely enter the territory of any ECOWAS Member State, has been implemented. The second phase, which advanced the right to stay in the territory of any ECOWAS Member State, has also been implemented with the provision of a residence permit. The third phase, which includes the right to settle in another ECOWAS Member State and seek for or engage in income-generating activities, has not yet been fully implemented.


Supplementary Protocols

· Supplementary Protocol A/SP2/7/85 on the Code of Conduct for the Implementation of the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, the Right of Residence and Establishment

  • Supplementary Protocol A/SP1/7/86 on the Second Phase (Right of Residence) of the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, the Right of Residence and Establishment

  • Supplementary Protocol A/SP1/6/89 Amending and Completing the Provisions of Article 7 of the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, the Right of Residence and Establishment

  • Supplementary Protocol A/SP2/5/90 on the Implementation of the Third Phase (Right of Establishment) of the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, the Right of Residence and Establishment- Protocol 2003 on Education and Training

  • Supplementary Protocol A/P3/5/82 Relating to the Definition of Community Citizen

Decisions and Resolutions

  • Decision 8/5/82 Amending the Provisions of Paragraph 1 of Article 27 of the ECOWAS Treaty

  • Decision A/DEC/10/5/82 Relating to the Application of the Free Movement Protocol and the Public Enlightenment Program

  • Decision A/DEC.2/7/85 Relating to the Establishment of ECOWAS Travel Certificate for Member States

  • Decision A/DEC.2/5/90 Establishing a Residence Card in ECOWAS Member States

  • Decision C/DEC.3/12/92 on the Introduction of a Harmonized Immigration and Emigration Form in ECOWAS Member States

  • Decision A/DEC.3/8/94 Relating to the Establishment of National Monitoring Committees for the Effective Implementation of ECOWAS Decisions and Protocols on Transport

  • Decision C/DEC.1/5/2000 relating to the Adoption of an ECOWAS Passport

  • Resolution A/RE2/11/84 on the Implementation of the First Phase of the Protocol relating to the Free Movement of Persons, the Right of Residence and Establishment


  • Convention A/P1/7/92 on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters

  • 1993 General Convention on Social Security- Convention A/P1/8/94 on Extradition

  • General Convention A/C.1/01/03 on the Recognition and Equivalence of Degrees, Diplomas, Certificates and other Qualifications in ECOWAS Member States

Related policies

  • ECCAS/ECOWAS Multi-lateral Cooperation Agreement to Combat Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children

  • ECOWAS Policy on Protection and Assistance to Victims of Human Trafficking

  • ECOWAS Guidelines on Protection, Assistance and Support to Witnesses

The ECOWAS Policy Framework additionally provides further details on the legal mechanisms and frameworks.

Regional Plans of Action

ECOWAS Initial Plan of Action against Trafficking in Persons (2002-2003)

The Initial Action Plan document outlines the most urgent actions to be taken by ECOWAS Member States against trafficking in persons within the years 2002 and 2003, with a focus on criminal justice responses. It covers the legal frameworks and policy developments, protection and support of victims of trafficking in persons, prevention and awareness raising, collection, exchange and analysis of information, specialization and training, travel and identity documents, monitoring and evaluation of the initial plan of action.

Assistance for the Implementation of the ECOWAS Plan of Action against Trafficking in Persons – Manual: Western African States adopted a Plan of Action against Trafficking in Persons (2002-2003): This manual presents the definitions of trafficking in human beings and smuggling of migrants, as well as general guidelines on investigation and prosecution of cases related to trafficking in human beings, with a focus on cooperation amongst ECOWAS Member States. The manual is made of six sections, as follows: what is trafficking in human beings; normative framework; trafficking methodology; investigative principles; the victim, and the victim as a witness; international cooperation.

Joint ECCAS/ECOWAS Plan of Action against Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children in West Africa (2006-2009): This second plan of action is focusing on how women and children within ECCAS and ECOWAS regions benefit from effective protection measures against trafficking in persons. Meanwhile, the strategic areas are the same as the initial plan of action. (see pages 19 and 20 of the document).

ECOWAS Plan of Action against Trafficking in persons (2008-2011): Rather than proceeding country by country, the impact assessment proceeds with reviewing and comparing progress in the strategic areas of the 2008-2011 plan of action.

ECOWAS Gender and Migration framework and Plan of Action (2015-2020): The ECOWAS Gender and Migration framework and Plan of Action establishes an assessment on migration within the ECOWAS zone, and tackles various problems and actions concerning this question. ECOWAS Members States reiterate their willingness to combat human trafficking. Subsection 2.4 lists various ongoing actions to fight irregular migration and human trafficking, insists on strengthening the dialogue framework between ECOWAS, transit and host countries, on reinforcing migration management capacities of all Member States, and on developing protection and assistance systems for victims of human trafficking.

Furthermore, regarding Child Labor:

ECOWAS Regional Action Plan to Combat Child Labor (RAP) (2013- 2015): The current ECOWAS Regional Action Plan for the Elimination of Child Labor aims at ensuring that children are shielded from activities that are detrimental to their physical, social or psychological wellbeing.

ECOWAS Child Policy and its Strategic Action Plan (2019-2023): In January 2019, experts in children rights and protection gathered from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in collaboration with the European Union (EU) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). The conference aimed to review and validate the ECOWAS Child Policy and its Strategic Action Plan (2019-2023), which focuses on ending child marriages in the region.

ECOWAS meetings and sessions

Declaration on the fight against trafficking in persons – 25th Ordinary Session of Authority of Heads of State and Government (20-21st Dec. 2001): 

In this declaration, States Members declare their strong commitment to the eradication of the trafficking in persons, especially women and children.

ECOWAS Common Approach on Migration – 33rd ordinary session of the Heads of States and Governments – Ouagadougou (18th Jan. 2008)

This Approach fulfills the ECOWAS Mediation and Security Council’s wish to establish a consultation between all members on the management of intra-regional migration and migration to Europe in all its dimensions. It also aims to define a common regional approach on migration. One of the aspects covers the control of irregular migration and human trafficking, particularly women and children 

ECOWAS Commission- Annual Review Meeting on the Implementation of the ECOWAS Plan of Action on Combating Trafficking in Persons - Lomé, Togo (1-4th Nov. 2011): 

The review is a testimony of the seriousness, if not the urgency, with which ECOWAS treats the issue of human trafficking in West Africa. The main objective of the meeting which took place in Lomé was to review progress made in the implementation of the ECOWAS Plan of Action against Trafficking in Persons for the year 2010, and to mark out the priority areas for future action. The strategies stressed the need for ECOWAS, and most especially Member States, to protect and support victims of trafficking, and to raise awareness on how the inhuman trade can be prevented in the region through research and data collection, specialization and training. It also emphasized the need to tighten control on travel and identity documents; effective monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of the Plan of Action in order to achieve its major goals and objectives.

ECOWAS Commission. Strategic Plan of Action for the ECOWAS Youth Policy (2003-2013)

Synthesis Report on the Implementation of the ECOWAS Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons, Lomé‐Togo 1‐4 November 2011, Abuja.

International Cooperation

ECOWAS has no enforcement mechanisms, but it has institutional structures in place that allow it to address irregular migration and to promote the prevention of, and fight against, SoM. ECOWAS has no enforcement mechanisms to use with its Member States, nor does it have any operational capability, capacity or particular tool in place that could be used to implement a policy on SoM. Nevertheless, there are institutional structures at its headquarters in Abuja, in its Member States, and the African Union (AU) that allow the ECOWAS Commission to connect politically and institutionally with decision-makers and other relevant stakeholders on irregular migration matters.

A focal point on SoM was appointed at ECOWAS, following the Rabat Process. However, a specific SoM unit is absent at regional level. Instead, other bodies are dealing with issues related to irregular migration. At ECOWAS headquarters, under the Directorate of Free Movement and Tourism, there is a Free Movement and Migration Division that currently promotes the adoption of the new ECOWAS Migration Policy, as well as a Cross-Border and Cooperation Division. A Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Unit was established under the Humanitarian and Social Affairs Directorate. At Member States’ level, contrary to TIP, ECOWAS reported no available information on the existence of SoM focal points or SoM units, with the exception of Ghana, Nigeria and Niger.

The Migration Dialogue for West Africa (MIDWA)is an important dialogue forum on migration in West Africa, but its potential is poorly exploited. MIDWA was created in 2001 as a platform to encourage ECOWAS Member States to discuss, in a regional context, common migration matters which have cross national border implications and for which solutions at national level might not be forthcoming. It has a formal association with ECOWAS. It is chaired on rotation by one of the ECOWAS Member States. The MIDWA Steering Committee comprises representatives of nine ECOWAS Member States and four Observers (the European Union, the International Organization for Migration, the Swiss Government and ECOWAS). A Regional Secretariat was created within the ECOWAS Commission in January 2017 and is chaired by the ECOWAS Free Movement Directorate. IOM is the main provider of technical support. The MIDWA Steering Committee has met annually since 2014. In September 2017, the Committee discussed “SoM, TiP and contemporary forms of slavery”. MIDWA has seven Thematic Working Groups (TWG), each one chaired by an ECOWAS Member State. The TWGs cover (i) border management and cross-border crime; (ii) diaspora, West African communities and/or nationals; (iii) professional mobility and student exchange; (iv) climate change, land degradation, desertification, environment and migration; (v) migration statistics and data; (vi) return, readmission and reintegration; and (vii) cooperation and partnership

Existing International cooperation instruments related to anti trafficking, smuggling, cross border and extradition treaties

Police cooperation and intelligence sharing at regional level are receiving more attention, but these initiatives are still in their early stages

INTERPOL, in close collaboration with ECOWAS which exercises the political lead on this initiative, launched the West Africa Police Information System (WAPIS). The aim is to reinforce the work of WAPIS with the ECOWAS Commission providing political support, advice on  legal issues, facilitating exchanges among ECOWAS MS and undertaking monitoring activities. Findings from the consultations with stakeholders describe the collaboration between ECOWAS and INTERPOL as satisfactory, but underline that INTERPOL should increase efforts to strengthen WAPIS and improve its collaboration at country level, so to better control borders, create and maintain databases, analyse statistics and disseminate information to the appropriate institutions.

A Survey on Migration Policies in West Africa – 2nd Edition – in collaboration with ICMPD and IOM (2016): 

The Surveyidentifies migration policies in these countries, and the underlying institutional framework in which migration policies are implemented, as well as regional and international cooperation on migration. In terms of immigration policies, the focus is on labour and irregular immigration, and protection of migrants at risk. In regard to emigration policies, this study focuses on labour emigration, migration and development, protection of nationals abroad and potential emigrants. The study also assesses the steps that countries have taken to ensure that their migration framework is comprehensive and able to respond to their specific needs and challenges. Furthermore, it examines the level of harmonization between their national migration policies and the regional integration process, as stipulated in the ECOWAS framework on migration.

There is a general paragraph concerning trafficking in persons and/or smuggling in this document: 2.2.7 ECOWAS common approach on Migration § c. Combating human trafficking is a moral and humanitarian imperative. 

There is a specific paragraph concerning Migrants at risk: Migrants at risk (page 54 of the document). In this part, the document states:

  • What has/is been/being done at the institutional level,

  • What has/is been/being done at the regional level,

  • Which convention, ECOWAS countries members have signed,

  • The specific bodies that have been established in some of the Member States.

ECOWAS supports Procedures and Standards for the Protection and Reintegration of Vulnerable Children on the move and young migrants - West Africa Network (WAN) for the protection of children (2017)

WAN is a functional tool made available for the countries of West Africa that enables co-ordination between the national systems of child protection. It provides a framework and instruments to guarantee quality transnational support of children in need of reintegration and facilitates co-ordination between the host country and country of origin or third countries. The first criterion for the intervention of WAN is the identification that a child or young migrant in a vulnerable situation. Through the established co-operation mechanisms between actors, WAN can conduct family tracing and subsequent social evaluations – an essential precondition before any return of a child in the family environment.

Other Instruments

  • Contacts Directory of heads of ECOWAS National offices and Ministers in charge of Ecowas Affairs (update Dec.2019)

  • Contact Directory of Special representatives and liaison officers of the ECOWAS President and African Union; includes ECOWAS liaison office to the European Union (EU) in Brussels, the United Nations (UN) in New Yorkm and the African Union (AU) in Ethiopia.

ECOWAS Mediation Guidelines 2018

The Guidelines provides information on ECOWAS’ Normative Framework and instruments on peace and security.

UNODC Training manual. Assistance to the Implementation of the ECOWAS Plan of Action against Trafficking in Persons (2006): 

Trafficking in Persons has become a major concern for all countries in Western Africa. The Meeting of ECOWAS Heads of States, in December 2001, adopted a Declaration and the ECOWAS Plan of Action against Trafficking in Persons (2002-2003). It is a duty of the ECOWAS Executive Secretariat to prepare proposals for controlling trafficking in persons in the sub-region, with special consideration to the situation of trafficked children. This Manual presents the definitions of trafficking in human beings and smuggling of migrants as well as general guidelines on investigation and prosecution of cases related to trafficking in human beings, with a focus on cooperation between ECOWAS Member States. As such, it is to be used as reference material and in training activities under the project. Every section of the Manual includes some tools to help better manage your study process. The tools make each section a manageable unit: they include learning objectives, activities, examples and discussion topics that help you apply the course concepts to your previous experience. Relevant legislation is enclosed at the beginning of each section for ease of reference.

The FFM West Africa Counter -Trafficking baseline assessment (2017): 

Combating trafficking in persons is a priority for the ECOWAS) Commission and its Member States. The ECOWAS Common Approach on Migration states in Principle 3 that “Combating human trafficking is a moral and humanitarian imperative”. The Support to Free Movement of Persons and Migration in West Africa project supports the TIP Unit of the ECOWAS Commission in the development, adoption, promotion and implementation of its new Plan of Action, and seeks to enhance the ECOWAS Annual Review Meetings of the anti-trafficking National Focal Points (NFPs) of the Member States. The baseline assessment which was led by ICMPD forms part of the anti-trafficking component of the project, and specifically targets the ECOWAS Trafficking in Persons Unit and the anti-trafficking NFPs. The assessment informed on the implementation of a comprehensive training plan for the TIP Unit and the anti-TIP NFPs.

Implementation of International Humanitarian law treaties in West Africa (2017) Report: 

The Report is a joint report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the ECOWAS Commission. The ICRC and the ECOWAS Commission have worked together on the implementation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) for over a decade, and have seen significant progress during this time. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the ICRC and the ECOWAS Commission was signed in February 2001 and defined three major operational axes, including: convening conferences and other meetings; undertaking joint activities to achieve common goals; and providing technical cooperation, such as technical studies on topics of mutual concern, including human trafficking.

Needs assessment study for the development and implementation of legislation and strategies to counter migrant smuggling, covering Côte d’Ivoire, the Gambia, Guinea and ECOWAS (2018): 

The assessment includes chapters on: 1) Policy, legal and administrative frameworks for the detection, investigation and prosecution of migrant smuggling and related offences; 2) institutional and enforcement mechanisms and operational capabilities, capacities and tools; 3) Prevention measures to support legal migration, protection of vulnerable groups, and return policy procedures; 4) Cooperation mechanisms and intelligence-sharing initiatives; 5) Existing capacity-building and technical assistance projects and initiatives.

The analysis of findings relating to the legal and institutional frameworks was conducted against a theoretical backdrop of internationally recognized assessment tools, such as the UNODC “Assessment Guide to the Criminal Justice Response to the Smuggling of Migrants”, the “International Framework for Action To Implement the Smuggling of Migrants Protocol”, and the “Toolkit to Combat Smuggling of Migrants”.

UNODC Compendium of Bilateral, regional and International instruments on Extradition and Mutual Legal Assistance (ECOWAS Member States): 

The Compendium report is available in English, French and Portuguese.

The Guidelines for the Harmonization of Migration data management in the ECOWAS region (2018): It was prepared by FFM and IOM GMDAC, for the use of a wide range of stakeholders in migration management. They are a key element of the activities of the “Support to Free Movement and Migration in West Africa (FMM West Africa) Project”, which is funded jointly by the EU and ECOWAS. FMM West Africa supports the ECOWAS Commission and ECOWAS Member States in maximizing the development potential of free movement of persons and migration in West Africa. The guidelines aim, primarily, to help build an evidence base on migration for decision-making in the most important policy areas facing the ECOWAS region. The salient features of the policy environment, the policy challenges and the socio-economic context for migration in the ECOWAS Region.

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