Human Smuggling in Northern Africa and the Sahel: Dilemmas and Solutions

Organization: Conflict Research Unit of Clingendael Institute

Five months ago, after going through Clingendael’s interns’ recruitment process, I was thrilled to receive a phone call informing me that I was offered an internship at CRU to work on a political economy analysis of human smuggling networks in Libya. My happiness did not last long, however, as it was soon discovered that my valid French student visa, which allowed me to work in France, was insufficient legal basis for a 2-month internship in the Netherlands. After going through weeks of bureaucratic hurdles, nothing remained to be done but accept that I could only contribute to this project in a consulting manner.

This, and many, many other similar experiences, exposed me to the obstacles that people encounter when attempting to enter a European country without valid documentation. And it is worth noting that my case is nothing compared to the harsh experiences that many other irregular migrants face – having to travel through the desert in the back of a 4x4, being locked up in a crowded Libyan detention center and having to cross the Mediterranean in an inflatable dinghy. Sadly, current EU policy approaches are only trying to increase the obstacles in migrants’ way – seeing us migrants as a threat to their domestic political systems and EU unity.

The current push to contain migration – presented as a way to save lives in the Mediterranean – focuses in particular on stemming the migration streams flowing from and through Africa. Beyond the normative questions this poses, policy makers have not taken the time to identify the relationship between migration and the larger conflict and stability dynamics in the region. This is problematic, because effective policies would require the collaboration of state authorities and it is unclear to what extent African authorities are willing or able partners in the fight against migration.

In this context, the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law hosted a daylong interactive brainstorm which gathered experts from diverse backgrounds who shared their knowledge and expertise in order to reach a common understanding of the political economy of migration in Northern Africa and the Sahel; discuss current and future policies designed to address mass migration movements; and develop innovative solutions which could contribute to forming policies dealing with migration waves in a conflict sensitive manner.

Migration as a driver of stability and conflict

Any productive debate on policy solutions necessitates a clear definition of the problem. CRU researchers provided this definition by showing how migration plays a crucial role in both stability and conflict dynamics in the region.  

Niger and Mali are largely transit and origin countries where both migration and smuggling are used as livelihood strategies. Temporary migration to neighboring countries, such as Algeria and Libya, allows farmers to escape the lean season when they cannot harvest any food. Such migration also allows unemployed workers to find economic opportunities in times of need. The danger exists that current EU efforts to police the desert will undermine these relatively benign coping strategies – possibly sowing the seeds for future conflict.

At the same time, the irregular migration industry drives an economic boom in the region, which is the case in particular for North Niger. This year, an estimated 330,000 migrants passed through the city of Agadez and many people have come to depend on this industry for their survival. These are not just human smugglers, but also people that provide food, lodgings, or run call shops – to name but a few examples. For stability’s sake, any attempt to stop irregular migration should therefore be accompanied by the provision of alternative means of employment. 

In northern Mali, irregular migration takes place along a terrain controlled by a complex array of armed groups. Due to the relatively low number of migrants that pass through the area, human smuggling is not as profitable for these groups as arms and drug smuggling. If migration increases however, human smuggling could become a lucrative trade and could thereby contribute to the prolongation of internal conflict. This danger is very real. Current accounts suggest that the EU-driven policing actions in North Niger have led some smugglers to reroute their activities to North Mali.

Libya, lastly, is a transit and destination country where a myriad of actors have a direct or indirect stake in the smuggling business – and where a thin line exists between smuggling, trafficking and slavery. While migration to Libya is not a new phenomenon, the lack of government control has caused an unprecedented smuggling market, where migrants are not only transported from point a to point b but are also exploited for a financial profit. Smuggling in Libya benefits communities in different ways, as a source of income and legitimacy, or as a tool for the consolidation of territorial and political control. It directly feeds the armed groups that stand in the way of the formation of an effective national government needed to make an end to these exploitative practices.

Ways to address migration in a conflict- and politically sensitive manner

The brainstorm identified the need for comprehensive – as opposed to isolated – policies addressing human smuggling. Experts agreed that European governments do not lack sufficient information; agencies such as the IOM, UNHCR, Frontex, and national intelligence and migration agencies, have started collecting data on migration flows. For instance, we know that not all migrants travel to Europe (only 20% of all migrants passing through Agadez ultimately take the boat to Europe). What is needed is efforts to bring these data together so that policy makers can start targeting the migrants that do end up in Italy instead of trying to stop all intra-African migration.

The debate also stressed the importance of focusing on the root-causes of migration and developing a longer-term approach to intervention. Experts discussed ways in which capacity building, and creating alternative livelihood strategies could be achieved. They affirmed the necessity to consolidate the informal/existing economy and discussed approaches for balancing the need to achieve immediate results with long term prospects. What is needed is detailed stock taking of the informal economy in desert towns of Agadez, for example, to investigate entry points for private sector development. One such policy tool that policy makers can use to address migration is the newly created European Fund for Sustainable Development (EFSD) – a  financial instrument aimed at encouraging investment in countries with high irregular migration in Africa and the EU Neighborhood.

Finally, workshop participants argued that dealing with migration as a problem instead of dealing with the means of addressing it as the real problem can have severe human rights implications. Treating migrants as a threat exposes them to grave human rights abuses not only in smuggling operations but also in anti-smuggling operations. It has been concluded that breaking down the business model of smuggling would require dealing with migration as a “normal” phenomenon, with an objective of regulating migration instead of ending it.  Constant dialogue with regional and local stakeholders is also needed to ensure that migration policies are adopted in a conflict- and politically sensitive manner. Migration does not take place in isolation, it is part of a larger socio-political context, and any attempts to address migration should ensure that they do not inadvertently increase the root causes of migration – such as conflict and low quality of institutions.

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