Contemporary EU migration policies in Africa start from an isolated view of the human smuggling networks facilitating irregular migration as ‘ruthless criminal networks [that] organise the journeys of large numbers of migrants desperate to reach the EU’. As discussed above, this is too limited a view of trans-Saharan migration, as not all migrants are desperate to reach the EU. More importantly, seeing human smuggling networks as purely criminal networks that operate in isolation from the larger political economy results in EU policies such as the EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling (2015-2010) proposing technical solutions to counter smuggling practices. This securitised approach to irregular migration fits within a larger pattern of heavy-fisted policy responses to transnational irregularity, such as the wars on drugs and terror. If these wars teach us one thing, it is that their limited focus on taking out criminal kingpins is usually an ineffective cat-and-mouse game.
The futility of targeting criminal groups and their leaders is particularly evident in the human smuggling industry, which tends to operate through independent links that form a larger, transnational chain. Indeed, this report refers to human smuggling entities as ‘networks’ because the trans-Saharan human smuggling industry is not controlled by clearly defined groups of actors that operate together in a consistent manner. The networks vary in size, reach and centralisation of their operations, but they typically consist of service providers, businessmen and their crews that are relatively fluid in nature and whose operations at times transcend the legal/illegal divide. Low-level smuggling crews step in and out of the business with ease, service providers such as those issuing fake documents may link up with multiple networks at the same time and the networks’ national make-up is as diverse as the transnational journey that migrants undertake. This presents a first obstacle to policy makers, as it is usually these low-level smugglers that are targeted in police operations – thereby allowing the organisers higher up the chain to conduct their business as usual.
Moreover, the fact that human smuggling networks often operate as independent links in a larger, transnational chain creates a level of flexibility that allows the networks to respond quickly to interdiction efforts. Every researcher studying human smuggling networks reiterates that smugglers are highly adaptable and that they respond to police operations by rearranging their routes and operations – often resulting in pricier and more dangerous journeys for the migrants. It should therefore come as little surprise that even EU policy makers themselves fear that their current efforts at policing the Nigerien desert have resulted in smugglers rerouting their activities into lawless northern Mali. Police and judicial responses are at best an ineffective approach to stop irregular migration.
In addition, the precise ways in which human smuggling networks are formed is also ‘highly context-specific, and can change depending on the environment in which they are working’. The networks’ shape follows in part from the local political economies in which they are situated. To be able to effectively control irregular migration and to target human smugglers, policy makers should be mindful not to treat human smuggling as an isolated phenomenon. As the more localised accounts of trans-Saharan human smuggling below will show, the real danger these networks constitute is not that they facilitate irregular migration; rather, they empower irregular armed forces and corrupt state security forces, with the consequence of hollowing out state institutions from within. The following sections discuss the politics of irregular migration along three distinct parts of the trans-Saharan route. These parts are the legal route between West Africa and the smuggling hubs of Gao and Agadez, the co-opted route in northern Niger and the contested route in northern Mali and Libya. Understanding the different political economies of migration along these routes is crucial for the design of migration policies that are mindful not to increase local conflict dynamics and/or further undermine political institutions – thereby alleviating rather than contributing to migration’s root causes.