Taking into account the relationship between irregular migration, governance and stability will help policy makers design more effective migration policies; as ‘political instability is the most persistent correlate to forced migration’.‍[198] The scores of Malian refugees displaced both inside and outside of Mali since the 2012 conflict bear witness to the role of conflict as a root cause of migration. As depicted in Figure 10 below, however, the relationship between stability and irregular migration is not a one-way street. As part of the larger informal economy, the irregular migration industry may also undermine or reinforce its own root causes, such as by adopting a ‘shock-absorbing and therefore stabilising role in post-conflict settings’.‍[199] In this sense, one may think of irregular migration as a strategy to respond to poverty, climatic challenges or demographic changes that thereby relieves pressure from the larger political system. Policies that (aim to) obstruct all migration and that block this escape valve might inadvertently contribute to conflict and higher levels of conflict-driven mass migration.

This is not to say that allowing the irregular migration industry to function unhindered or uncontrolled is an opportune strategy from a conflict prevention perspective. Indeed, the facilitation of irregular migration – such as through human smuggling – may itself become ‘a significant driver of conflict in conditions of intense competition for scarce economic resources’.‍[200] If control over the irregular migration industry becomes violently contested, for example, this might increase conflict-driven migration. A clearer understanding is thus needed of the relationship between trans-Saharan irregular migration and conflict and stability dynamics to design conflict-sensitive migration policies that target irregular migration without counterproductively contributing to one of its root causes.

In the process, care should also be taken to invest in measures that strengthen rather than undermine existing political institutions. This is a pressing need because the quality of political institutions, and of governance more generally, has been found to affect migratory streams as high quality institutions are deemed ‘essential for a country’s growth and development prospects and affect the population’s sense of wellbeing’. ‍[201] Both high-skilled and low-skilled workers are more likely to leave countries with lower levels of institutional quality, for example.‍[202] A lack of good institutions thereby forms a root cause of migration.‍[203]

At the same time, political authorities are often involved directly or indirectly in the facilitation of irregular migration – meaning that they should not be regarded as neutral interlocutors. Indeed, although irregular migration ‘defies state regulation, it is not necessarily out of reach of the state, nor is state engagement with the [irregular migration industry] necessarily antagonistic in nature’.‍[204] Formal state actors are often ready and willing participants in the irregular migrant industry, implying that what is irregular is not always strictly informal. To the extent that these actors’ engagement contributes to the further hollowing out of existing state institutions, they thereby increase one of the root causes of migration and should be targeted as such. Alternatively, the creation of lucrative local smuggling fiefdoms can undermine local governance actors’ commitment to national laws and policies, jeopardising the stability and efficacy of decentralised governance systems.‍[205]

Migration-mitigating policies that inadvertently strengthen such actors only fuel the fire of irregular migration. A clearer understanding is thus needed of the relationship between trans-Saharan irregular migration and political institutions and larger governance dynamics to design politically sensitive migration policies that target irregular migration without counterproductively contributing to one of its root causes.

Figure 10
Weak institutions and conflict - root causes of migration
Weak institutions and conflict - root causes of migration
Raleigh, C. 2011. ‘The Search for Safety: The Effects of Conflict, Poverty and Ecological Influences on Migration in the Developing World’, Global Environmental Change, 21S, 84; Davenport, C. Moore, W. and Poe, S. 2003. ‘Sometimes You Just Have to Leave: Domestic Threats and Forced Migration’, International Interactions, 29(1), 27-55; Moore, W. and Shellman, S. 2004. ‘Fear of Persecution: Forced Migration, 1952-1995’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 48(5), 723-745; Hatton, T. and Williamson, J. 2003. ‘Demographic and Economic Pressure on Emigration out of Africa’, Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 105(3), 465-486.
See Schoofs, S. 2015. Making Sense of Informal Economies in Fragile Contexts, CRU Policy Brief, The Hague, Clingendael, 4.
Dutta, N. and Roy, S. 2011. ‘Do Potential Skilled Emigrants Care about Political Stability at Home?’, Review of Development Economics, 15(3), 443.
Schoofs, S. 2015, Op. cit., 7
Ballentine, K. and Sherman, J. 2003. The Political Economy of Armed Conflict: Beyond Greed and Grievance, Boulder, CO, Lynne Rienner.