As the word implies, trans-Saharan irregular migration is a transnational phenomenon. Rather than focusing on individual countries, this report has therefore analysed the entire route connecting West Africa to North Africa through the Sahel. Irregular practices manifest themselves on this route in different shapes and forms, depending on the extent to which migration occurs in an illicit manner and the degree to which central state authorities maintain a presence in the territories at issue. So far, the common EU response to irregular migration has not recognised these different dynamics, as its policies take the form of state-centred security approaches that mainly focus on combatting smuggling practices through collaboration with state authorities.
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 the current focus on taking out human smuggling networks is a cat-and-mouse game that is ineffective at best. Although a wide variety of human smuggling networks exist, they have in common that they are highly adaptable and that smugglers are able to respond to interdiction efforts by rearranging their routes and operations. In addition, smuggling networks rely on a large pool of replaceable labour on the ground and it is generally these low-level smugglers that are targeted in police operations.
At best, such interdiction efforts may thus halt migration only temporarily. At worst, such efforts result in violent competition between the different groups trying to control the market. Alternatively, failure to recognise that the government is part of the problem may result in support for one-sided security actions that target a limited array of smugglers only and/or that upset local livelihood schemes in the process. As the violent threats to the Agadez police station in response to smuggler arrests evince, such measures only contribute to the further delegitimisation of state institutions. Given that violent conflict, low-quality institutions and a lack of prospects are all root causes of migration, conflict- and politically insensitive migration policies will counterproductively result in higher levels of migration. This goes to show that migration cannot and should not be targeted in isolation from the larger political economy, just as policy makers are well advised not to assume that state actors are neutral allies that are able or willing to control irregular migration.
This is not to paint a completely negative picture. The spotlight that has been put on irregular migration means that external momentum has been created, and resources have been made available, to instigate a positive change in one of the world’s most neglected regions. Thoroughly designed migration policies could contribute to – rather than undermine – livelihoods and higher quality institutions in the long term – thereby addressing some of the root causes of migration from within. To ensure such effective policy formation, current migration policies need to be reconciled with the fact that issues of governance and stability are at the heart of trans-Saharan irregular migration. Such a realignment would allow policy makers to build on the wealth of experience that has been gathered over the last decade on themes such as state building, security and justice programming and informal economies and private sector development to address migration in a way that strengthens rather than undermines regional political institutions and stability.
The report has discussed a wide range of practical policy solutions to aid such attempts, which are summarised in Annex 1. Four general policy recommendations, deduced from the diversity of irregular migration’s local dynamics and the stability and conflict issues at play, drive these practical solutions:
Ensuring the maintenance of intra-African mobility as a pressure release valve on overburdened political and economic systems is crucial in light of future climatic and demographic pressures on the region. As highlighted throughout the report, the majority of trans-Saharan migration on the routes discussed here is of an intra-African nature, with only an estimated 20 percent of migrants ultimately travelling to Europe. A large part of intra-African migration constitutes a livelihood strategy that should be distinguished from other types of streams setting out for Europe specifically and/or that get caught up in Europe-bound human smuggling and trafficking networks in Libya. The alternative is that this relatively benign coping mechanism will get caught up in measures seeking to control and/or stop migration – with all the dangers this entails for local and regional stability as well as conflict-driven migration. To this end, policy makers should take care to gain a better understanding of the factors and circumstances that incentivise or disincentivise migrants to pursue their journey all the way to Europe, invest in measures that divert flows away from Europe and invest in more accessible and regularised forms of intra-African migration.
Trans-Saharan irregular migration traverses many regions where state authorities are absent. Northern Mali and Libya are the obvious cases in point. The report has shown that illicit smuggling and trafficking proceeds empower irregular armed forces that act as de facto authorities on the ground, enabling them to act as spoilers in the larger conflict resolution processes. Even in those cases where formal state authorities still exist, collaboration with such actors in the fight against irregular migration is an inherently political enterprise that may end up entrenching the interests of state-aligned smugglers and irregular armed forces. Amidst fragmented sovereignty, neutral interlocutors do not exist. Policy makers should take care to include issues of irregular migration (and other trafficking) mitigation in a larger, comprehensive strategy targeting instability in the region and they should use the existing peace processes to reduce human smuggling and exploitation, whose resources contribute to the prolongation of conflict.
This report has shown that the trans-Saharan irregular migration economy feeds hybrid governance schemes. The challenge confronting policy makers here is to not put the cart before the horse and to continue to invest in institution building while relying on state authorities to collaborate in migration-mitigating measures – particularly those of a strong, securitised nature. Long-term commitment is key here. Failure to make migration measures part of larger efforts at institution building will hollow out the state from within and will thereby magnify root causes of migration such as conflict and low institutional quality. Indeed, the Nigerien case has illustrated the potentially destabilising consequences of securitised approaches that are introduced without taking into account local conflict dynamics. At the very least, migration measures should be undertaken in lockstep with existing capacity building programmes, while being calibrated in terms of their objectives and demands on institutions. In addition, both sets of programmes should be informed by political economy analysis type assessments to ensure that they are designed in a conflict- and politically sensitive manner.
Perhaps the most important effect of irregular migration on regional (in)stability is through its contribution to local economies. On the one hand, migration is an important driver of development in desert towns and it has even been suggested that young men are less likely to engage in armed conflicts due to the economic opportunities that migration offers them. On the other hand, the case of northern Niger also indicates that smugglers’ empowerment vis-à-vis other generational and/or tribal groups sows the seeds for future conflict. These dynamics do not stand on their own. Instead, migration lies at the heart of one of the main issues confronting the Sahel and Sahara desert regions: border communities rely on irregular cross-border trade for their sustenance. This has created vibrant informal, and increasingly illicit, local economies that contribute to job creation and local development and that redress local grievances – thereby alleviating root causes of economic and conflict-driven migration by extension.
A common understanding has therefore started to grow that migration (and national economic) policies need to invest in local development in desert towns to provide an alternative to the irregular migration industry. It is imperative that such policies pay attention to the relation between irregular migration, cross-border trade, local economies and the micro-dynamics of smuggling and political authority in migration hubs and that they capitalise on the current economic migration boom to kick-start other economic activities. Recent advances in programming that target the informal economy recognise that such development formulas ‘should factor in informal institutions and non-state actors’ and should avoid one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions ‘precisely because they discount the context-specific dynamics of fragility and the informal economy, and could thereby do more harm than good’.
From the above, it follows that migration is not an isolated phenomenon and that it should not be treated as such. Instead, migration policies should form part of broader regional strategies aimed at building state capacity, stability, development and good governance. Interventions that do not start from an adequate understanding of the role human smuggling plays in the political economy in the Sahel and Sahara will not deliver on their objectives and are likely to result in the counterproductive outcome of increasing the root causes of migration to Europe. The migration crisis has created an important opportunity to invest in stability in the region – capitalising on this opportunity has now become key.