In the aftermath of the deal between the European Union (EU) and Turkey, which shut down boat journeys across the Aegean Sea, it has become painfully clear that the Central Mediterranean migration route continues to function unhindered. Boat departures from Libya have been on the rise since the fall of Qadhafi in 2011 and the migratory flows streaming into Italy are unlikely to abate in the near future. Frequent reports of drowned migrants washing up on Libya’s shores drive an international effort to ‘do something’. Combined with the EU’s increasingly intolerant domestic climate towards migrants, this has fuelled a push to contain migration in regions of origin. Trans-Saharan irregular migration, which connects West Africa to North Africa and Europe through the Sahel, has become the latest target of EU foreign policy aimed at stemming irregular migration flows towards Europe.‍[1]

An important dimension of trans-Saharan irregular migration that has remained underexposed so far is its relation to the region’s larger social and political fabric.‍[2] Rather than seeing the desert as an ungoverned space, migrants pass through a diverse array of regions that each function according to different local and national political economies.‍[3] Human smuggling networks, the main facilitators of irregular migration, are but one link in this migratory patchwork. These networks have to contend with other groups, such as the main formal and informal state actors that operate in distinct localities, as well as armed (Islamist) groups, criminal organisations and the local communities that are directly or indirectly involved in the irregular migration industry. Smuggling networks cannot be understood without reference to this wider and complex web of both licit and illicit political and economic interests.

In addition, a relationship often exists between the presence of lootable wealth, such as irregular migration profits, and conflict and stability dynamics.‍[4] This is particularly relevant for the trans-Saharan route, which traverses countries such as Mali and Libya that are prone to high levels of political instability. The relationship between irregular migration profits and the prolongation of these internal conflicts is unclear. Niger, the main hub on the trans-Saharan irregular migration route, has so far managed to escape its neighbours’ path towards destabilisation. As is the case for Mali and Libya, however, the Nigerien state is subject to the presence of armed groups and group-based grievances. The country’s political stability is all but a given – raising the question of how the migration profits flowing into the country interact with these destabilising elements.

Combined, these considerations result in the following questions: 1) what relationships exist between trans-Saharan irregular migration and conflict and stability dynamics in the region, and with political institutions and governance more generally? and 2) how do current migration-mitigating policies influence these relationships?

Answering these questions is crucial because they get to the heart of two of the main root causes of migration, namely conflict and the low quality of political institutions. A clearer understanding of the relationship between trans-Saharan irregular migration and conflict and stability dynamics, and with political institutions and governance more generally, would therefore contribute to the design of effective conflict- and politically sensitive migration policies that target irregular migration without counterproductively contributing to its own root causes.

Irregular migration in conflict-affected environments

This report looks at the western axis of the Central Mediterranean route, with a particular focus on Mali, Niger and Libya. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, irregular migration dynamics are not confined to national borders and irregular-migration-facilitating networks, referred to hereafter as human smuggling networks, often encompass entire routes. A study of the transnational phenomenon of irregular migration requires a transnational research focus and the three countries studied here are important transit and destination countries connecting the trans-Saharan region. Secondly, and concomitantly, irregular migration may take on different dynamics within individual countries. It is hypothesised that the most relevant dimension for understanding such differences is the extent to which state authorities are present throughout the territory.

The selected countries – Mali, Niger and Libya – all portray meaningful variation on this latter dimension.‍[5] Libya and northern Mali are both examples of irregular migration passing through territories where the central state’s administration is either absent or non-existent. In the case of Libya, the state collapsed completely after the fall of Qadhafi. To the extent that Libyan state authorities still exist, they are unable to provide security against violent non-state (criminal) actors, to control the state’s borders and/or to deliver positive political goods such as justice and the rule of law to the entire Libyan population.‍[6] In the case of Mali, political instability is most evident in the north. With the advent of a separatist rebellion in 2012, combined with a military coup that same year, the Malian state lost effective control over the northern provinces of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao. The state remains present in the southern region, while armed groups de facto control the north.‍[7]

In Niger, political violence has so far not resulted in complete democratic breakdown. Nevertheless, the country is characterised by institutional arrangements that make the state particularly vulnerable to internal and external shocks and domestic and international conflicts.‍[8] In the case of Niger, this is so because the country is located in a very volatile region, it has experienced multiple military coups since the country’s independence, its territorial unity depends on governmental co-optation of armed and former rebel groups that effectively rule the North, and because these former rebel groups are connected to similar groups in northern Mali and southern Libya through illicit trade relations as well as tribal and kinship ties. In effect, the stability of the Nigerien state depends on continued investment in political ties between government authorities and actors that identify more tightly with local and transnational elements than with a unified Nigerien nation.‍[9] The financial proceeds obtained through the facilitation of irregular migration feed into this complex political settlement.

These three states’ central state authorities thus have in common that they do not provide security, control their entire territory or borders and/or deliver positive political goods, such as justice and rule of law, to their entire populations. The reality on the ground is reflective of more hybrid forms of governance, with social organisations and armed groups having entered into competition over the control of local populations, and in doing so offering governance alternatives to individuals and communities in specific localities.‍[10] When combined with the amount of financial resources that irregular migration generates, as well as the empowerment of groups engaged in the human smuggling trade, this suggests that the current dynamics of irregular migration in the region, as well as the policies designed to control migration, may contribute to the process of non-state (armed) actors forming de facto authority figures – with severe consequences for stability.

Methodology and structure of the report

Investigating to what extent this is the case requires taking a closer look at how irregular migration resources feed the acquisition of local political authority and power. In a very tangible way, migration profits may be used to buy arms and recruit the manpower needed to control territory and borders. Money can also be used to provide public goods and thereby acquire legitimacy vis-à-vis other state or non-state authority figures. In a less tangible way, the facilitation of irregular migration may strengthen groups with transnational ties through the exchange of knowledge and resources and may undermine the legitimacy of the nation state by strengthening tribal, group, ethnic and/or kinship ties as a primary identity source.

The report investigates such linkages through a review of the existing academic and policy-based literature on Mali, Niger and Libya, as well as consultations with noted scholars, policy makers and practitioners. In addition, a systematic review of online newspapers and social media sources served to identify relevant socio-political and migration-related incidents. Social media sources proved particularly relevant in the Libyan case, where smugglers were more prone to use social media accounts to advertise their services than was the case for Malian and Nigerien smugglers. Fieldwork in Bamako and Niamey in July and August 2016, as well as a range of telephone interviews, provided additional data for this report in the form of 33 extended interviews with relevant members of the international community, intelligence officers, policy makers, members of the armed forces, domestic experts, journalists, civil society groups, migrants and smugglers.‍[11] In the case of Libya, information was also obtained from human smuggling Facebook groups. The data were analysed separately in individual country reports on Mali, Niger and Libya. This synthesis report brings together the main findings from these reports and analyses them from a regional/transnational and comparative perspective.

The study is structured as follows. The first section focuses on the transnational dimension of migration. It gives some facts and figures on the main routes and provides an overview of contemporary EU policies targeting trans-Saharan irregular migration. In addition, this section discusses the transnational dimension of migration, migration’s historical roots and the need to maintain intra-African migration as a livelihood strategy. Recognition of the transnational legacies and dynamics of migration points to the need for European policy makers to think in terms of transnational solutions that recognise that irregular migration responds to a diverse set of factors and circumstances that incentivise or disincentivise migrants to pursue their journey all the way to Europe. Subsequent sections discuss the various localised dynamics of irregular migration: 1) the legal route from West Africa to northern Mali and northern Niger; 2) the route characterised by links between human smugglers and state security forces in northern Niger; and 3) the route characterised by state absence and predatory armed groups in northern Mali and Libya. Particular attention is paid to the consequences of these dynamics for national and regional stability. The conclusion discusses policy options for EU policy makers to ensure that targeting irregular migration flows to Europe occurs in a conflict-sensitive manner so as not to inadvertently contribute to more instability and conflict-driven migration.

Irregular migration is defined here as migration undertaken by persons ‘who, owing to unauthorized entry, breach of a condition of entry, or the expiry of his or her visa, lacks legal status in a transit or host country.’ Malakooti, A. 2015. Migration Trends Across the Mediterranean, Paris, Altai Consulting and IOM, 3. Irregular migration flows are integrated by ‘temporary and reversible movements’ [circular migration], ‘long-term migration’, and ‘forced migration [refugees].’ Guilmoto, C.Z. and Sandron F. 2003. Migration et développement, Paris, La Documentation Française.
But see: Reitano, T. and Shaw, M. 2015. Fixing a Fractured State? Breaking the Cycles of Crime, Conflict and Corruption in Mali and Sahel, Geneva, The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime; Reitano, T. and Shaw, M. 2015. ‘Atlantic Currents and their Illicit Undertow: Fragile States and Transnational Security Implications’, in: Atlantic Currents: An Annual Report on Wider Atlantic Perspectives and Patterns, ed. The German Marshall Fund of the United States and OCP Policy Center, Washington, DC, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, 32-43.
Davis, D. 2010. ‘Irregular Armed Forces, Shifting Patterns of Commitment, and Fragmented Sovereignty in the Developing Worlds,’ Theory and Society, 39(3), 397-413.
Snyder, R. and Bhavnani, R. 2005. ‘Diamonds, Blood, and Taxes: A Revenue-Centered Framework for Explaining Political Order’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49(4), 563-597.
As Algeria does not constitute a priority country for Dutch and EU policy makers, we did not include this country in the analysis. Nevertheless, it should be recognised that Algeria constitutes an important link in the trans-Saharan migration chain that has remained underexplored so far.
Smits, R., Janssen, F. and Briscoe, I. 2013. Revolution and its Discontents: State, Factions and Violence in the New Libya, CRU report, The Hague, Clingendael; Janssen, F. and Abdo, I. 2015. Addressing Libya’s Multiple Crises: When Violent Politics, Extremism and Crime Meet, CRU Policy Brief, The Hague, Clingendael; Lacher, W. 2015. Supporting Stabilization in Libya. The Challenges of Finalizing and Implementing the Skhirat Agreement, SWP Comments, Berlin, SWP.
Briscoe, I. 2014. Crime after Jihad: Armed Groups, the State and Illicit Business in Post-Conflict Mali, CRU report, Clingendael; Guichaoua, Y. 2014. Transformations of Armed Violence in the Sahara, Sahara Knowledge Exchange Paper, World Bank; Chauzal, G. and Van Damme, T. 2015. The Roots of Mali’s Conflict: Moving beyond the 2012 Crisis, CRU Report, Clingendael.
See: Di John, J. 2008. Conceptualising the Causes and Consequences of Failed States: A Critical Review of the Literature, Crisis States Working Paper Series No. 2, Working Paper No. 25.
Guichaoua, Y. 2009. Circumstantial Alliances and Loose Loyalties in Rebellion Making: The Case of Tuareg Insurgency in Northern Niger (2007-2009), MICROCON Research Working Paper 20, Brighton, MICROCON; Deycard, F. 2011. ‘Les rebellions touaregues du Niger: Combattants, mobilisations et culture politique’, PhD diss., Université de Bordeaux, January; Guichaoua, Y. 2014. Op. cit.; Baudais, V. and Chauzal, G. 2011. ‘Briefing: The 2010 Coup D’État in Niger: A Praetorian Regulation of Politics’, African Affairs 110(439), 295-304.
Guicahaoua, Y. 2014, op. cit.
Given the nature of the subject, all these interviews were carried out under strict conditions of anonymity for the respondent.