Where are Europe’s southern borders now? In recent years, European as well as African officials situated them in various remote locations, including southern Libya, northern Niger and eastern Sudan, illustrating the extent to which policies of ‘externalisation’ of migration control are well under way. Such outsourcing has meant dealing with unusual border guards. As has been well documented, in Libya, the EU partnered with an internationally recognised government with little control of its territory and dependent on militia rather than regular forces. The GNA recognised its limitations when, in June 2018, Italy proposed creating ‘hotspots’ in southern Libya itself where migrants would be detained before being sent back home if they were not considered to be legitimate asylum seekers. The GNA, with little control in the south and aware that various southern tribal militias are often fighting each other, suggested these hotspots should rather be in countries south of Libya.
The three countries south of Libya are different from Libya and have central governments, but the state has been largely absent from their Saharan peripheries. Each of their governments presents itself as ready to support European policies in exchange for much-needed political and economic support, even if that might involve collateral damage to their own stability.
In Niger and Sudan, where those policies have been enforced for about two years, not all movements of migrants have been prevented or shut off entirely, but rather the routes, modalities and actors of the migration ‘industry’ have been modified. Migration bans encouraged a rise in prices and criminalisation of the actors, with migrant smuggling increasingly being transformed into human trafficking. Routes diversified, became clandestine and more dangerous for both migrants and smugglers. While flows arguably decreased, those policies also failed to protect people who continued to migrate: deaths of migrants in the desert appear to have increased, as shown by IOM data in Niger, and possibilities for legal migration and asylum application remain limited.
European migration policies also have negative impacts on the stability of the countries they target, and in some cases have aggravated existing ‘militia-isation’ policies – the empowerment of militias who can be simultaneously involved in smuggling and anti-smuggling, and whose presence is itself a security threat. In Niger, the new migration ban destabilised the fragile balance established when rebellions in the north of the country ended, only a decade ago. It undermined the peace deals concluded with Tuareg and Tubu rebels and impacted negatively on the livelihoods of those communities. The ban also promoted the formation of new militias among the Tubu, straddling the borders between Niger, Chad and Libya. It triggered tensions between rival pro- and anti-smuggling militias, with the risk of new cross-border instability. In both Niger and Sudan, new competition between militias over both smuggling and anti-smuggling benefits may have negative consequences for stability and governance.
In Sudan, migration control is paradoxically conducted by a regime and its proxy militias that are both largely responsible for violent displacement and migration. Those militias clearly play a double game and, while pretending to be blocking migrants, they systematically smuggle them into Libya and traffic them in association with Libyan actors. Arguably, human smuggling and trafficking is now a major economic substrate of Sudan’s ‘militia-isation’. The focus on externalising EU borders to Sudan thereby unwittingly strengthened the government’s ‘militia-isation’ policy, as it bolstered the rise of the RSF, thus potentially making the ‘push factor’ worse – in particular for Darfurian civilians.
In Sudan, Chad and Niger, European re-engagement and renewed partnerships with the governments, at different degrees, have reinforced the frustration and hopelessness of marginal communities. Hopes for democratisation or greater participation by marginal communities in political decision making, and that European and other international pressures would push forward such processes, are vanishing. This, together with economic crises and the unwitting destabilising effects of migration policies described above, may prove counterproductive, as they can potentially generate new migrant and refugee flows.
Another unintended consequence of new policies in Niger and Sudan has been to push migrants and asylum seekers from both West and East Africa towards new routes in Chad. As had been the case in Sudan, the Chadian government has shown an interest in expanding control over its border with Libya – although this seems to be driven more by a desire to prevent the incursion of rebel groups into Chad than to stop migration. The Sudanese case illustrates that the result is an increase in human rights abuses and the active involvement of government forces in human trafficking. It also shows that – although the EU may make efforts to avoid funding forces reputed to be particularly abusive – in practice it is very difficult to ensure that EU funds or support do not end up in the wrong hands.
Unintended consequences are even less acknowledged than risks. One obvious reason for this is that Western migration policies pretend to address not only the migration issue but also security, stability and terrorism concerns, all together. This is largely based on a widespread belief of an existing conglomeration of all informal, illicit, illegal or criminal activities – migrant smuggling, drug trafficking, arms trafficking and terrorism –benefitting mafia-style organisations to the detriment of local communities. However, seeing migrant smuggling – often labelled ‘human trafficking’ without nuance – through this criminal and predatory lens only makes for more confusion.
Most migrant smugglers are not, and do not see themselves as traffickers. Further, their activities – unlike drug or arms trafficking – appear to benefit broad swathes of Saharan cross-border communities. And in some cases, as in Niger until recently, they were even largely part of the formal rather than the informal economy. Thus, transferring such activities to the informal and even criminal economy may already be pushing migrant smugglers to convert to more destabilising activities, including rebellion and terrorism. New crises in the region risk not only generating more migrant flows, they may oblige international players to make choices between conflicting priorities, namely migration and security.
It is widely recognised that the only way to address irregular migration and human smuggling structurally is to create legal pathways for refugees and migrants. The EU and Member States should open legal migration routes to Europe, including to both asylum seekers and economic migrants. In particular, asylum seekers should be given possibilities to apply for asylum in Europe in safe neighbouring countries, rather than to risk their lives crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean. As long as there are no such pathways, care should be taken to fund the long-term settlement of refugees in the region in such a way that they can improve their livelihoods and work towards a future, but without hampering their right of return to their original homelands.
Instead of prioritising short-term border externalisation policies, it should be realised that investing in democratisation, improving governance, and peace and state building are key elements in addressing the root causes of migration. Inversely, migration policies that undermine good governance, result in human rights violations and contribute to destabilisation only feed migratory dynamics. It is therefore recommended that policy makers, including from the EU and EU member states:
Laws against irregular migration can work only if they target irregular migration alone, focusing on violent smugglers and traffickers rather than criminalising simple drivers or migrants themselves. The EU should avoid pushing its African partners to pass, and the latter should avoid passing, new laws that contradict agreed international conventions, recognised national and international freedoms of movement, or basic human rights. In particular, nationals should be allowed to move freely within their country, ECOWAS residents should be able to move freely between and within ECOWAS countries, and smugglers and migrants should not be arrested based on their supposed intentions to travel to Europe.
The EU should not turn a blind eye to African partners using violence and committing abuses against migrants in order to discourage their movements. It should also take into account the known human rights records of some local security forces with more caution, and thus refrain from any kind of partnership, in the name of migration policies, with security forces in Sudan and Chad.
Irregular forces, even if hastily integrated or in the process of integrating into regular forces, are not likely to suddenly refrain from abusive behaviour. The EU should avoid any engagement with irregular forces, non-state or insufficiently controlled militias, including Libyan militias or so-called ‘border forces’ as well as Sudanese government militias and paramilitary forces such as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF’s known abuses against both Sudanese civilians and migrants transiting through Sudan, as well as their involvement in human trafficking, should lead the EU to reconsider its migration policies in Sudan.
Only long-term change in the political and economic contexts of origin countries will durably prevent people to leave their countries and allow them to live on their land. The EU and its Member States should prioritise, over short-term migration concerns, longer-term engagement with Niger, Chad, Sudan and other African countries on democratisation, improving governance, and peace and state building.
To ensure that these recommendations can be taken on board, the EU should:
EU migration policies have suffered and still suffer from differences between member states, between some of them and the European Commission, and within the Commission. Within the Commission, different departments have different areas of expertise, cover different aspects of the migration agenda and struggle to secure sufficient resources to implement their respective mandates. Some EU member states particularly concerned with the political impact of migration prioritise a securitised approach to migration management and want to obtain results more quickly and with less concern for regional stability than others, and than the European Commission itself. In the past few years, this approach has resulted in bilateral engagement on the issue of migration management with non-state armed groups as well as with states, including authoritarian regimes. While such efforts may have the benefit of speed and may reduce migration flows in the short term, their implementation should not counter the goal of broader EU policies that would be conducive to addressing the root causes of migration in the long term.
While the EU may prevent itself from funding destabilising forms of migration control directly by devolving funding to implementing agencies, the question then arises whether or not their implementing partners engage in destabilising activities. The same goes for the repurposing of financial instruments in response to newly arisen policy goals related to current events. To the extent that these are still being adopted or required in the future, this should be done in a way that ensures due diligence and conflict-sensitivity.
Lower irregular migration numbers cannot be the only benchmark for successful migration policies. In a context of fragile states, such as Niger, Chad and Sudan, care should be taken to adopt additional governance and human rights benchmarks that would result in these programmes being halted if the benchmarks were not met. Rather than giving leverage to states with a poor governance and human rights records, migration policies could be based on partnerships by which European funding could be conditioned, not by reducing numbers, but by positive achievements in terms of human rights (for both nationals and migrants), democratisation, governance, and peace and state building.
Europe should be exemplary in term of human rights and justice and should be accountable for policies that might contribute to human rights abuses being committed against migrants. Cases of migrants who may have been abused by authorities or forces considered as Europe’s partners on migration, should be properly investigated, notably by the United Nations Security Councils Panels of experts/Monitoring Groups on Libya, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia; and responsible individuals should be listed for sanctions. Cases could also be referred to European national judiciaries, the European Court of Human Rights and eventually the International Criminal Court, which has been notably investigating crimes committed in Libya and Darfur and is committed to investigating abuses committed against migrants.