As a transnational phenomenon, the dynamics of migration and the effects of migration policies are best understood by applying a regional or cross-border – rather than a national – lens. This report therefore focuses on the border areas connecting Niger, Chad, Sudan and Libya to investigate how the current drive to curtail irregular migration and human smuggling has affected migration routes and practices in the Sahara. It finds that EU support for border controls and anti-smuggling operations in Niger and Sudan has resulted in the diversification of migration and smuggling routes – including through Chad. Although Chad has not become the next big migration hub to date, the increase in migration flows passing through the country confirms that nationally focused migration policies tend to result in the displacement of routes rather than in stopping migration completely.

In a similar vein, the opening of a UNHCR transit facility in Niamey, which supported the evacuation of refugees from Libya and aimed at resettling them in third countries, quickly attracted an influx of Sudanese asylum seekers from Libya to Agadez. These refugees were under the impression that an easier, safer and legal route to asylum in Europe had now opened up, which they preferred to the dangerous journey through Libya and across the Mediterranean. This example underlines again that the implementation of migration policies in one country tends to have an effect on migratory routes and practices in other countries and that a more regionally oriented approach to migration is needed. It also goes to show that the best way to prevent migrants from embarking on dangerous sea journeys to Europe is to provide them with access to safer, legal and durable pathways to protection and livelihoods.

The report demonstrates that an important reason why migration routes and practices shift so easily is that migration is often facilitated by actors and networks with strong cross-border trade and trafficking links. This can be seen, for example, in the gold mining networks that span across the Sahara border region and which have sometimes contributed to the diversification of migration routes. Cross-border gold mining networks and migration are intertwined in various ways. Gold mining activities and logistics facilitate and fund migratory efforts, but they also provide economic alternatives to migration and even contribute to stability through their contribution to livelihoods and occasional business alliances between local communities and armed groups.

Pushed by EU efforts to curtail irregular migration, states such as Niger, Chad and Sudan have shored up border patrols and anti-smuggling operations in the border regions under study here – often obstructing regular intra-country movements and legal border-crossing in the process. In addition, these policies tend to have far-reaching consequences for regional and local political and economic stability, as well as for the life of local communities and the migrants and refugees themselves.

In the case of the Niger-Libya border, anti-smuggling efforts have resulted in competition between militias over smuggling and anti-smuggling benefits – thereby impacting negatively on the stability of the region. In the cases of Chad and Sudan, the EU-driven focus on securing borders to stem migration coincided with both countries’ desire to gain greater control over their borders to prevent incursions of rebel groups located in neighbouring states. As a consequence, anti-smuggling efforts were not the deployed forces’ main priority, and in the case of Sudan, the government-backed militias sent to control the border region themselves engaged in human smuggling and trafficking.

In other cases, where no state actors could be mobilised to enforce border controls and implement anti-smuggling operations, such as in southern Libya, the EU and its member states attempted to mobilise non-state armed groups as border guards. Some of these groups have been quite receptive to international appeals to stem migration, as they expect to receive resources and international recognition as legitimate actors in return for their collaboration. But this strategy has downsides: it pits these groups against other groups involved in the smuggling industry – thereby increasing instability in the region. In other instances, it may simply entail paying the smugglers to stop smuggling – or to move their smuggling efforts under the radar.

It is widely recognised that the only way to structurally address human smuggling is to create legal migration pathways. As long as that is not a viable political option, it should be realised that investing in democratisation, improving governance, and state and peace 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:

Avoid adopting migration policies that undermine the rule of law by obstructing regular forms of migration or movements in the region.
Avoid working with security forces that have a record of perpetrating abuse.
Avoid working with irregular forces.
Establish sustainable long-term priorities for the region.

Toward this end, the EU should:

Better coordinate its migration policies, both at EU level and between EU member states engaging bilaterally with third countries.
Design an accountability scheme to ensure that migration-related funding is used by implementing partners in a conflict-sensitive manner.
Set clear governance and human rights benchmarks for migration policies.
Allow for accountability for human rights abuses committed against migrants as a consequence of EU border externalisation policies.