The Italian military deployment
This Commentary is part of a series of three on Italy's role in the ongoing migration crisis. Also read On the shores of safety: migration management in Sicily and Organised crime and migration in Sicily.
During a visit to the EUNAVFOR MED Operation Sophia, the naval mission countering migrant smuggling and trafficking in the southern central Mediterranean, the Italian Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, confirmed the deployment of 470 of the country’s troops in Niger. ‘We have to continue to work, concentrating our attention and energies on the threat of people trafficking and terrorism in the Sahel,’ he explained. The troops, accompanied by 150 vehicles, are expected to join the French troops located at the Madama military base, 100 kilometres from the Nigerien-Libyan border. While this move can be seen as part of the commitment to contribute to the G5 Sahel expressed during the G5 Summit, Italy’s decision is a continuation of the stance the country has adopted towards migration in the past year, as well as an instrument to assert itself as a constructive EU security player.
In 2017 Italy played a key role in brokering ‘migration-mitigating deals’ on behalf of the EU, and also – as a country of first arrival – to relieve the pressure of irregular migration at home. The Italian Ministers of Foreign Affairs and of Interior, along with the Prime Minister, hosted numerous talks with local authorities from the Fezzan (the southwestern region of Libya bordering Niger) to discuss border-control measures. They also facilitated several high-level meetings between diplomats and EU, UN and government representatives to discuss development cooperation, illegal immigration, human trafficking, fuel smuggling, reinforcement of border security, repatriation and assisted voluntary return.
In May 2017, the Italian Minister of Interior, Marco Minniti, met in Rome with his Libya, Chad and Niger colleagues to establish new reception structures for irregular migrants in Africa and to agree on future investment in police training for border control. After threatening to close its harbours to foreign non-governmental organisations, Italy adopted the EU-backed Code of Conduct of Sea Operations for NGOs, a controversial set of regulations aimed at reducing the scope of maritime rescue operations. Shortly afterwards, Libya established its own exclusive maritime search and rescue (SAR) zone as requested by the EU, where only the Libyan Coast Guard could conduct SAR operations to rescue migrants. Minniti sees the deals with Libya as a way forward for Europe: ‘What Italy did in Libya is a model to deal with migrant flows without erecting borders or barbed wire barriers.’
Against this backdrop, the assignment of Italian troops to the north of Niger should come as little surprise, especially since Italy and Germany had already advocated for a similar EU mission in early 2017. About 80% of the migrants and refugees who reach the shores of Italy must cross the Sahel and Libya on their way to the Mediterranean. In early 2015, Agadez, the administrative unit of the Nigerien state nearest to the portion of desert that connects it to Libya, had become a major smuggling hub on the road to Italy. Heavy securitisation measures and the criminalisation of human smuggling led to a substantial decrease in northbound migratory flows. However, the Sahel, and northern Niger in particular, remain important transit areas for mixed-migration flows. The Nigerien-Libyan border, which extends for about 600 kilometres, is a porous one that guarantees passage to experienced smugglers, and Libya is still a sought-after transit country.
The arrival of the initial contingent of Italian soldiers coincided with the opening of the Italian Embassy in the Nigerien capital, Niamey – Italy’s first and only Sahelian embassy. The decision to install a diplomatic mission in Niger was taken in December 2016 in light of the increasingly important role played by Niamey as a strategic partner in halting migration and maintaining regional stability. In his inaugural speech, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Angelino Alfano stressed that the event represents the culmination of a yearlong series of meetings between the two countries that committed to working ever more closely with each other. It is against this backdrop, and in the name of stronger cooperation, he explained, that Italian troops will be deployed to train the Nigerien army, but also to proactively surveil and control the territory to deter all illicit trafficking, and migrant smuggling in particular.
An added value of the deployment of Italian troops in northern Niger is that it allows for the repositioning of Italy as a constructive EU security player. First and foremost, this course of action will guarantee Italy a greater say on the EU defence and security agenda and will allow for its active involvement in reform processes alongside Germany and France, who are spearheading the current debate on initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defence (PESCO). Moreover, this intervention will facilitate a rapprochement between Italy and France, who have seen a divergence in their strategic positions in the aftermath of the 2011 French intervention in Libya. The Italian government harshly criticised the French initiative and decided not to support its subsequent intervention in Mali in 2013, leading to a climate of disagreement between Paris and Rome. This stands in stark contrast to Germany, which provided support to the 2013 French-led Barkhane mission in the Sahel. In addition to curbing smuggling, Italian troops are now expected to assist the operation Barkhane, which will allow for the rotation of French troops that have been stationed in the region since 2013.
"An added value of the deployment of Italian troops in northern Niger is that it allows for the repositioning of Italy as a constructive EU security player."
From the above, it follows that the deployment of Italian troops in northern Niger serves several Italian agendas. What is less clear is how this deployment will serve Niger itself, where securitised approaches to migration management have already created a dangerous cocktail of increased economic hardship, delegitimised authorities, and increased insecurity. Previous research conducted by the Conflict Research Unit of the Clingendael Institute shows that the focus on securitising the borders of transit countries - like Niger - concentrates on short-term achievements without considering local contingencies and without examining the possible implications or side-effects of these interventions. This is symptomatic of the risk logic that dominates the current debate on migration and of the larger inherent contradiction in the EU migration agenda. On the one hand, EU policies and instruments emphasise the development-migration-security nexus and depict migration as a structural phenomenon that needs to be addressed by a long-term commitment. On the other hand, EU responses focus on immediate goals and tackle the migration question as a threat by making use of supposed quick fixes that tend to take the form of securitised measures.
Yet, these measures might turn mutually disadvantageous for both the transit countries and the EU. Simply by being present on the territory, international actors change local political calculations, incentives, and structures. Interventions aimed at curbing migration risk creating ruptures in the fragile balances that certain regions have and might even subvert the priorities and political agendas that states have, thus increasing insecurity. The recent decision to deploy Italian troops in Niger suggests, however, that EU reactions to migration still largely ignore the strong links between migration, local economies, governance and security – and that few changes can be expected in this policy line in the near future.