Beyond securitisation in the Sahel

The political response to the migrant crisis that has captivated Europe in recent months has centered mostly on migrant flows from the Middle East and South Asia. However, waves of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, travelling through North Africa and southern Europe, continues, largely unabated. The humanitarian toll of these migrations – whether from overburdened ships capsizing in the Mediterranean or migrants abandoned and left to their deaths in the vast Sahara – have necessitated attention and a more integrated European response.

Part of the process of managing this crisis has involved efforts to increase cooperation with regional partners, especially those with whom the EU has developed a deeper relationship due to ongoing political turmoil and security threats in the Sahara and Sahel. This has involved meeting and coordinating with North African partners, especially Algeria and Morocco – largely to increase coordination and support for the government of Niger. EUCAP Sahel Niger – the CSDP civilian mission in the region, launched in 2012 – has broadened its operations to include a greater focus on migration in addition to its work strengthening Niger’s border security and police capacity. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) opened a transit centre in the Nigerien desert city of Agadez in late 2014, and estimates that 120,000 migrants passed through it last year alone, double the number estimated for the previous year. The emphasis on security and capacity-building means that there is often a failure to appreciate the complex dimensions of cross-border migration. Such an approach also fails to account for local political dynamics that make it difficult to significantly curtail migration without incurring major political, economic, and security costs.

In both North Africa and the Sahel, migration is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, migrants often have to stop in North Africa for extended periods of time, either while they wait to continue their route through diffuse smuggling networks, or while they work to acquire money to pay for their crossing to Europe. Morocco has been inconsistent when it comes to dealing with migrants, sometimes cracking down on them and other times turning a blind eye, like when migrants attempted to scale the walls of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Algeria has repatriated thousands of migrants from Niger in the past year, even as other sub-Saharan migrants remain in the country as labourers, merchants, and domestic workers.

The EU has come to rely increasingly on the cooperation of partner states in North Africa and, as a result, has deepened its own stake in the stability of these countries. The migration crisis, as well as concern about possible radicalisation of Maghreb migrant communities in Europe, has led to an ever-closer security cooperation between EU member states, Morocco, and Algeria. This type of security cooperation could raise the risk of social tensions deepening in Europe and worsening the state of human rights, even as it may help ameliorate short-term security threats. Meanwhile, in the Sahel, the increasing level of security-oriented policy raises the risk that political abuses may be overlooked in addition to the underlying relationships between governments and migration. Nowhere can this conflict be better illustrated than in Niger.

Niger and particularly the city of Agadez have become a key waystation for migrants making their way to Europe through Libya in recent years. The centuries-old city, long a centre for trade and learning, now finds itself in the midst of a booming trafficking economy and a successful ad-hoc gold-trading industry due to recent discoveries of the valuable metal in the country’s east. It is also home to one of northern Niger’s major military bases, which hosts a centre for US and French training efforts, and will soon be the site of a $50 million project to ready the air base for use by American surveillance drones, which will be operated in northern Mali and southern Libya.

Cracking down on human smuggling networks is not a simple task, and while it carries a number of risks for the migrants who opt to pay smugglers, the industry also threatens stability in Niger and in Mali. Under international pressure, and following the horrific deaths of nearly 100 migrants in the desert in Algeria in 2013, Niger outlawed human smuggling. This has certainly not done anything to decrease the trade passing through Agadez and northern Niger, but as Reuters points out, it has made the passage significantly more dangerous for migrants. Human smuggling – like other traffics in the region — is deeply embedded in local political and economic networks, and the increase in migrants passing through the region shows that outlawing human smuggling has done nothing to decrease its prevalence.

Following the Tuareg and Arab rebellions in 1990 and in 2007, Nigerien governments have responded to trafficking with a mixture of extreme force, political accommodation, and cooptation. This is particularly true of the current government of President Mahamadou Issoufou, elected in the country’s first democratic elections after a 2010 military coup and 14 month transition. Issoufou has taken major steps to integrate Tuareg and Arab representatives into his government, placing them in senior posts, while also building closer relationships with communal representatives and important business actors from the country’s north. These business-people include a number of reputed traffickers involved in diverse legal, semi-legal, and illegal trading activity across the Sahara. This strategy was meant, in part, to preserve stability in northern Niger by tolerating trafficking.

This does not mean that actors close to Issoufou have a monopoly on these trades; indeed, according to local observers and Nigerien and Western researchers, regional dynamics like the ongoing instability in Libya have prompted some human trafficking routes to shift and also come under the control of newer groups, like Toubou communities that live in, and travel between, north-eastern Niger, northern Chad, and southern Libya. But it does show that cracking down on various trades in northern Niger, including human smuggling, could upset the fragile balance in the region. And although authorities have far less of a chance of effectively limiting smuggling in northern Mali, similar dynamics apply there too. A series of tentative peace agreements signed in and around the northern Malian town of Anéfis last year includes not just politico-military leaders of armed groups, but also one noteworthy trafficker. Digging deeper, the politico-military leaders themselves are widely believed to be associated with their own trafficking networks.

All of this means that even communal peace accords remain fragile and deeply embedded within burgeoning trafficking economies. For the moment, at least, smuggling remains too complex a phenomenon to be dealt with as just a security problem, and securitising migration will do nothing to stem the flow of economic migrants or political refugees, but instead push human smuggling further underground. Europe instead needs a more comprehensive approach to immigration that includes providing increased safe and legal channels for those who want to work in Europe while also helping create economic opportunities in North Africa, the Sahel, and West Africa.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.