Misunderstanding migration in North and West Africa

A shocking report on the apparent slave trade in migrants trapped in Libya has focused European attention on combatting smugglers. But ‘cracking down’ on migrant networks is not the answer.

Last week, European and African leaders met in Abidjan for the fifth AU-EU summit, an event meant to mark a turning page in cooperation on the continent. But what was meant to be a much broader series of meetings and discussions has taken on a major focus on migration, one that demonstrates the EU’s ongoing failure to understand the realities of the movements of people. This failure risks exacerbating the problems faced by migrants and would-be migrants in Africa.

The migration issue took on added importance shortly before the summit due to the firestorm internationally (especially within Africa) that followed a CNN report purportedly documenting slave markets for migrants held in Libya. The report sent shockwaves through the Sahel and Europe, as regional presidents summoned Libyan ambassadors for explanations and hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants were repatriated from the country.

French President Emmanuel Macron took this several steps further at the Abidjan summit, calling for urgent action to rescue and repatriate migrants trapped in Libyan camps, the establishment of pathways to more effectively process asylum seekers who wish to live in Europe, and “fighting against traffickers and their finances.” EU President Donald Tusk shared this call, urging the imposition of UN sanctions on “human smugglers and traffickers” and for the protection and facilitation of returning migrants to their homes. And the joint AU-EU statement on migration at the end of the conference reiterated the desire to support the Libyan Presidential Council and Government of National Accord (GNA) in dealing with the allegations of slave markets, and to accelerate efforts underway to protect and repatriate migrants.

In many ways this announcement is an extension of Macron’s plan from this summer to establish “hotspots” to process asylum applications in the region, while sending teams to protect them from further harm. The extension is that Macron is now insisting on a “concrete military and police initiative” in Libya, accompanied by UN sanctions and other tools to interdict the “passeurs” or smugglers who move migrants from the Sahel and West Africa through Libya.

Some of these ideas are already in place or being planned for to further cut down migration through Libya to Europe. EU institutions are already working with Libyan military and naval units. The EU already provides financial and other material support for voluntary repatriation of migrants to their home countries: 13,000 migrants have chosen this option in 2017. The EU Trust Fund for Africa, which has since November 2015 assembled nearly €3.2 billion for the purpose of coping with irregular migration, also plays a key role in financing ongoing efforts to stem migrant flows.

But it remains unclear how or even if this more ambitious plan would work. Macron’s initial comments did not specify whether the military/police initiative would consist of European, Libyan, or other African forces, and whether the patchwork of competing militias in places like Sabratha would be involved.

All options carry enormous risks: a deployment of European forces would risk combat with well-armed militias, while working with Libyan militias or more formalized armed groups could exacerbate fighting in the country and further support traffickers themselves. According to some allegations, Italy may have already provided direct financial incentives and other support to militias in the north in order to stop migrant flows, and the EU’s eagerness to reduce migration has prompted some local actors like the Toubou militia commander Barka Chidimi to demand direct assistance for the task. Italy and France have also disagreed on approaches to migration; Italy has absorbed the waves of migrants arriving on its shores in a way that France has not, and Italy is reportedly unhappy French diplomatic efforts in Libya and the lack of support Italy has received from European partners.

Either way, the plan has yet to be fleshed out, and any analysis of how it might work must wait for actual indications of how European officials plan on putting it into action. Moreover, while the immediate protection of migrants and asylum-seekers in danger is an imperative, the repatriation of endangered migrants does nothing to address why they migrated in the first place, or what they will do when returned to the homes they previously sought to leave.

A separate, but in some ways more serious, issue pertains to the understanding of migration encapsulated in Macron’s statements. The shock, horror, and anger at the images of slave auctions, of women trafficked and forced into sex work, or of desperate people being pulled from the Mediterranean, are natural reactions.

Macron statements reflect this reaction, as well as the popular idea that smugglers (passeurs in French) are hardened criminals who prey on migrants. In some cases this is certainly true, though migrants often suffer abuses at the hands of security forces that are just as bad as those carried out by smugglers. But not all passeurs fit this image. My interviews with smugglers and communal representatives from northern Niger reveal that many see themselves as doing a job based on a local and regional demand, in a part of the world where regular and seasonal migration have for centuries been a necessary part of life.

The focus on criminalization of the migrant trade has the effect of making it more dangerous for smugglers. This drives up the cost of transport for migrants while increasing the danger of the voyage, and, paradoxically, attracts the kind of criminal elements which Macron seeks to combat.

Moreover, while Macron talks about setting up networks to process asylum seekers before they try to cross the Mediterranean, this ignores the economic migrants who seek work either in North Africa (particularly Morocco, Algeria, and Libya) or in Europe.

According to some studies as many as 80% of migrants circulating in the region wish to stay in the region to work, before returning home. Despite the hysterical outcry of some politicians in Europe, they have no desire to come to Europe. Such circular migration has been the norm and a way of life in the Sahara, Sahel, and West Africa for centuries, allowing migrants to cope with climactic variations and short growing seasons, as well as political difficulties, and to take advantage of work and educational opportunities elsewhere.

This presents a risk as well as an opportunity. Circular migration can help drive development within the region and foster integration between North Africa and the Sahel. Europe’s shortsighted efforts to simply halt migration closes down many routes that don’t lead to Europe in any case, damaging local economies dependent on the movement of people to survive.

Finally, the push to dismantle migrant smuggling routes fails to address why people migrate in the first place. While the planned announcement for the EU to create an €8 billion fund for the region, and the French-led Alliance pour le Sahel promises a raft of development aid as well as investment, these programmes could take years to implement, and risk overwhelming the local absorption capacity for such inflows of money, fueling corruption and creating inflated economies dependent on foreign money that will be difficult to sustain when the “emergency” is finished. They also fail to address the social pressures from families that encourage young people to migrate.

As I and other colleagues have argued, only through the establishment of legal migration channels within the region and to Europe can the EU hope to reduce illegal migration without damaging the social and economic patterns in the Sahel and West Africa. This is not a panacea and it faces significant political complications. But approaches focused on stopping migration (albeit with an injection of local development funding) cannot alleviate the need for local populations to migrate in the first place, and robs West African and Sahelian economies of the remittances and opportunities needed to sustain them.

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.