Lush gardens and gold-festooned state rooms were the setting late last month for the leaders of France, Italy and Spain, and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, to gather and talk migration with the presidents of Chad and Niger and the prime minister of Libya’s unity government.
The proposals in the Paris meeting’s official declaration, released after the conclusion of the joint sessions, contain promising language about local economic development and the need to promote retraining and alternative livelihoods for smugglers and others involved in the movement of migrants. Additionally, Emmanuel Macron’s government appears keen to look more closely at integration between the Maghreb and the Sahel. The declaration repeatedly referenced not just the need for economic development in the region, but also the necessity of providing economic alternatives for migrants as well as local communities that have benefitted from smuggling economies that have grown along with the recent wave of trans-Saharan migration.
In two recent ECFR papers, my colleague Mattia Toaldo and I have argued that any realistic approach to migration must avoid security-heavy approaches to the issue, provide some legal pathways for migrants to work in Europe, and promote regional integration and growth as a way of providing work for migrants and the border communities that benefit from smuggling economies.
One step forward, two steps back
The Paris declaration does contain some elements that could be the seeds of such a policy direction. However, the proposals from the meeting contained in the joint declaration still fall far short of the real needs of migrants and regional communities, and they would retain the security-heavy approach already adopted. These will exacerbate the very conditions they are meant to resolve. France still takes the lead on some security and political issues in the Sahel. Both it and the EU remain wedded to counterproductive and even deadly approaches to the ‘migrant crisis’ that stigmatise and endanger migrants while doing little to understand the factors pushing migrants across the Sahara.
The published readout from the meetings and other reporting around them contain a number of steps to strengthen regional cooperation and ostensibly improve the conditions of migrants. Macron proposed a modified system for processing asylum requests, including potentially deploying teams to the Sahel to provide refugees with protection and medical treatment treatment and possibly give them opportunities to live and work in Europe. This seems drawn from the Macron government’s earlier idea to create “hotspots” to process refugees in Libya, a proposal which withered on the vine this summer. Instead, according to the plans, these refugees will be processed in Niger and Chad, and the addition of “protection teams” could ensure better conditions and needed safety for asylum-seekers and victims of abuses suffered along the route north.
A weakness of this proposal is that it only deals with processing refugees, who make up relatively small numbers of those crossing the Mediterranean when compared to economic migrants, the majority of whom do not want to travel to Europe in the first place. For the latter group, the EU’s solutions so far consist of plans for large local investments that dwarf local absorption capacities and pressure to crack down on migrant flows and migrant smugglers in particular.
Additionally, it is unclear how EU officials would determine refugee status or even how many refugees the EU countries would agree to take in. Any processing centres for refugees would also need to be in secure areas, a significant challenge if they are outside of cities like Agadez, the main city in northern Niger, or in the country’s capital Niamey. And if security and material conditions are lacking in these centres or the number of “refugees” accepted kept to a minimum, there will be little incentive for people to avail themselves of these processing centres in lieu of the risks that already exist in travelling to the Mediterranean via the Sahara and the Maghreb.
For other migrants not seeking asylum, however, the proposals largely consist of facilitating their return to their home countries by improving local capacity and providing international support through the International Organization of Migration and others. The joint declaration is explicit in the desire to “stem irregular migration flows well before they reach the Mediterranean coasts.” Yet in reality it can be difficult to distinguish between “refugees” and irregular migrants, and the lack of legal migration pathways force those seeking work or safety to pursue the “irregular” route.
The Paris declaration also proposes increased support not just for capacity-building programmes like the EUCAP Sahel Niger programme, but also the still-embryonic Rapid Action Groups (GAR-SI) meant to respond to threats of criminality and terrorism in border areas and other regional troops under the G5 Sahel joint force, whose potential shortcomings I analysed in June. While the joint declaration references the two-pronged strategy first proposed during the Valletta summit on migration in 2015 of economic development and regional governmental and security force capacity-building, the emphasis in terms of concrete proposals is overwhelmingly on the latter.
The costs of security-based approaches
As the southern Libyan region of Fezzan has become “Europe’s new border,” due to the emphasis on stopping migrants before they reach the Mediterranean, Niger’s authorities have seized trucks, arrested smugglers. This has caused drivers to seek out new and less known or less secure routes. At the sight of trouble or for many other reasons, these drivers will sometimes leave their passengers in the desert to die of thirst. Although this has long been a horrific problem, it has grown worse in recent months. Niger’s government and the IOM have rescued at least 1,000 people since April alone. The increased support promised in Monday’s meeting for these operations does not make up for the fact that EU policies and pressure have contributed significantly to this problem.
Policy proposals like those emerging from the Paris meeting also show a persistent failure to understand smuggling economies and the role they play in the region. In less populated and more arid portions of the Sahel, local populations have long lived from cross-border trade, whether licit, semi-licit – the trafficking of subsidised fuel or foodstuffs, for instance – or illicit, such as the trafficking of drugs or people. The declaration from Monday’s conference explicitly aims to “break” the networks of smugglers that take migrants north, and also specifically refers to them as engaging in the “trade of human beings” using language that recalls the slave trade.
It is certainly true that in Libya but also to an extent in Algeria, some women have been trafficked and forced into prostitution, while other workers have been horrifically mistreated and even reportedly sold away into modern-day slavery. But while these networks exist, others simply respond to a demand for migrant workers seeking transport north. Lumping all migrant smugglers, known locally as passeurs, in together casts a pall on all those not engaged in these worst practices, and risks not only further depriving these groups (and those who depend on them) of income, but also could cause even more political trouble in places like northern Niger. It is necessary to distinguish between different types of smuggling and the networks that undertake them, targeting the worst actors without engaging in blind crackdowns and unnecessarily antagonising border communities, as we recommend in our report. Cracking down now while offering vague language about alternative economies provides little incentive for passeurs to stop their current activities so long as they remain profitable. And if they are no longer profitable, they may turn back to other activities such as narcotics trafficking or even rebellion against the state.
Finally, these approaches present massive institutional problems. The G5-Sahel joint force, a combined military body involving troops from Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad, already faces budgetary concerns and a lack of clarity about its full mandate and even when such a force can be deployed. The relatively small size of the five-nation, 5,000-strong force agreed to in February of this year, and the current plans to operate largely along Mali’s border areas, mean that extending the mission to countering smuggling along the border with Libya would stretch Nigerien and Chadian forces, already involved in combat on multiple fronts. Just last month French officials told me in multiple conversations about the weaknesses of the force and the need to proceed gradually with the G5’s mission Its possible expansion into another mission in another geographic zone is therefore a real a point of concern. And a wider deployment of Western military forces to interdict smuggling in the region – one possible outcome contained in the meeting declaration – carries its own significant risks.
It is true that Europe needs new approaches to migration, to stem the tide of Mediterranean and Saharan deaths and also help provide alternative pathways for those leaving their homes in search of safety and work. But continuing to securitise and militarise this space, with no deeper strategy or broader goals, will only worsen the region’s problems and put migrants in greater danger.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.