Africa English Migration North & West Africa Resilience & Society Sahel


October 4, 2018

Notes for understanding African migration

By J. Peter Pham

This article appeared originally in French in the current print edition of the magazine Pouvoirs d’Afrique.

This past summer, one could not help but wonder as the leaders of Europe and Africa, in separate meetings, seemed to talk past one another as they sought to deal with what has become one of the most significant—if not the single most important—challenge in the relations between those countries north of the Mediterranean Sea and those located along the southern shore of the old Mare Nostrum and their neighbors farther down on the continent.

After marathon negotiations over June 28 and 29, the European Union’s heads of state and government called for the establishment of migrant processing centers in North Africa and agreed to “swiftly explore the concept of regional platforms in close cooperation” with non-EU countries and various international organizations. They also agreed to set up secure processing centers for migrants who manage to land in Europe, although, tellingly, none of them volunteered to host one of these installations. They further reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening external border controls and held out the prospect of more funding for Turkey and countries in the Maghreb, from which the migrants embark.

At the same time the EU leaders were meeting in Brussels, the African Union’s 31st ordinary summit of heads of state and government convened in Nouakchott from June 25 to July 2. Migration was likewise discussed in the Mauritanian capital, both at the top leadership level and in a special meeting of the AU Peace and Security Council. A number of speakers, including AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat came out in opposition to the regional disembarkation platforms for migrants rescued in international waters that the EU wanted to locate on the African continent. Instead, accepting a proposal tabled earlier this year by Morocco (whose sovereign, King Mohammed VI, had previously been designated by the AU as the regional body’s point person on migration issues), the African leaders decided to create an African Observatory for Migration and Development (OAMD) to be based in Rabat.

About the only common ground was possibly the acknowledgment by French President Emmanuel Macron, who went on from the EU meeting to visit Nigeria and Mauritania, arriving in the latter country in time to catch the end of the AU meeting, that migration is “one of the greatest political challenges of today and the next few years because it will not stop.” Macron went on to say, “Let’s look lucidly at this subject of migration. The very poor do not leave their country, they are the middle classes of emerging economies that are passing through Libya today… An overwhelming majority of those who go to sea after months, years of wandering, suffering, where do they come from? Nigeria, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea. Are these countries doing less well than they were ten years ago? No. And so we have a youth who believe that there is no hope in their countries.”

Even if one begs to differ with the French head of state on some points of his analysis, there is no doubt about either the need to deal with the challenge posed by the phenomenon or that the only way to do so is to first have a better grasp of its dynamics.

Limiting ourselves for the purposes of this article to economic migrants—people who leave their home countries in search of employment or better socio-economic circumstances, rather than the larger and more complex populations of refugees, asylum seekers, and persons displaced by conflict or natural disasters—one finds that while the attention at the two recent summits has focused on the crisis being played out on the Mediterranean, that area is only one of three major pathways of migration on the continent, even if it is the most iconic given the new Italian Interior Minister Mario Salvini’s refusal in late June to allow the Gibraltar-flagged rescue boat Aquarius, operated by a German aid group and carrying at the time some 630 migrants, to dock at Italian ports. (Subsequently, Salvini, who is also concurrently the country’s Deputy Prime Minister, also turned away an Italian commercial vessel that had pulled migrants to safety while servicing oil platforms off the Libyan coast.)

In addition to the Mediterranean route, migrants also cross the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Peninsula. Despite the war that continues to ravage Yemen, an estimated 40,000 Africans traveled that route last year. Moreover, several tens of thousands of economic migrants also head not to Europe, but to Southern Africa, mostly along the continent’s eastern littoral from the Horn of Africa region. Thus it is important to understand that, even as the global media have trained its cameras on the passage across the Mediterranean and populist politicians in Europe seek advantage by invoking the specter of unchecked masses sailing across the sea, the poverty, corruption, and poor governance driving many of Africans to leave their homes—as well as the prospect of better socio-economic conditions that attracts them—means that the movement of humanity won’t stop even if one major corridor can somehow be blocked.

Whatever pathway they choose, many experts estimate that more than three-quarters of African migrants avail themselves of smugglers, a statistic that underscores both the potential risk to the migrants as well as a disconcerting political economy that empowers criminal networks and threatens regional security. A 2017 study by Mark Micallef and funded by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, found that while the focus has been on coastal regions like that of Libya, the illicit trade has networks that are embedded not only across the country, but, indeed, across the continent. Operators along the Libyan coast, for example, were found to have well-established connections with agents as far afield as East Africa (especially Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan) and the Levant, in addition to better known links to West Africa. According to the Maltese researcher, “The expansion and consolidation of smuggling activity has been further predicated on the interface with communities, as it has been justified as a means to fund militias, which in turn provide security in the face of external threats from competing families, tribes, and towns. Migrants and refugees have become simply another commodity to be exploited in the broader resource predation carried out by armed groups that exercise effective control over the Libyan territory.  The consequences for human security, both for the migrants and for the Libyan people, are considerable.”

A different study by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in December 2017 estimated, conservatively, that African migrant smuggling was an economy worth around $1 billion to the criminal networks, militias, corrupt officials, and extremist militants involved.

However, what makes eradicating the problem difficult is that, while action is needed now—both for urgent humanitarian and self-evident political reasons—a long-term perspective is needed. Any short-term actions, whether undertaken by international actors or national authorities risks unwittingly playing into the hands of the very disruptive criminal and insurgent groups that are known to have profited from the human trafficking.

There is an interesting field study conducted at the end of last year by Dutch researchers in Agadez, a Saharan town in the center of Niger that, in the wake of the collapse of the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya (and the continuing failure to stand up any effective national government in its place), became a major hub for the smugglers facilitating the movement of sub-Saharan African migrants to Europe. The EU established a strategic partnership with the government of Niger to stem the flow of migrants heading north, providing support funding and various capacity-building programs to the Sahelian country to implement its 2015 law against the smuggling of migrants, the first African country to enact in its national legal system the provisions of the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, supplementing the 2000 United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

The barren Aïr region around Agadez was once the heart of a Berber sultanate ruled by the Tuareg until French colonial authorities conquered them in 1900. Since then, it has been a restive area whose residents’ sense of political marginalization broke out in armed rebellion as recently as 2007-2009, a conflict which, ironically, exacerbated the decline of the area by effectively shutting down the tourism that was a major part of the local economy either directly by providing services to visitors or secondarily, such as by artisanal manufacturers of jewelry and other handicrafts. Subsequently, the growth of the migration proved a boon for residents who previously benefited from the once-thriving tourism industry: former tour guides with knowledge of the desert found work as passeurs–drivers transported African migrants instead of well-heeled European tourists, caterers shifted their menu offerings to meet the needs of their new customers, etc. “All-inclusive” packages were even offered that included pick-up, local accommodations, transport, and provisions.

The robust implementation since the end of 2016 of the new Nigerien anti-trafficking law—including the arrest of both operators and corrupt officials as well as the creation of check points and the confiscation of hundreds of vehicles used to transport migrants from the region onward to Libya—has significantly curtailed northbound migration from Agadez, although whether the route has simply shifted is a different matter altogether. In fact, there is at least anecdotal evidence that the statistical success is not without cost as migrants have been abandoned in the desert as those smuggling them sought to evade arrest. In any event, the Dutch researchers found that approximately 6,000 locals (out of Agadez’s population of approximately 125,000 people) were directly employed in the migration “business” and about half of the town’s households derived at least part of their incomes from either the migrant flow or the concomitant trade with Libya. The crackdown, combined with the shutdown of the tourism trade and the decline of once-thriving gold mines, has left the region in economic crisis with social tensions on the uptick. It goes without saying the criminal and extremist groups operating across the Sahel are more than ready to exploit any additional grievances that crop up.

The reality was certainly not lost on the participants in the AU summit that this last possibility is anything but trivial. In fact, on the margins of the Nouakchott meeting, a UN Support Plan for the Sahel was launched by Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohamed, herself the daughter of a herdsman-veterinarian from Gombe State in northeastern Nigeria, an area that was seeing attacks on outposts by Boko Haram fighters as recently as February of this year and where even as late as June there were still roads connecting major population centers along which civilians did not venture without military escorts. As the permanent secretary of the G5 Sahel regional group, Maman Samba Sidikou, observed in an interview ahead of the AU summit, “The terrorists thrive on their ability to communicate and spread their ideas within communities. It is imperative that there be paradigm shift for the Sahel that includes an economic and social development component… [and] the realization of cross-border development projects.”

It is inescapable that the very same scenario of unintended consequences as occurred in Agadez will undoubtedly play itself out, with local variations, across Africa if European politicians and their African counterparts somehow manage to achieve any success in staunching the flow of migrants. That is why a multi-pronged strategy is the only one that can hope to be sustainable over the long term. Such an approach will not only have to address the concerns about border security that animate many Europeans as well as the drivers of migration that are the issue for Africans, but it must also contend with the very nuanced political economies that have emerged because of the phenomenon.

In his “African Agenda on Migration,” presented by the Moroccan monarch to his fellow African leaders back in January as part of his mandate as the AU’s leader on migration issues and which proposed the creation of the OAMD that the AU summit ultimately endorsed, Mohammed VI urged a comprehensive rethink of migration, not only as a crisis which has seen millions of men, women, and children risk their lives in recent years, to reach Europe, but also as an intra-African concern, since four out of five migrants remain on the African continent itself.  According to the monarch, dealing holistically with the challenges which have arisen “presupposes a paradigm shift” as well as “an approach based on national policies, sub-regional coordination, a continental vision and international partnership.” The global community is still a long way from achieving those lofty objectives, but if that is ever to come to pass, it must first begin with a greater understanding of what is happening and a better anticipation of its effects.

J. Peter Pham is vice president of the Atlantic Council and director of its Africa Center.

Related Experts: J. Peter Pham

Image: Migrants are seen after they were relocated from government-run detention centres, after getting trapped by clashes between rival groups in Tripoli, Libya September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Hani Amara