Peril in the Desert: Irregular Migration through the Sahel

It is an all too common story. A Guinean teenager is unable to envision his future in a hometown increasingly characterized by joblessness and insecurity. He cultivates delusions of grandeur through regular consumption of carefully curated Facebook feeds full of happy-looking migrants exploring European capitals. He believes that a better future awaits if only he can make the journey north.

If only he can survive the journey.

On the Move through the Sahel

Though such aspirations may be common, migration north from sub-Saharan Africa is complicated and often misunderstood. For starters, most migrants never set out for Europe, let alone make it there. The majority of the migration through the Sahel is intraregional and legal thanks to free movement protocols that apply to most states in West Africa. Nonetheless, the Sahel has become a key corridor and departure point for those trying to reach Europe, often at extreme personal risk. With limited legal pathways, most of this migration to Europe is irregular, taking place through two dangerous routes: (1) the central route through the Sahara from Niger to Libya and on to Southern Europe, or (2) increasingly the western route along the coast of North Africa, eventually to Spain. This commentary focuses on the first.

The Sahel

Multiple overlapping factors drive irregular migration through the Sahel. Mostly young and male, the majority of migrants cite economic reasons as primary considerations, as was partially the case for our fictional Guinean above. However, this livelihood insecurity is linked to other destabilizing factors. Governance is absent or poor. Basic services in remote areas are scarce. Trust in government is low, and thus violence is common. Extremist organizations have unleashed an unprecedented wave of attacks on civilians in recent years. Climate change compounds this insecurity. Deadly intercommunal conflicts over resources has increased and now account for more deaths than extremism. Temperatures in the Sahel are rising 1.5 times faster than in the rest of the world, resulting in alternating extremes of droughts and floods and in turn displacing entire communities and reducing agricultural yields. Add to the mix insufficient information about the dangers of migration and significant pull factors—including regular access to social media and stylized visions of lives and livelihoods in Europe—and it is no surprise that people embark on perilous journeys.

“Multiple overlapping factors drive irregular migration through the Sahel.”

Covid-19 exacerbates nearly all of these factors and has trapped many of those already in transit. The economic fallout of the pandemic has been catastrophic. The number of people facing severe food insecurity in the Central Sahel has increased from 3.9 to 7.4 million, with millions more at risk of becoming food insecure if circumstances do not improve. Schools are closed, funding is scarce, and humanitarian access is even worse than it was pre-pandemic. Combined, these challenges could increase the number of people leaving precisely when fewer regular migration pathways exist due to the pandemic. In this scenario, those compelled to leave likely are forced to do so irregularly, relying on unscrupulous smugglers, traffickers, and other illicit groups. Traveling “in the shadows,” without access to humanitarian aid, health checks, or proper documentation presents an enormous risk to the health and well-being of migrants and to the security of countries in the region.

Agadez: The Gateway to a Dangerous Desert

For our Guinean migrant hoping to reach Europe, the town of Agadez in northern Niger is a critical juncture along the central route. From his home in Conakry the trip takes two days and involves multiple legs in taxis and commercial buses. While grueling, this leg of the journey is legal and mostly safe; the perils of irregular migration begin upon arrival in Agadez.

Historic migrant flows have served as an economic cornerstone for Agadez, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as “the gateway to the desert”. From 2014 to 2016, 5,000 migrants per week would pass through Agadez in the high season, with as many as 330,000 per year attempting the irregular journey north. As discussed below, this changed in 2016: prices rose, migrant numbers dwindled, and the journey became even more dangerous.

Today, our Guinean migrant would be accommodated in ghettos run by smugglers before getting on a pickup truck headed for Libya packed with as many as 30 other migrants, more if in a larger vehicle. The journey across the Sahara can take days; a single wrong turn or engine failure can lead to dehydration and death. If he is among the few to make it that far, his next stage is no less dangerous. Once in Libya, he is at risk of being detained by the state or non-state actors who subject migrants to forced labor, sexual exploitation, torture, kidnapping, and even death. If he avoids detention, he then faces a Mediterranean crossing to Italy, a voyage that kills 3.4 percent of those who attempt it and leads to many others being intercepted by authorities.

Photo: Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Into the Shadows

The “migration crisis” of 2015 saw a dramatic transformation of European migration policies. The influx of people (small relative to global flows but large compared to previous migration levels to Europe) put unprecedented pressure on the European Union’s inadequate asylum and migrant reception systems, which it is only now starting to reassess. Anti-migrant sentiment, stoked by populist political figures, pushed the European Union and its member states to implement policies of “externalization” in an attempt to stop the flow of migrants. In the case of the Sahel, this meant allocating billions of euros to securitizing local law enforcement and attempting to address the so-called root causes of migration. Eager to strengthen their own security sectors and boost development cooperation, many Sahelian governments actively cooperated with this effort.

The results of these policy shifts are mixed at best, counterproductive at worst. However, increased securitization in Agadez and elsewhere in the region presents an opportunity to review the results of hard externalization policies on irregular migration. The first of these was a 2015 law criminalizing migrant smuggling, which Niger adopted under heavy European pressure. As a result, 2016 migrant flows through Agadez fell from 330,000 to 70,000 per year by 2017, touted as a victory by European policymakers. However, these decreased numbers do not tell the whole story. The drivers of sub-Saharan migration— among them a lack of economic opportunity, climate change, extremist violence, and poor governance—have not changed, nor have the profit incentives of illicit actors that facilitate and exploit flows. Adept at avoiding detection and bribing corrupt officials, smugglers move whatever makes the most money: people, illicit weapons, foreign currency, drugs, and more. Fewer migrants mean smugglers charge more—the cost of the journey from Agadez to Libya has risen fourfold since 2016—and profit more, incentivizing them to stay in the people smuggling business.

“The policies intended to stop migration offer a lesson in unintended consequences.”

Migrants like our Guinean teenager are also at great risk of exploitation. Before 2016, there were widespread reports of migrant abuse and trafficking through the central route, including sexual violence, forced labor, extortion, and organ harvesting. Necessarily more circuitous and clandestine post-2016 irregular migration routes have increased the opportunity and incentives for exploitation, and have left migrants with less access to water and at greater risk of death. Moreover, there is burgeoning evidence that irregular migrant smugglers are strengthening ties with criminal and extremist networks that rely on smuggling for up to 20 percent of their income.

Thus the policies intended to stop migration offer a lesson in unintended consequences. Hard security approaches and greater barriers to migration may stop people from migrating the way they used to, but they also push them into more dangerous irregular routes, enriching illicit actors and endangering already vulnerable populations.

How to Address Irregular Migration through the Sahel

The focus of international efforts to address irregular migration through the Sahel should be first and foremost to protect vulnerable people on the move. For starters, funding appeals by the UN refugee ($186 million to provide humanitarian support to over 3 million people) and migration ($37.8 million to provide support to 460,000 people amid the pandemic) agencies should be fully funded. Information gaps should also be addressed; migrants like the Guinean teenager often decide to migrate based on inadequate and faulty information on the dangers of migration and employment opportunities in destination countries. Regional and international stakeholders should communicate the realities of migration, giving young people the opportunity to make informed migration decisions.

In the longer- term, foreign assistance efforts in the Sahel should acknowledge the complexity of the region and the growing drivers of migration. Policymakers should avoid the urge to focus only on hard security-related assistance to the Sahel. These approaches may be needed to facilitate regular and humane migration across borders, address community stabilization challenges, and disrupt transnational criminal smuggling, trafficking, and other illicit networks. But all too often increased securitization focuses on the easier targets. It is much easier, not to mention politically rewarding, to arrest and detain vulnerable people traveling irregularly than it is to disrupt well-organized and well-resourced criminal networks. While this may decrease observed irregular migration in the short term (as was the case in Agadez post-2016), securitized approaches dilute the purported objectives of foreign assistance, reducing its benefits for local communities and increasing power for those seeking to leverage aid for their own political gain.

Securitization has also disrupted the livelihoods of those dependent on migration flows, making them more vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremist groups and other illicit networks. Foreign assistance should strive to create alternative opportunities for these individuals on a scale commensurate with the economic loss that securitization has caused. Recent efforts to do so have been underfunded and inadequate.

“The most obvious way to decrease irregular migration through the Sahel is also the most politically challenging.”

The goal of assistance to the Sahel—whether migration-related or not—should be to build stronger and more accountable local governance and human rights protections across the region. In addition to being nearsighted and over-securitized, migration policies in the region have also been highly fragmented. European priorities frequently supersede local concerns, especially around the negative economic impacts of securitization. This contributes to frustration and a lack of trust in local authorities. Moving forward, both European and Sahelian governments should prioritize local community views and needs when crafting migration policies. Doing so will help reconcile conflicting priorities across the various multilateral and bilateral stakeholders in the region and improve economic outcomes for the communities affected by migration interventions.

However, while better protections, more accountable governance, and alternative livelihoods might have an effect on regularizing migration, economic development assistance should not be viewed as a way to slow it. Recent interest in economic development in sub-Saharan Africa is, at least in part, due to the belief that development reduces migration, the “if they only had jobs they wouldn’t have to migrate” theory. While this might make intuitive sense, research clearly shows that economic development results in more migration, not less. Even if the economies of countries in the Sahel drastically improve, people will continue to migrate either through safe, orderly, and regular channels if available, or through irregular ones if not.

The most obvious way to decrease irregular migration through the Sahel is also the most politically challenging. While there has been some progress towards expanding regular pathways since 2016, these initiatives have remained small in scale and limited to highly skilled workers, refugees, and asylum seekers. Mobility partnerships between the European Union and multiple countries in the Sahel have failed to expand regular pathways to where they are a viable alternative to irregular migration; such an expansion would require political will within the European Union that is currently lacking. Nonetheless, European governments should explore bilateral and regional partnerships with Sahelian governments to identify migrants who fill economic gaps, especially post-Covid-19, such as seasonal agriculture workers, those with specialized skills, etc. Migrants have been the engine of economic growth in much of the world over the past century; it would behoove governments in places (like much of the European Union) that have benefited from migration to rethink their partnerships with migration origin and transit countries.

No matter the interventions, addressing irregular migration through the Sahel will take time, especially given Covid-19-related migration disruptions. Nevertheless, migrants will play a critical role in the economic recovery to come. When it comes to the Sahel, policymakers can either pour resources into trying to contain irregular migration through increased securitization—endangering lives and regional stability in the process—or they can have policies that reflect migration for what it is: a driver of development and economic growth, both for host and origin countries.

Erol Yayboke is deputy director and a senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Rakan Aboneaaj is a research intern with the CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development.

This commentary was produced in partnership with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program

Rakan Aboneaaj

Intern, Project on Prosperity and Development