By Tim Eaton and Paul Melly

The idea that enhanced border controls alone can halt flows of migrants across the Mediterranean is a dangerous fiction.

Last week, seven African and European leaders met in Paris to discuss means of reducing illegal migration from North Africa to Europe. They face significant challenges: during the first seven months of this year 115,109 migrants succeeded in crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in search of a better life.

For Europe, the political task of managing the arrival of these newcomers is considerable. Nationalist populism – turbocharged by voter concern over migration remains a powerful force. Yet, the scaremongering over the size of refugee flows obscures a broader picture of migration in West Africa and the Sahel, driven by long-term development-centred challenges. Only by tackling these challenges can migrant flows be sustainably reduced.

Given their domestic concerns, it is unsurprising that EU states focus heavily on helping transit states, particularly Libya and Niger, to strengthen their border controls in search of quick fixes. A recent Chatham House workshop explored the policy options available to policymakers to disrupt human smuggling practices in the neglected settlements of northern Niger and southern Libya, through which the bulk of the migrant flows pass.

A close look at the political economy of these areas, where many communities have come to depend on the trafficking of migrants as a major generator of income and employment, makes it clear that these also offer no short-cuts to the results that Europe’s leaders are seeking. Real impact will only be achieved through addressing Libya’s governance crisis and achieving long-term development in the Sahel. The idea that enhanced border controls alone can halt flows of migrants is a dangerous fiction.

A sense of perspective

Despite the political pressures it engenders, the movement of migrants towards Europe is actually small in global terms or when compared with the numbers of refugees, internally displaced people and economic migrants within sub-Saharan Africa.

There is a huge movement of people from the poor and landlocked states of the Sahel towards the more prosperous economies of the West African coast: the government of Côte d’Ivoire estimates that 5.4 million of the country’s 23 million inhabitants are foreigners.

A significant proportion of those migrants who do head to Europe are fleeing conflict – notably in the Horn of Africa – or political repression in, for example, Eritrea.

And even where conflict or human rights abuse is not the major driver behind people movement, economic pressures can provide an equally powerful motive. Despite making notable political progress in recent decades, West Africa faces unparalleled socio-economic and environmental challenges that can only be resolved over the long term. It is these factors that have a huge influence over migrant flows.

Conditions in the transit corridor

A focus on governance and development in the key transit states would certainly help to stabilize migration pressures and gradually free up space and time for broader issues to be tackled more effectively. But the central role that migration has come to play in the economies and social dynamics of northern Niger and southern Libya means this will not be easy.

The upsurge in migration has become a generator of significant profits for major traffickers, and well-paid livelihoods for drivers, hostel workers and local traders, and sometimes officials too. Most would otherwise struggle in regions where terrorism has chased away the tourists. The lack of livelihood opportunities, particularly for young people, is a key motivating factor for them to become involved the trafficking business.

There is certainly room for improving border management in Libya, Niger and Chad: many of Libya’s makeshift border guards do not receive state salaries, while some of Niger’s army units are reported to rely on support from smugglers even to pay for vehicle fuel. But it would be naïve to think that improved border control alone can disrupt human smuggling routes. More stringent border controls are likely to push smugglers into more remote routes that could not only increase their profits but increase the risks for the people they transport.

In the absence of wider development, disrupting migrant flows may also create serious unintended consequences. At the Chatham House workshop, migration and organized crime expert Peter Tinti argued that, in many ways, the illicit economy helps to stabilize Niger, while Emmanuel Grégoire, a long-time analyst of the country’s social and economic condition, pointed out that as recently as three years ago, outside observers worried that young, unemployed men might be drawn to jihadist groups who could provide a living. A crackdown could revive such risks.

Investment not payoffs

Many Libyans think that Western countries simply want to make their country a dumping ground for migrants; while in Niger, the introduction of laws that criminalize smuggling, a result of international pressure, are seen by locals as a discriminatory policy aimed at destroying their livelihoods.

The transactional approach of the Europeans is transparent, most recently illustrated by apparent moves by Italy to pay off traffickers in the coastal Libyan city of Sabratha. Such an approach is damaging, and not only in terms of optics.

As the analyst Mattia Toaldo points out, turning migration flows into a bargaining chip – either through punitive measures such as withholding aid, or incentives such as increased financial support – encourages state and non-state actors alike to manipulate flows. 

The notion that coastal Libya can be made the frontline of attempts to reduce illegal migration is clearly flawed. But President Macron’s suggestion of pushing interventions further inland is also problematic. The idea that Sahelian states could host asylum processing centres was dismissed by Chad amid fears these hubs would just become new crisis ‘hotspots’. 

European leaders must stop grasping at quick fixes. Ultimately, effective policies for disrupting human trafficking through Niger and Libya rest upon long-term development and an end to Libya’s governance crisis. These will demand sustained investment and long-term political engagement.  

Emerging policy options

So far, not much has been done. Claudia Gazzini of International Crisis Group has noted that, despite the conduct of feasibility studies for the development of mining and agricultural projects in the south of Libya, little actual progress has been made. But there are nonetheless some clear policy options available to international actors that could support the development of alternative livelihoods in transit hubs – even if they are unlikely to offer comparable incomes to those available from human smuggling. 

New opportunities, such as the development of gold mining in the Djado region of northern Niger, also offer some scope for diversification into new sources of work and income. And around Agadez, at least, the EU, Germany and France are now engaged in a serious effort to reinforce local development progress. However, many other societal and economic issues remain to be addressed.  Until they are, the European approach will remain fundamentally flawed.


Tim Eaton – Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, MENA Research Fellow at Chatham House. Focus on Libya and Syria.

Paul Melly – Associate Fellow, Africa Programme. Reporter, researcher; Chatham House Assoc. Fellow. He covers West Africa, development, French & EU Africa policy, Mid-East business.



Related Articles