Towards the end of this summer, seven African and European leaders met in Paris to discuss ways to curb illegal migration from North Africa to Europe. Their efforts come against the successful crossing of the Mediterranean of more than 115,000 migrants between January and July this year in search of a better life.
For Europe, the political task of reducing the number of arrivals is considerable. Nationalist populism and anti-migrant sentiments remain major internal forces. Yet, the scaremongering over the migrant flows puts aside a broader picture of migration in West Africa and the Sahel, driven by long-term, structural development-related challenges. Only by addressing these issues can migrant flows be reduced in a sustainable way.
Given the domestic pressures, it is not surprising that the EU countries remain focused on helping transit states such as Libya and on keeping border controls. A recent study run by Chatham House looked into the policy options aimed at disrupting human smuggling networks in the neglected areas of northern Niger and southern Libya. A close look at the political dynamics in these regions shows that many communities have come to depend on the revenues from these activities as a major generator of incomes and employment. Therefore, it is clear that Europe’s current focus on quick fixes will not bear fruits in a sustainable manner, as hoped for. Real impact can only be attained by achieving long-term and sustainable development in the Sahel.
Despite the acuteness of the situation in Europe, the movement of migrants towards the old continent is actually small on a global scale or when compared to the number of internally displaced people and refugees within sub-Saharan Africa. There is a major movement of people from the poor and landlocked states of the region towards the more advanced economies of the West African coast: Côte d’Ivoire estimates that 5.4 million of the country’s 23 million inhabitants are foreigners.
Despite making a huge political progress in recent decades, West Africa still faces major socio-economic and environmental challenges that can only be resolved over the long term and which have a profound effect on the dynamics of migratory flows. In the absence of wider development, treating migrant flows just on the surface may also give rise to serious unintended consequences. In many ways, the illicit economy helps to stabilize Niger, but there is still a serious risk that young, unemployed men might be attracted to join jihadist groups who could provide them with a living.
So far, not much has been done in terms of a long-term vision. Yet, there are at least some straightforward policy options available to the international community that could support the development of alternative livelihoods in transit countries – even if they are not very likely to offer comparable incomes to those available from human smuggling.
‘Europe’s Flawed Thinking on Mediterranean Migration’ – Commentary by Tim Eaton and Paul Melly – Chatham House / The Royal Institute of International Affairs.