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Information alone won’t stop illegal migration from Côte d’Ivoire

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Nearly half of African countries have criminalised migrant smuggling, and Côte d’Ivoire should follow suit.

In recent years, Côte d’Ivoire’s government has actively raised awareness among its citizens on the dangers of migrating without adequate and verifiable documentation and information. But this hasn’t dissuaded Ivorian youth from seeking smugglers’ help to travel to Europe through North African countries.

‘The problem is that young people look to everything outside their borders as a model of development and as a model of social success … Some still think they can follow obscure paths to succeed in soccer in Europe,’ says Issiaka Konaté, Head of the Directorate General for Ivorians Abroad (DGIE).

Statistics show that Côte d’Ivoire ranks among the top countries of origin for migrants from West Africa to Europe. A United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) report published in August 2020 shows that nearly 25 000 Ivorians had arrived in Italy by sea since 2016. It also shows that the number of Ivorian migrants using the Central Mediterranean route to Europe was the third highest after Nigerians and Guineans.

Initially, the country's political upheaval between 2002 and 2010 triggered the high numbers of migrants from Côte d’Ivoire. In the 10 years since then, irregular migrants have continued to travel to North Africa and on to Europe. Côte d’Ivoire’s 31 October 2020 elections saw Alassane Ouattara win a third term in office. The dissatisfaction and insecurity of this result could see even higher numbers migrating through North Africa.

Côte d’Ivoire ranks among the top countries of origin for migrants from West Africa to Europe

IOM’s head of information in Côte d’Ivoire, Aude Nanquette, told the ENACT project at the Institute for Security Studies’ that about half of migrants leave the country legally to travel to a European or Maghreb country (especially Tunisia and Morocco). Interviews for the IOM report with 6 757 Ivorian migrants (who agreed to return between 2017 and 2020) revealed that Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria serve as transit and sometimes destination countries for many Ivorian migrants.

While almost all travel legally to Tunisia and Morocco, where Ivorians are eligible for a 90-day visa-free stay, those who want to reach Algeria use smugglers to gain entry without visas. All these options put migrants at risk.

According to IOM, out of 7 511 migrants helped to their return to Côte d’Ivoire between 2017 and 2019, 2 325 were brought home from Niger. Algeria had sent them to Niger because they were in the country irregularly. For 61.3% of migrants assisted to return to Côte d’Ivoire in 2019, Algeria was a destination and transit country of choice, as it’s believed to provide the easiest access to Europe.

In Tunisia and Morocco, problems arise when migrants overstay their visas or fail to obtain residency permits that allow them to stay and work legally. A risk analysis detailing access to Europe from all three countries shows that smugglers exploit migrants and offer them dangerous means of transport in makeshift boats to cross the Mediterranean using the so-called western and central routes.

Exploitation begins in Côte d’Ivoire for those who can’t afford air tickets and opt to obtain ‘boxing tickets’. This term refers to a ticket bought through a local intermediary, a travel agency employee or someone in Morocco. The migrant must repay the cost of the air ticket and other fees amounting to FCFA 500 000 (US$900) once they reach their destination. This repayment must be made with interest, at sometimes two or three times the original amount, says the IOM report.

Migrants sign contracts to repay the ticket costs, and their passports are confiscated on arrival in Morocco until they’ve done so. This sets in motion physical, emotional and sexual abuse and mistreatment by employers who collude with the traffickers.

The Ivorian government has taken significant steps to raise awareness of these risks and help returnees, especially through its Directorate General for Ivorians Abroad. The department is tasked with implementing a holistic and sustainable response to irregular migration. However, this mandate is not supported by legislation that could deter migrant smuggling.

ENACT research shows that Côte d’Ivoire isn’t among the 22 African countries that have criminalised the offence of ‘smuggling of migrants’. This crime is defined broadly in line with the 2000 UN Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air and supplemented by the Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.

The UN protocol requires state parties to pass laws that make it illegal to smuggle migrants and produce, procure or possess fraudulent travel or identity documents. Enabling a foreigner to remain in a country in contravention of legal residence requirements should also be against the law.

The Directorate General for Ivorians Abroad’s Konaté notes that international cooperation around a policy on visa requirements for migrating citizens is necessary. So too is political agreement among departure, transit and host countries. This policy should include information on the country’s travel hubs, border points and youth centres for migrants travelling to transit and destination countries like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and European countries.

New policy as suggested by Konaté should also promote informed choices for would-be migrants, which together with stringent legislation, should deter smugglers whose trade depends on ignorance and misinformation.

Duncan E Omondi Gumba, Research Consultant, ENACT Project, ISS

This article was first published by the ENACT project. ENACT is funded by the European Union (EU). The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the EU.

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