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Players of many parts: The evolving role of smugglers in West Africa’s migration economy

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This briefing paper focuses on the evolving role of smugglers in West Africa’s migration economy, as well as migration and smuggling patterns in West Africa and between West and North Africa. The Mixed Migration Monitoring Mechanism Initiative (4Mi) carried out a total of 153 interviews with smugglers and 3,406 interviews with refugees and migrants in Mali and Niger between August 2017 and August 2018. The surveys provide unique insight into the role of smugglers and their interaction with refugees and migrants. 4Mi survey data was complemented by semi-structured interviews and focus groups, and a literature review.

Executive Summary

The trade and smuggling of people and goods have long played an important part in SaheloSaharan livelihoods. There are established patterns of migration between the Sahel and North Africa, including seasonal, temporary and circular movements.

The so-called migration economy involves not only those facilitating the movement of people across borders, but also other aspects of the economy, such as hotels, restaurants, businesses offering phone calls, mobile credit and internet access, as well as food and water vendors.

The Mixed Migration Monitoring Mechanism Initiative (4Mi) carried out a total of 153 interviews with smugglers and 3,406 interviews with refugees and migrants in Mali and Niger between August 2017 and August 2018. The surveys provide unique insight into the role of smugglers and their interaction with refugees and migrants. 4Mi survey data was complemented by semi-structured interviews and focus groups, and a literature review.

Key findings:

Profiles of smugglers: Of the 153 smugglers interviewed, 142 were men and 11 were women, and the average age of the smugglers interviewed was 38. Smugglers interviewed in Mali originated mainly from Mali (68%), Algeria (14%), Mauritania (6%) and Cote d’Ivoire (5%), while in Niger they were for the most part from Niger (87%). Most reported to have started smuggling because they make more money with smuggling than their previous job (90% in Mali; 77% in Niger). While some reported that smuggling was their only job (32% in Niger; 19% in Mali), most said they had other jobs alongside their smuggling activities.

Nature of smuggling networks: West African smuggling networks are predominantly horizontal and rely on regional connectivity.
Smugglers carry out one or several roles, and some have young assistants helping them, suggesting a more informal collaboration between different members of the network rather than a fixed chain of command. 4Mi data shows that in Niger smugglers have multiple roles and commitments within their networks. However, particularly in the region of Agadez, restrictive measures against smuggling implemented since 2016 have led to networks becoming more professional and less accessible for new players, with more fixed roles for those operating within these networks. In Mali, the modus operandi of smuggling networks is defined by state absence and the important role of armed groups in the political economy of the north. Networks operating in northern Mali are characterized by more professional and criminal-like activities and by the single allegiance and fixed roles of their members.

Refugees and migrants starting their journey with a smuggler: in Niger 20% of refugees and migrants said that smugglers had helped them start their journey, compared with 8% in Mali.
Refugees and migrants interviewed in Niger who reported starting their journey with the help of a smuggler were mainly from Nigeria (26%), Guinea (12%) and Cote d’Ivoire (13%). In Mali they were mostly citizens of Guinea (28%), Burkina Faso (20%) and Cote d’Ivoire (12%).

Role of smugglers in encouraging migration: 4Mi data suggests that smugglers are not instigators of migration. Only 6% of refugees and migrants interviewed by 4Mi in Mali and 5% interviewed in Niger said they had been encouraged to migrate by a smuggler. A much greater role in decision-making is played by friends (46% Niger; 37% Mali) and/or relatives.
In many cases (51% Mali; 24% Niger) migrants made the decision alone.

Services provided by smugglers: the services provided by persons involved in the migration business in Mali and Niger are diverse. Most smugglers interviewed by 4Mi reported that they mainly provided accommodation (86% in Mali; 80% in Niger). This is followed by transportation to a holding place (71% in Mali; 52% in Niger), recruitment of clients (52% in Mali; 74% in Niger) and transit across a border (40% in Mali; 46% in Niger).

Protection incidents attributed to smugglers: according to refugees and migrants interviewed in Niger, smugglers were responsible for almost half (45%) of the 424 protection incidents reported. Other groups, such as thugs/criminal gangs and security forces were identified to a lesser extent as perpetrators (10% and 8% respectively). By contrast, in Mali, respondents attributed just 6% of all (648) protection incidents to smugglers, compared with 30% to security forces.