Legal travel channels to the EU available for most West Africans are quite narrow. Some AFIC countries have visa rejection rates close to 50%. This high rate indicates that irregular migratory movements from the AFIC region to the EU are largely perceived as economic migration by consular authorities in the EU.
When measured in terms of the number of refusals of entry issued per 1 000 passengers, flights from Lagos to Paris, with rates of around 3–4 refusals for every 1 000 passengers, are considered the most risky. However, the overall ratio of refusals of entry to the number of passengers has been steadily declining on a number of air routes between West Africa and Europe.
The prevailing profile of rejected visa applicants (young males) corresponds to the profile of migrants arriving in the EU through irregular channels. Also, apart from North African nationals all other AFIC country nationalities face a very low risk of return after their irregular entry to Italy, which is the main entry point for African migrants.
For many West Africans, the decision to migrate is motivated by the feeling of inequality as well as social, peer and family pressure rather than by desperate need (poverty). This is why many of the migrants are not the worst-off in their home countries.
Routing through Niger is currently the preferred option despite the turmoil in Libya and a high risk of loss of life when crossing the Mediterranean. This is largely due to the fact that would-be migrants face a much higher risk of return if detected on other routes. Most notably, very good operational cooperation between Spain, Senegal, Mauritania and Morocco has significantly reduced the pressure on the route towards the Canary Islands and south of Spain.
The city of Agadez in Niger is catering for a growing number of transiting migrants en route to Libya and further on to the EU. Arriving in Niger and travelling to Agadez is a relatively cheap, fast and simple option. People smugglers in Agadez consider themselves to be service providers. Attempts to tackle this growing industry could spark local protests.
Part of the challenge for the Nigerien authorities is the fact that the smuggling service industry is not controlled by one person or group. Authorities in Niger also face transiting migrants who are determined to reach Libya and Italy, have entered the territory of Niger legally (under the ECOWAS free-movement protocol) and for the most part are able to finance their onward journey.
AFIC members pointed to a lack of harmonisation, especially with regards to different ECOWAS free-movement protocols. While some countries allow entry with ID cards both on land and air routes on the basis of bilateral or multilateral agreements (e.g. between Senegal and Guinea or Senegal and Cape Verde), others require travel documents (passports and IDs) in line with the ECOWAS protocols (Ghana and Nigeria). In practice, ECOWAS countries’ citizens very often travel without any kind of identity documents due to a lack of basic knowledge of the free movement of people within ECOWAS countries.
Additionally, with regards to the maximum period of stay (90 days), travelling on the basis of ID card makes it difficult to confirm the period of stay, as there is no notification of entry/exit (a stamp or registration system). Thus, in majority of cases this requirement is not respected.
Some people arriving in Agadez (mostly Sudanese) are also lured by the promise of finding gold in Djado, a hamlet located seven hundred kilometres north-east of Agadez, where soil gold was discovered in 2013. Such artisanal mining carries life hazards and also breeds the phenomenon of explosive smuggling on board regular buses. Regular bus lines in the ECOWAS region were also associated with drug smuggling as reported by Niger.
Migrants making a maritime crossing continue to run a high risk of dying in the process. The increasing death toll in the Central Mediterranean during 2015, however, shows that more vessels engaged in rescue operations do not necessarily guarantee fewer deaths at sea.
For several West African nationalities, the ratio between illegal border-crossings at external borders of the EU and the number of EU visas issued approaches 1:1 (e.g. the case of Malians in 2014).
Reducing irregular migration through an efficient asylum and visa system is likely to be difficult to implement in the case of West Africa.
This is suggested by the current visa rejection rates and the profiles of rejected visa applicants and irregular migrants detected in the Mediterranean. Based on discussions during thematic workshops held in Africa, AFIC delegates agreed that irregular migration, terrorism and organised crime must countered using a holistic approach.
Consensus was reached that the securitisation and prosecution of smugglers and terrorists is exacerbated by the porosity of borders and vast areas of terrain in the Sahelian corridor (adjacent to ECOWAS free-movement space), corruption, opaque criminal structures and plethora of terrorist networks.
AFIC delegates proposed that fight against cross-border criminality and terrorism should be based on three pillars: international cooperation, exchange of intelligence, and the provision of training and technical equipment to agencies and organisations involved in neutralising these security threats.