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For the long run: A mapping of migration-related activities in the wider Sahel region

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By Jaïr van der Lijn

1 The context

Since the start of the migration crisis in 2015, the European Union (EU) has focused its political and financial attention on restricting irregular migration flows to the EU from amongst others the Sahel-Lake Chad-Libya region—Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. In 2015 the total influx of irregular migrants into the EU spiked and was dominated by the flow of refugees from in particular Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq fleeing violence and entering via Greece. From the region under review only Nigeria, with 2 percent of the total 2015 Mediterranean arrivals, made it into the top 10.

However, after the 18 March 2016 EU-Turkey agreement, the arrivals via Italy have become by far the most dominant once again. Since 2013 this flow has been comparably stable. After quadrupling to 170 100 in 2014 the numbers were 153 842 in 2015 and 181 436 in 2016. About 40 percent of this flow originates from the countries under review, of which about half emanate from Nigeria. The other roughly 60 percent of the arrivals via Italy in 2016 originate predominantly from Sudan, Eritrea and a number of West African and South Asian countries.

This paper aims to provide a quick mapping of the crisis management and peace operations as well as the most relevant international and regional actors that deal or may deal with irregular migration-related issues in the Sahel-Lake Chad-Libya region.

In addition, it provides a first appreciation of these efforts. For such an assessment, the following contextual issues that complicate European policies to address irregular migration in the region are important background factors:

(1) Most of the irregular migration in the Sahel region (84 percent) is intra-regional, follows a historical pattern and often has a seasonal character.

(2) As Burkina Faso, Gambia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal are members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which aspires to become a common market like the EU through ‘the removal, between Member States, of obstacles to the free movement of persons, goods, services and capital, and to the right of residence and establishment’ many of the countries under review do not favour policies to strengthen borders within the region.

(3) A number of the countries in the region have limited political will to restrict or control irregular migration to Europe as they benefit strongly from the remittances that migrants send home. Remittances are a stable source of the GDP in the Gambia (24 percent), Senegal (12 percent), Mali (8 percent) and Nigeria (4 percent), far more important than official development assistance (ODA).

(4) Particularly in some of the transit countries the trafficking networks are deeply embedded in the national and local political economy, and indirectly and sometimes directly sustain governmental actors and institutions. Consequently, strengthening government capacity may increase government activity in combating some trafficking networks, but may not necessarily reduce irregular migration.

(5) Large sections of the trafficking routes run through unstable regions such as northern Mali and Libya, where governments, crisis management and peace operations as well as relevant organizations do not have a firm foothold. In such regions the government is but one of the security actors, and strengthening its capacity is not always considered to be a neutral act. As such it may not always be a conflict-sensitive approach and may even have destabilizing effects in the long run.
On the other hand, throughout the region there is a sense of urgency in dealing with the demographic pressure and particularly the increasing numbers of unemployed and marginalized youth; ungoverned or weakly governed spaces in and around porous borders; underdevelopment; and terrorist organizations. In spite of the above difficulties, these interests open up room for cooperation with the EU and its member states.