Externalising EU borders to the Sahel to curb migration

The Sahel has recently drawn more and more attention in European Union member states that are concerned about the prospect of uncontrollable migration from West Africa across the Sahel to Europe. This is a very complex challenge and it is important to reflect on the measures taken by the EU so far.  

The Sahel is a vast region cutting through Africa horizontally all the way from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. Geographically, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea belong to the Sahel region. Politically however, when the Sahel is referred to in the context of EU policy strategies and responses, it is generally Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger that are being referred to.
What binds Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger together as a region is that the Sahel has traditionally been a cross-roads between different cultures and a transit zone for people on the move.
Today, the so-called West Africa route across the Sahel and through Libya is one of the most frequented routes of irregular migration to Europe. It is hard to estimate the exact numbers of the irregular migrant flows from the Sahel to Europe. In 2017, according to one IOM estimation, 150,982 migrants and refugees entered Europe by sea. 75 percent of them arrived in Italy. The same year 3,116 people died or went missing in the Mediterranean.
Furthermore, according to the UNODC, the Sahel has become one of the most important hubs for human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Smuggling of migrants can violate migrants’ basic rights and even put their lives at risk. Yet it has become a very lucrative activity for criminal groups.
The Sahel has one of the world’s fastest growing populations. At the same time, countries in the region are some of the world’s least developed. In the Human Development Index of 2016, out of 188 countries, Mali ranks as the 175th, Niger 187th, Burkina Faso 185th and Chad 186th. The young generations lack opportunities for education and employment.
If lack of development is profoundly felt at the individual level, the public sphere has a fundamental impact on the situation too. The Corruption Perceptions Index 2016 of the Transparency International ranks Mali the 116th, Niger 101st, Burkina Faso 72nd and Chad 159th out of 176 countries in terms of functioning public institutions. The security situation in all these countries is deteriorating and very complex and violent extremist groups with shifting affiliations cause further instability.
In European politics migration has been one of the central issues since 2015. The primary aim of EU member states has been to control and reduce the flow of migrants to Europe. Member states have undertaken measures nationally and also raised migration to a political priority at the EU level. They have also started crafting an EU response to irregular migration from the Sahel.
In the Sahel region, one of the most notable practical measures that the EU has taken to try to curb irregular migration is known as border externalisation, that is, moving border control to third countries. The aim of border externalisation is for migration flows to be stopped before they reach the actual borders of the EU. The EU has tried to strengthen border security and increase border control in its partner countries in the Sahel for example by offering training and equipment. The mandate of the mission EUCAP Sahel in Niger that was initially designed to contribute to the fight against terrorism and organised crime has been reinforced so that the mission can assist the central and local authorities and the security forces to control and fight irregular migration.
The EU also backs Sahel countries’ national efforts to try to bring down migration flows. In an interview with Helsingin Sanomat last year, the EU Special Representative for the Sahel, Ángel Losada, takes the example of Niger, which criminalised human trafficking and migrant smuggling. According to Losada, this is exactly the type of an action that the EU wants to support. He mentioned the effect it has had on the city of Agadez that has traditionally been a major hub for migrants but where their numbers have strongly decreased after the new law has been put into place.
As these new measures have been taken in Niger, the EU has increased its direct support of the Nigerien state budget. Given the recorded condition of the public sector, increasing financial support in response to the countries’ efforts to suppress migration seems worrying. While EU assistance is subject to strict conditions, it could be asked whether such regimes and their security services are implementing such provisions in an accountable, responsible way. Some have also been asking whether this signals development aid becoming conditional on migration management policies and measures.
Furthermore, the direct and indirect effects of suppressing irregular migration through border externalisation need to be addressed. For migrants, the new measures are likely to mean that they will be trapped in transit countries in which the public services lack the capacity to deal with migrants and ensure that their basic rights are respected. There are also reports that the fundamental result of the Nigerien law has been that migrants have been driven underground and new routes across the region have been formed. As a consequence, the journey across the Sahel and Libya is becoming even more dangerous and expensive. These observations demonstrate how challenging it can be to foresee and control the effects of measures that aim to curb irregular migration.
Furthermore, moving border control to the Sahel to curb migration will not address the real and complex drivers of irregular migration. To create a more lasting, profound change in the Sahel, the developmental needs of the region require long-term attention. The European Development Fund for example lends itself well to this purpose and could be further extended.  
Amongst the issues requiring further discussion are, for instance, what kind of lasting measures could be taken with regard to irregular migration together with the countries of origin that would protect the basic rights of the migrants and whether or how access to legal ways to enter Europe should be increased. Given the population growth in the Sahel countries and the way migration is viewed as a natural part of life in the region, it seems fair to assume that pressure to migrate will continue.
TEXT Eleonoora Väänänen
PHOTO Wikimedia Commons

Eleonoora Väänänen holds an MA in International Relations from the University of St Andrews and an MA in EU International Relations and Diplomacy from the College of Europe. She previously worked for DG DEVCO at the European Commission and is currently employed as a Project Coordinator at the Regional Council of Lapland.