Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

After the 'migration crisis': preventing mobility through security and policing

12 May 2020, 12.01am
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

Is there a link between migration and peace and security?

The link is not straight forward. It’s complex. This is another area where there has been unnecessary panic from Europe and the West. Historically, cross-border movement has been part and parcel of life in Africa. People have moved for centuries. The partitioning of Africa after the Berlin Conference in 1885 left ethnic groups spread over artificial borders. In these circumstances it is better to rely on identity rather than nationality – nationality is embedded in boundaries whereas identity goes beyond boundaries. People tap into identity networks when there are crises. Whether these crises are refugee flows, food shortages, climate change, flooding, natural disasters, or fiscal emergencies, identity networks are important coping mechanisms.

Migration has always been a fact of life in Africa and it is only recently that it has been seen as a big issue. This first started when Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda moved to Sudan. Then, in the last decade or so, the international community – or rather the major powers – relocated their national security boundaries to Africa. So, after 9/11, with the West proactively pursuing terrorists, migration in Africa became securitised. Only in the last 20 years or so do you find the phrase ‘porous borders’ being used, because up until then it was not particularly significant that African borders were porous.

Faced with the perceived threat of trans-border terrorism, the Americans and the EU demanded that borders become strengthened. I’m not denying bad guys cross borders, but I am arguing that the policy narrative that migration is a threat to peace and security, to stability, has been imported into Africa. So, when you look at the xenophobic violence towards migrants in South Africa, you can see how, as in the US and Europe, migration has become a part of national politics. Governments are scapegoating migrants to distract from their failure to uphold part of the social contract, or to provide security for their citizens.

How is the EU seeking to contain ‘irregular’ migration from the Sahel?

EU aid to Africa, and to the Sahel region in particular, has become incrementally re-directed from development to security. Notably, it is channeled towards a type of assistance that criminologists have referred to as ‘penal aid,’ namely aid to fix the ‘flawed penality’ of ‘fragile states’ so as to make them more effective in countering transnational security threats.

This trend was accelerated by the so-called ‘migration crisis’ of 2015 and the establishment of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) – the aim of which is to mainstream migration management in all EU external action. Most of the EUTF’s now €4.7 billion in funding goes to development-oriented projects such as job creation in areas from which migrants travelling to Europe originate. Yet a substantial amount of funds is also channeled towards security objectives – namely, fighting ‘irregular migration’, ‘human trafficking’, and ‘migrant smuggling.’

According to the EU, ‘irregular migration’ refers to the movement of persons to a new place of residence or transit that takes place outside the regulatory norms of the sending, transit and receiving countries. In international law, ‘migrant smuggling’ is defined as assisting a migrant to enter a country irregularly in exchange for financial or material benefit. The scope of the crime of ‘migrant smuggling’ has been expanding within Europe, and it now encompasses activities that aid migrants without any benefit in return. Although the definition of migrant smuggling in domestic law varies across member states, the offence can incorporate what would usually be defined as humanitarian action. ‘Human trafficking’, on the other hand, essentially refers to the exploitation, including coercion or the use of force, of a person for purposes such as prostitution or slavery. It is a violent crime against a person – not a state – and there are no requirements to cross a border. Trafficking and smuggling are distinct crimes and distinct phenomena in real life.

However, EU projects in Africa tend to conflate these three phenomena. There is now a substantial number of EU projects across Africa that seek to combat this ‘triangle’ of mobile illegalities simultaneously. For instance, the cross-regional, multi-country project ‘GLO.ACT’ received €11 million from the EU’s Development Cooperation Instrument to assist countries to transpose the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime’s protocols on migrant smuggling and human trafficking into national laws and the development of national crime policies. This project also has a component on helping victims of trafficking.

Another cross-country project is the West African Police Information System, implemented by INTERPOL to help West African countries develop digital criminal databases and intelligence sharing between national police agencies as well as with European counterparts. Similarly, Frontex is involved through the Africa-Frontex Intelligence Community, gathering intelligence and doing risk analyses of how migration-related crimes evolve. Additionally, numerous projects are implemented at country level. For example, a €30 million project has embedded EU judicial experts inside Niger’s Ministry of Justice to help with countering organised crime, migrant smuggling and human trafficking. In the same country, a €11.5 million project funds Spanish and French police officers to support their Nigerien counterparts in investigations. EU member states have even created ‘security development agencies’ specialised in training and assisting internal security actors. One such outfit is France’s semi-private agency Civipol, which manages €143 million in EU contracts mainly in Francophone West Africa. These are just some examples of a growing trend whereby EU aid is used to fight crime in Africa.

Also, EU Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions, which traditionally dealt with state-building and security sector reform, are increasingly geared towards enhancing African states’ capabilities to fight ‘crimes of mobility.’ The most visible of these, and the only mission with an executive mandate, was the naval mission EUNAVFOR Sophia in the Mediterranean. This was tasked with breaking the business model of smugglers by destroying vessels, intercepting smugglers, and training the Libyan coast guard. This mission’s mandate ended on 31 March 2020. Yet, CSDP missions with mandates to train and reform the police forces in Niger and Mali are now progressively training border guards, equipping the security infrastructure of borders, and aiding the investigation of ‘migrant smugglers’ and ‘human traffickers’.

These missions also engage at the ministerial level, assisting in the revision of penal codes and drafting security policies and action plans in the Ministries of Interior and Justice. This is specifically the case for EUCAP Niger, which has an antenna in Agadez, a town through which hundreds of thousands of migrants have passed on their way to Algeria, Libya and Europe. Agadez is now the battleground for the Nigerien government’s fight against migrant smugglers.

Looking at the types of projects funded by EU aid, it becomes clear that we are dealing with a rather security-oriented approach to irregular mobility driven by internal EU motives. While there are projects to assist victims of human trafficking, these seem outnumbered by those designed to enhance police and intelligence capabilities. In the case of the Sahel, there also seems to be less EU engagement in building transparency and accountability in the justice and security sectors, and minimal involvement in the prison sector – where the alleged smugglers, traffickers, and sometimes irregular migrants, end up.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits an IOM-funded reception and transit centre for migrants in Niamey, Niger in 2016.
Michael Kappeler/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

How has the Libyan crisis affected the policies and practices adopted towards African migrants in Libya?

Not as much as you might think. While the European Union has had to adapt some of its policies and practices in light of the crisis in Libya, its overall approach to African migrants transiting through Libya has not substantially changed.

The EU and particularly Italy, Libya’s main partner within the Mediterranean region, have sought to externalise their southern borders into Libya since the early 2000s. This method of deterring arrivals from Africa has been pursued at very high human cost. It has increasingly infringed on migrants and asylum seekers’ rights and led to an unprecedented loss of life. The smuggling and trafficking industry, in comparison with the Gaddafi era, is now completely out of control. Currently in Libya there appear to be more than 500,000 migrants and refugees in need of humanitarian assistance. Of these over 20,000  are allegedly confined in detention centres where they face severe abuse, torture and even execution.

Despite all of this the EU and some member states, such as Italy, have continued to use Libya as its border guard. Indeed, in some ways they have doubled down on that approach. Declaring that their actions are rooted in a desire to save lives and counter human trafficking, they have recently converted their push-back policy of migrants intercepted in the Mediterranean into a pull-back practice. As one UN report explained, pull-backs are design to “physically prevent migrants from leaving the territory of their State of origin or a transit State […], or to forcibly return them to that territory, before they can reach the jurisdiction of their destination State […]”.

In the current context of statelessness and lack of institutional responsibility, the externalisation of migration border controls has not only shaped and boosted Libya’s criminal economy of violence, but also caused transnational displacement and forced migration in itself. The closure of sea routes and the increased number of interceptions at sea have led to a dramatic growth in the number of migrants and asylum seekers currently detained in both official and illegal detention centres. As a reward for their political support, members of armed groups and criminal gangs have been appointed by Libyan institutions to manage most of these centres or hired as officers in the coast guard – which is trained, equipped and financed by the EU and the Italian government. As such, European policy on  smuggling and trafficking acts as an economic incentive for everyone involved – legally or illegally – in migrant-related security activities.

The hardening and militarisation of borders have also made the services of smugglers and a wide array of passeuer and facilitators indispensable. Routes are becoming increasingly fatal and migrants’ only chance for survival is to rely on them. Paradoxically, all the forces arrayed to prevent these migrants from making their journeys – external border controls, inceptions, detentions, deportations, etc. – do not achieve their goal of keeping migrants in their countries of origin, nor to stop them in Libya. There is plenty of evidence that these practices cause further displacement, and in doing so they dramatically increase the already high human, civil and moral costs of current Euro-African border control policies.

How is statelessness is being used by states to deter migration?

Statelessness means not being considered a citizen of any sovereign state. In Africa, there is an overlap between statelessness and an even larger undocumented population, since many face severe restrictions in accessing documentation whether or not their citizenship is contested.

You're starting to see statehood and nationality being instrumentalised against people. People are more documented than they've ever been. There's a drive for people to carry ID documents, including in places where historically ID wasn’t carried – such as by nomads living in desert areas. Often bureaucratic obstacles to obtaining formal documentation are as problematic as the denial of citizenship. People often discover that their nationality is contested when they first apply for identity documents. South Africa, for example, has been using restrictions to try to reduce migration flows from neighbouring countries. This policy shift reflects deepening political and social xenophobia within South Africa. I argue in a briefing paper on statelessness in southern Africa that South African politicians – mirroring populist politicians in Europe – are using exclusion as a political tool. Promising to remove foreigners wins political favour and votes.

Whilst South Africa has quite progressive immigration laws, the administration of those laws is restrictive. Migrants in South Africa struggle to access their rights and administrators create barriers to frustrate irregular migrants. Currently, the registration by migrants of children born in South Africa is being targeted. Existing laws only allow for modified birth certificates where one parent does not have valid proof of identification. And children of at least one South African parent have been denied birth certificates and citizenship for a lack of documentation.

In 2018, the Department of Home Affairs called for the replacement of birth certificates for children of foreign parents with ‘birth confirmations’. The proposals would put the burden on foreigners living in South Africa to register their child’s birth at the diplomatic mission of their own country of origin. Yet refugees and asylum seekers cannot easily approach embassies without jeopardising their status or exposing themselves to actual harm. And embassies often charge unaffordable fees for identity documents. This is a deliberate policy to sanction parents for irregular migration and deter others.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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