The Sahel–a Laboratory of EU Migration Policy
On Thursday May 25, Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela had his first official visit abroad to Libya, meeting with the head of the Libyan Government of National Accord, Fayez al-Sarraj. During the meeting, the two leaders agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding aimed at establishing a coordination unit to better address the migration fluxes coming from Libya. Malta will also propose that the EU allocate more funds to support the National Accord Government with the goal that the funds will be used, in part, to manage Libya’s borders better. As Abela stated after the meeting with al-Sarraj: “The solution [to migration fluxes] clearly lies in concrete action on Libyan shores and its southern border.” The agreement envisages a strengthening of the cooperation to ensure that more migrants’ lives are saved in the Mediterranean as well as a strategy to slow down the flow of migrants entering Libya from its southern border. As a result, attention is going to be given to a crucial area for the EU’s policy in this field: the Sahel
The Sahel, an area that extends from Senegal to Sudan, is a region of transit between the Mediterranean basin and sub-Saharan Africa, and a crucial area for the European Union’s policies on migration and development. The EU already has a history of policy development focused on the region in the past decade. In 2011, the EU adopted the Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel for Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The EU has also deployed three Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions in the area, notably the EU-CAP Sahel Niger (since 2012), EUCAP Sahel Mali (since 2014), and the EU training mission in Mali (since 2013). Initially, the action of the EU in the area was mainly focused on security and development. Things started to change with the 2015 migration crisis, as exemplified by the Sahel Regional Action Plan 2015-2020, which stated: “Given the proximity of the Sahel to the EU and its immediate neighborhoods, it notes the need to better tackle cross-border issues, […] such as migration.”
"The EU’s attitude toward the Sahel has shifted to serve its objective of curbing migration flows."
As a result of the importance given to the migration issue after 2015, even the CSDP missions in the Sahel saw a change in their scopes. This was clearly stated in the Annual Report on the Sahel Regional Action Plan, published by the European Commission in 2016: “the three CSDP missions in the Sahel have been adapted to the political priorities of the EU, notably following the EU mobilization against irregular migration and related trafficking.” As a result of this shift, the missions started to focus on helping Malian and Nigerien governments manage migration flows and border security, risking commitments related to good governance to get pushed into the background.
Clearly, the EU’s attitude toward the Sahel has shifted to serve its objective of curbing migration flows. As a result, the EU started to push Sahel states to reduce cross-border mobility, irrespective of the destination of the flows and of their socioeconomic importance for local communities. This approach, as noted by many scholars, is particularly unsuitable for the Sahel region where cross-border mobility of the workforce is a crucial economic factor. Moreover, the EU is widely using negative conditionality in the area, threatening to withdraw development funds (such as the Trust Fund for Africa) away if a state is not willing to cooperate with it on migration.
Senegal and Niger are two examples of the inadequacy of EU’s approach in the area. Senegal is a country with a strong diaspora movement, and the pressure by the EU to reduce mobility and enhance returns lead to a divergence between the two sides, risking undermining the good relations between them. In the case of Niger, as a result of EU pressure, the government adopted in 2015 Law No. 2015-36 aimed at addressing the problem of illegal trafficking of migrants, criminalizing their transport. While this law contributed to reduce the number of migrants crossing Agadez, one of the country’s most important migration hubs, it has also led to a “professionalization” of the trafficking business and to an increase in the riskiness related to these voyages, resulting in a greater number of migrants’ deaths on the road between Agadez and Libya. The EU’s action is based on the idea that Sahel countries lack the capabilities, but not the will, to control migration. However, this is not always true. It is enough to take into consideration the importance that remittances have for countries in the region, which often exceed by far the European funds, to understand why the EU approach in the area is not working.
The European Union’s approach in the Sahel is thus focused on the idea that the enhancement of border control is a crucial element to reduce irregular migration, making this region a laboratory of its migration policy. With the signature of the memorandum of understanding between Malta and Libya, the attention to the Sahel is set to increase. The EU must realize the importance of changing its strategy in the region, leaving behind its policies based on negative conditionality in favor of a better equilibrium between its internal priorities and third countries’ necessities, giving more voice to its local partners, and keeping the focus on development. Only in this way, it will be possible to achieve some concrete results in flux management.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.