This paper explores the links between conflict, irregular migration, human trafficking and other illicit flows along transnational pathways in West Africa – focusing on Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Libya as well as the responses to these.
The West Africa region is the site of numerous intrastate conflicts, which have transnational dimensions. Even were there is little conflict states can be significantly impacted by the various conflicts underway around it.
Migration and migrant smuggling are widespread in West Africa, driven largely by conflict and lack of economic opportunities. The vast majority of migration flows are intraregional. For West African migrants attempting to leave the region, the main route is to head north through Mali and/or Niger, and either go through Algeria or directly to Libya, from where some attempt to reach Europe. Movement to Mali and Niger is generally licit, but from there on is irregular and risky (many die), and can involve migrant smugglers. Migrant smuggling is important for local economies en route, notably Gao in Mali and Agadez in Niger.
Similar factors fuel human trafficking in the region. It is carried out by both non-state armed groups and organised criminal groups, largely for forced labour and sexual exploitation. The high levels of migration create opportunities for traffickers.
Other illicit flows and markets in the West Africa region are significant. They can be categorised into: externally sourced illicit goods moved through/distributed locally; illegal commodities sourced locally but sold in global markets; and activities driven by local demand.
Migrant smuggling, human trafficking and other illicit flows involve both non-state armed groups and organised criminal groups. All benefit from human trafficking and migrant smuggling. Many such groups are involved in drugs trafficking, trade in illicit weapons and other illicit flows – in the case of drugs and weapons, both for their own use and as a source of revenue to fund their operations. Ongoing conflicts in many parts of the region also create conditions conducive for organized criminal gangs.
A number of multilateral forces have been created to address the various conflicts in these West African countries. The African-led International Support Mission (AFISMA) tackled the terrorist threat in northern Mali, essentially supporting the French military action, Operation Serval in 2012-2014. This largely succeeded in curbing jihadist expansion and retaking territory but, in view of the continuing threat, was transformed into a permanent French military presence, Operation Barkhane. However, France has been accused of using the force to further its own interests (e.g. curbing migration). AFISMA was absorbed into the UN-authorised Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Mali remains engulfed by violence, though without MINUSMA the security situation would be even worse. The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), set up to combat Boko Haram, essentially involves contributing countries operating within their own national borders, but in a coordinated manner. Gains by MNJTF have been short-lived, undermined by structural and other constraints.
African frameworks to combat irregular migration and human trafficking, notably by the African Union, reflect a long-term approach seeking to address the drivers of migration and human trafficking. However, implementation of these policies is hampered by lack of capacity and resources, and dependence on member states – who have varying capacities/resources, and can lack political commitment.
The European Union (EU) approach to irregular migration from West Africa has been more short-term, largely focused on securitisation to stop the flow of people, rather than on support for development to address migration drivers. Securitisation entails, in particular, enhancing border controls, strengthening the capacity of security forces, and tightening visa policies. African governments have also been pressured by the EU to enforce this approach. It has been massively detrimental to local communities dependent on the migration industry. The resultant loss of livelihoods is fuelling criminality and instability, and actually exacerbating migration drivers. The EU’s reliance on local leaders to enforce the clampdown on human smuggling is further undermining citizen-state relations in already fragile states. In the long run, these pressures are likely to fuel instability in the region and drive increased migration.
Overall, neither responses to conflict in the region, nor responses to irregular migration, address underlying causes. The stress in conflict responses in on taking a security approach: military interventions, driving insurgent groups out of territory they have taken, and securing those gains. There appear to be negligible efforts to address causes of conflict. Other issues highlighted are the difficulties involved in getting multiple countries to coalesce around a single objective, rather than prioritising or factoring in their respective individual interests, as well as overcoming resource and capacity constraints. Responses to migrant smuggling and human trafficking in the region would seem to be even more problematic. Vast resources are being invested into these programmes, notably by the European Union, but again the approach is a securitised one. While commitments to promote development are included in policies, little is being done to follow through on these in practice. These shortcomings in both conflict and human smuggling/trafficking responses undermine their effectiveness, especially in the long-term.