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Caught in the middle: A human rights and peace-building approach to migration governance in the Sahel (December 2018)

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Executive summary

In recent years, the Sahel region has attracted the attention of European policy makers aiming to prevent Europe-bound irregular migrants from reaching the Libyan coastline. Policies implemented under this approach propose to address the root causes of irregular migration from non-EU countries, such as through support for socio-economic development of countries of origin, the dismantling of smuggling and trafficking networks, and the definition of actions for the better application of return policies. One question that could be posed to the design of this approach to mixed migration governance is whether it takes sufficient stock of the larger development and stability contexts within which irregular migration and human smuggling takes place. Does migration governance sufficiently address the human rights consequences and destabilising effects that migratory movements and the policies that address them may have?1 And how could human rights and peace-building principles – that is, processes and measures that contribute to a society’s capacity to address conflict in a constructive manner2 – be incorporated to achieve more holistic and conflict-sensitive migration governance?

The study finds that the implementation of migration policies in the Sahel has contributed to an increase in human rights abuses and risks for migrants and refugees, as well as rises in human trafficking and forced labour. Mixed migration movement has been pushed underground and migratory routes have diversified – leading migrants and refugees through more inhospitable terrains. Migrants face abuse perpetrated by smugglers in both Niger and Chad (and in northern Mali, Algeria and Libya), as well as by armed groups operating the gold mines on migration routes through Chad (and Libya). The clear commodification and dehumanisation of migrants and refugees that underlies this treatment is unfortunately not limited to non-state actors. The increase in inhumane migrant deportations to remote desert areas currently taking place at the southern borders of Algeria and Morocco – as well as the refoulement of Darfurian asylum seekers to Libya – is similarly indicative of a hardened stance towards migrants, not unlike the one currently seen in Europe.

To date, the response to mixed migrants’ protection needs has mainly fallen on the shoulders of international humanitarian organisations. This study recommends that national and sub-national institutions and capacities be supported to take the lead in the design and implementation of comprehensive and sustainable migration management and migrant protection. This would entail a structural change in international migration governance in the Sahel region: from externalising borders to focusing on building migrant protection structures and capacity at national level in regions of migration transit. Additional advantages of such an approach would be that it could address some of the tensions between central state and regionally elected authorities regarding their role in the design of migration governance, and could form an additional building block for ongoing decentralisation processes:

Recommendation 1: Contribute to the development of (sub)national migrant protection frameworks and structures

In Agadez (northern Niger), where migration policies have been implemented most substantially, the study found that the relationships between local communities, their authorities, and the international community have changed. Local communities and their locally and regionally elected authorities voice complaints that their expectations that the international community would offset some of the most direct negative economic effects of migration governance in Agadez have not been met. At the same time, Agadez is confronted by an increase in southbound mixed migration, which puts additional pressure on the community. These challenges present themselves in a context marked by an incomplete decentralisation process and ongoing power struggles between national and regional/local authorities. This underlines the need for conflict-sensitive migration policies that take account of local realities:

Recommendation 2: Ensure that migration governance benefits local communities and addresses the (perceived) negative effects of migration on host communities

Lastly, the report does not identify imminent threats to stability as a consequence of current migration governance. However, the implementation of migration governance does take place in a region that portrays signs of increases in conflict dynamics. A process of militia-sation is underway – both driven by attempts of militias to position themselves as credible partners to the international community for migration management and by young, unemployed men driven to join militias due to the absence of alternative economic opportunities. At the micro-level, an increasing number of conflicts between various armed groups, traffickers and bandits is evident in the Kawar region of north-eastern Niger. In northern Chad, the state actively seeks to undermine rebel groups by (violently) evicting gold miners and confiscating their pickup trucks. An increase in ethnic tensions between the Goran and Tubu is visible in this region as well – fuelled partly by state actions that pit one ethnic group against another.
The implementation of migration policies takes place within these dynamic contexts.