1st Dec 2023


EU's migrant-curbing agenda risks fuelling Sahel jihadists

  • Tracks in the Sahara desert: The EU's extended borders there are crumbling as military juntas consolidate power, expel western partners, and give way to jihadist groups' territorial expansion (Photo: Azzedine Rouichi)
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In its desperate effort to curb migration, the EU has inadvertently bolstered jihadist groups in the Sahel, and now it may be too late.

Migration is surging in the Mediterranean, and so is the criticism of Europe's response. Abandonment at sea, overcrowded detention centres, outsourcing to north African partners while turning a blind eye on human rights violations — the list goes on.

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Yet, given the EU's track record of aligning with member states' domestic concern and far-right pressure, we shouldn't expect much change.

Meanwhile, the EU's extended borders in the Sahara Desert are crumbling as military juntas consolidate power, expel western partners, and give way to jihadist groups' territorial expansion. Herein lies the strategic migrant, the one that may influence EU policy.

The vast majority of migrants embarking on the Mediterranean have overcome a far more dangerous journey. Lacking the means to emigrate legally, these predominantly young men — driven by insecurity, lack of opportunities, or perceiving migration as a family obligation and the only feasible entry into adulthood — have traversed one of the world's most volatile regions.

Moving through the Sahel, migrants are constantly negotiating mobility, placing their lives in the hands of smugglers, middlemen, government officials, as well as armed jihadist- and ethno-political groups. These actors compete in a vacuum of informal governance spanning some 3,000km, wherein migrants depend on established networks along relatively stable corridors.

However, following the 2015 migration crisis, the migrants' mobility patterns were gradually dismantled. Driven by domestic concern for immigration, the EU has channeled billions of euros toward border management in the Sahara Desert while compelling third-party countries, such as Mali and Niger, to criminalise and crack down on irregular migration.

By transforming smuggling into a high-risk and low-profit operation, the EU is claiming to effectively reduce the supply of migration.

Sahel bottleneck

Yet, in the Sahel, a centuries old transition point for trade and migration, this logic contradicts the most basic economic principle of market equilibrium.

Instead of reducing demand, the EU has merely increased the risk of mobility while, at the same time, turning migration into a conflict economy.

Speaking with Malian returnees, most of whom were expelled from North Africa, they explained how traditional corridors suddenly closed due to the governments' crackdown on irregular migration.

Using alternative services across the Algerian border, some migrants had experienced abandonment and vehicle breakdown resulting in several fatalities by dehydration or injuries. Even so, having invested their own and, in some case, their parents' life savings, most migrants will seize any opportunity for onward movement.

For West African migrants, a common slogan is 'Italy or death.' And to cope with psychological stress, they tend to externalise risk through faith, knowing that insha'Allah, 'everything will be as it should.'

Given migrants' risk-willingness, the EU-imposed crackdown has inadvertently raised the profit for those willing to supply and govern increasingly dangerous journeys.

By 2017, migrants were already paying upward of €100 at rebel checkpoints in northern Mali, suggesting an annual income of at least €1m from mere taxation. With the gradual dismantling of traditional services, the potential income for jihadist organisations could be much higher.

One of my acquaintances, let's call him Amadou, was apprehended by Algerian authorities in 2018, dropped off in the desert with a large group of West African nationals, and then forced to walk some 20km into northern Mali.

Upon crossing the border, the migrants were detained and threatened by armed rebels who Amadou believed were part of a jihadist formation. The rebels assessed their valuables and mustered €13,000 in return for transportation toward the city of Gao.

According to Amadou, jihadists are also recruiting among migrants — a concern which has already been raised by the UN panel of experts.

At one point he was approached by a militant asking about the "strong man in the back of the truck", saying that "he would make a good soldier." In another village, a group of forced returnees told me that rebels had detained people with a strong physical appearance, whereas some had recognised individual militants as former members of their home communities.

Between sudden death, abandonment in the desert, or to work for an armed group, the options are rather constrained.

By now, the security situation has rapidly deteriorated. As jihadist groups extend their influence, the vacuum left by EU's interdiction policy will offer significant opportunities for large-scale extortion, recruitment, and even management of migration.

Meanwhile, having lost its partners in the Sahel, the worst response is materialising with EU's reorientation toward north Africa. Echoing past agreements with Libya, the Tunisian government has already pushed thousands of migrants into the desert and toward jihadist territory.

The EU must recognise the strategic implication of migration. Respecting migrants' human rights is not simply right; it also aligns with the security interests of both Europe and its southern neighbours.

In fact, by promoting orderly and safe migration, the EU can reduce jihadist groups' influence and contribute to regional stability. This would address the fundamental objectives of the EU Sahel Strategy and reflect legitimate foreign policy directives as opposed to member states' domestic concerns.

Author bio

Ole Sevrin Nydal is an independent Sahel researcher in Mali, who has written for the Journal of Conflict Resolution.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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