13 de setembro de 2018
While dismayed Americans watched the “zero tolerance” policy of family separation unfolding at the Mexican border, across the Atlantic, another shocking migration crisis continues to fester. Behind the grueling headlines of drownings in the Mediterranean Sea, migrants run a gauntlet of abuse through the Sahara desert to reach the Libyan coast. Armed militias and terrorist organizations across the Sahel profit by smuggling people displaced by climate, population, and security crises. While European policymakers struggle to cope with arrivals, their containment approach consistently disregards the root causes that force people to take such unimaginable risks. The high value of these human commodities not only exposes vulnerable migrants to torture, extortion, and even enslavement, but also provides funds for terrorist groups intent on attacking the West.
Escaping the Sahel: Drivers of Migration
Nearly 100 million people live in the Sahel region of Africa, a naturally arid area known for traditional semi-nomadism. Today, as resources dwindle and instability increases, people across the region are crowding into mega-cities or fleeing across borders.
As the climate changes, regional temperatures, rainfall, droughts and flooding have all increased. A growing population—expected to double over the next 30 years—and poor land and water use policies have strained the environment, while over-cultivation, overgrazing, and deforestation for fuelwood have accelerated land degradation and desertification. Changing rainfall and vegetation has pushed pastoralists further south, increasing tensions with sedentary agricultural communities.
At the same time, many of these countries are experiencing protracted insurgencies and deadly conflicts stoked by legacies of colonial marginalization and authoritarianism. All these factors have converged in the Lake Chad Basin, creating one of the largest and most complex emergencies in the world.
The Libyan Route: A Windfall for Terrorists and Criminals
In response to these crises, hundreds of thousands of migrants have tried to reach Europe through Libya. At the behest of the European Union, former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi prevented migrants from crossing from Libya to Italy, but after he was killed in the 2011 revolution, this enforcement mechanism vanished. Libya became the main route to Europe after the 2016 EU deal with Turkey limited arrivals through Greece, and the human smuggling trade is a major source of income for cities along Libya’s coast, with an estimated value of 325 million Euros.
After Gaddafi’s fall, terrorist organizations established a presence along the desert smuggling routes and in some coastal areas. Al-Qaeda extracts revenue from smuggling through its deep connections to the Libyan black market. Before it was driven out of its stronghold in Sirte, ISIS imposed fees on passing smugglers. Other armed groups benefit by setting up checkpoints and protection rackets. Terrorists and militias also make money by kidnapping and torturing migrants for payments from their relatives.
In 2017, Italy cut arrivals from Libya by 85 percent by providing coast guard vessels and striking deals with Saharan tribes and leaders of coastal cities. But these steps seem to have increased suffering and migrants’ vulnerability to exploitation. In November 2017, a shocking video of an open slave market near Tripoli forced EU governments to evacuate thousands of the most vulnerable migrants from detention centers. But with the sea route shut, an estimated 400,000- 1,000,000 migrants were trapped in Libya, where they remain vulnerable to forced labor, torture, and trafficking.
The situation offers terrorists another opportunity to build ties with widespread human trafficking networks. More than nine million people in Africa are estimated be in modern slavery—the highest prevalence in the world—and the value of forced labor on the continent is estimated at $14 billion. Libya—which is rated by the Walk Free Foundation as highly vulnerable to modern slavery—is at risk of becoming a major hub in global forced-labor supply chains.
A Migratory Future for the Sahel?
Striking deals with security forces in Africa may have reduced Mediterranean crossings but it has conversely empowered militias that control detention centers and checkpoints. UN monitors have accused Libyan security services of profiting from smuggling and even sanctioned several individuals affiliated with the coast guard. Moreover, smuggling has become a major source of jobs and income in struggling Libyan towns.
What can be done? A proposed transnational security force backed by France to fight terrorism and trafficking in the Sahel could be effective—but only if fully funded. Processing asylum claims in migration hubs like Niger may also redirect migrants away from sea crossings, but to offer true alternatives to smuggling these efforts must be greatly expanded.
In the long term, people in the Sahel need sustainable livelihoods and peaceful societies that will allow them to stay in their homes even as the climate changes. Donors should invest in programs that seek to build community resilience by integrating climate adaptation, peacebuilding, and economic development in a holistic way.
However to truly establish resiliency, governments in the West must be prepared to accept migration as part of the solution. The 2015 Valetta Summit, which promoted development-migration partnerships between EU and African countries, was a positive step, but actions so far have too narrowly focused on migration prevention and enforcement. Proposals for work exchanges like “skills partnerships” could fill critical labor gaps in receiving countries and stimulate sustainable development in the sending ones. But implementing these plans requires expanding legal migration—which requires stronger political will than has been demonstrated to date, on either side of the Atlantic.