Ottilia Anna Maunganidze.

As global migration – primarily of people from the Middle East and North Africa towards Europe – continues to increase at an unprecedented pace, little is known about the people who facilitate the mass movement of these migrants and refugees. In-depth field research conducted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), in partnership with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (Global Initiative), provides new findings on smuggling that add to the evidence base.

The motivations pushing such unprecedented numbers of refugees and migrants to Europe are many: from escaping conflict, violent extremism and chronic poverty to seeking a better, more secure life abroad. An increasingly opportunistic and often violent smuggling industry is assisting and facilitating many of these journeys. The various smuggling networks and smugglers are becoming more responsive to both migration trends and policy attempts to curb the phenomenon. It should be understood, however, that while the focus of the ISS and Global Initiative research for 2015 and 2016 has been on smuggling, the story of the so-called ‘migration crisis’ is not only about smuggling.

The series of research papers and policy briefs produced by the ISS and the Global Initiative in 2016 seeks to put individual smugglers at the centre of the analysis, so as to better understand the short- and long-term implications of anti-smuggling policies. These publications are part of a broader project to better understand the contemporary landscape of irregular migration from Africa, and its short-, medium- and long-term implications.

The body of work focuses on trends in North Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, and movement via Turkey. This research aims to fill an analytical gap, thereby ensuring that policymakers respond effectively and without undue prejudice to migrants and those who facilitate their movement, including some smugglers. While certain smugglers can be characterised purely through a criminal lens, this is not the case for all. The work dispels the unwarranted view that the key to stopping migrant smuggling is killing or arresting the ‘bad’ people who partake in it. It provides much-needed data on the various actors that have been drawn into smuggling. These include, on the one hand, organised crime groups, corrupt government officials, militias and petty criminals, and, on the other, ordinary citizens such as hotel owners, cab drivers and merchants. Responses should be as nuanced as the actors who are involved in facilitating smuggling.

By conducting smuggler surveys, the ISS and the Global Initiative have taken the first step toward filling the gaps in the collective knowledge base about what motivates individual smugglers to become involved in the trade and what, if anything, would convince them to stop.

This research uncovers that many of the routes people take to migrate are known, and that the routes and the people who use them are often interdependent and interlinked. However, assumptions about the migrants, the people who facilitate their movement legally and illegally and the way these are connected, are mostly anecdotal. To assume that all migrant smugglers are the same, or connected and coordinated, would be wrong. different hubs and systems have their own smuggling ecosystems, involving a range of players from organised criminal gangs to community members who support the industry and profit from the migrant trade.

Policymakers have broadly failed to take into account the nuance required; that approaches that may have worked (even if temporarily) in reducing flows from Turkey cannot be replicated in the Maghreb or sub-Saharan Africa, where the interests of both the countries and the communities are markedly different. Each region has unique dynamics that must be better understood and used to inform critical, tailor- made responses.

In the Sahel, the Niger–Libya smuggling route, along which hundreds of thousands have passed since 2013, is one of the key pathways linking migrants primarily from West and Central Africa to North African shores for onward passage to Europe. In 2013, various estimates suggested that every week up to 3 000 people were passing through the northern Nigerien town of Agadez, relying on smugglers to move towards Libya. This figure has remained fairly consistent, with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimating that as many as 170 000 migrants, mostly from West Africa, passed through Agadez on their way north between January and October 2016.

The research findings on the Niger–Libya smuggling corridor are informed by long, semi-structured interviews with eight individual smugglers operating along the route, combined with extensive and ongoing research on the topic of migrant-smuggling networks. Of significance is how in the last five years the smuggling of people has become the most profitable form of smuggling in both northern Niger and southern Libya. The revenues generated by the migrant-smuggling industry are now embedded within regional political and security structures. Addressing this will require delicate policy responses that are acutely aware of the political economy linked to migrant smuggling.

In North Africa, the migration routes are in a state of flux.
Early 2016 saw a surge of Moroccan migrants along the central Mediterranean route with many transiting via Algeria and Libya. In spite of the instability and lack of security in Libya, it is likely that Moroccans will continue to migrate in large numbers via Libya, and they are likely to be joined by Tunisian youth. Likewise, Algerians are likely to continue transiting from the Algerian coast to Italy and Spain.

By the latter half of 2016 there were fewer North African migrants, but their continued movement through the eastern Mediterranean suggests that this route too could re-emerge rapidly.
North African governments have achieved some success in reducing migrant flows by increasing border security and control. However, the region still has porous land borders that enable the east–west movement of migrants, as well as of smugglers of commodities, weapons and narcotics. Incidentally, efforts to recognise and respond to the drivers of migration have had little to no success.
For North Africa, the solution is less securitisation and more practical efforts to address the lack of economic opportunity that drives migration. The goal should be both to help build economically successful partner nations and to proactively address the chronic conditions that drive migration before they become critical generators of social instability.

Meanwhile, in Turkey and the Horn of Africa, the European union (Eu) has been scrambling to find quick fixes to address human trafficking and smuggling. In Turkey, tensions are running high. As the conflict in Syria continues, there is a stand-off between the Turkish government, various interest groups in Turkey and Syria, the Eu, and the refugees – who have become a bargaining chip in the middle. Finding a sustainable or peaceful resolution to this stand-off will be instrumental in forging a way forward and quelling smuggling, which is on the rise. For smugglers and their clients, smuggling is an essential economic boon. Many of the smugglers interviewed viewed the industry as offering people a critical lifeline where few legitimate alternatives exist. Any solutions must consider this.

At the same time, people from the Horn of Africa, mainly Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia, continue to represent a significant share of the total number of smuggled migrants. Of great concern is that people from the Horn of Africa have consistently represented a disproportionate share of those whose lives are lost attempting the journey northwards to Europe. The region is still afflicted by a number of active conflicts, as well as land and border disputes, that push out many, particularly the young, despite the risks. The tensions in the region notwithstanding, the Eu, through the Eu–Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative (commonly referred to as the Khartoum Process), proposes activities that include strengthening border control capacity, promoting intelligence sharing and conducting joint investigations to counter human trafficking and smuggling. In implementing this process, it will be important to ensure that root causes of irregular migration are not exacerbated. In this regard, it is essential that parties genuinely concerned about the plight of forced migrants proceed with care and caution to better leverage the gains of the process.

Given the nature of governance in the region, smugglers here are mostly recruited as protectors of migrants. The dialogue and debate on this issue should not only be at a state level, but also at local level. Through engaging with the affected populations, policymakers and implementation agents can ensure that they do not inadvertently make migrants considerably more vulnerable.

All of these issues – from the Sahel, North Africa, East Africa and the Horn – require tailored and sustainable solutions. The ISS, working with the Global Initiative with support from the Hanns Seidel Foundation, aims to shape these solutions.

*Courtesy of Institute for Strategic Studies