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International mobility, local economics and European cooperation policies in the central Sahara

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MOLECOPS (International mobility, local economics and European cooperation policies in the central Sahara)

Reporting period: 2015-05-01 to 2017-04-30

Over the last decade, the European Union has put migration at the heart of its relations with North and West Africa. It finances a broad range of programmes that aim at a better management of migration, particularly in the Sahara, where regional labour migration is often assimilated, by European governments and a broader public, to onward migration to Europe. EU interventions in the area range from encouragement of legal reforms to assistance in the repatriation of migrants, via equipping border posts with sophisticated means of control. EU interventions in the area take different forms, but they all have in common that they are rarely coordinated with each other, and that little is known of their actual impact and side-effects on the ground as no comprehensive survey of these measures had been established so far, and as no field research had been carried out to address these questions. By combining an exhaustive analysis of European policies with empirical fieldwork, the aim of this research project is to study the nature and practical results of European intervention in migration issues in the central Sahara, and its global cost. With a view towards understanding and critically assessing the representations and assumptions that underpin them, it fills an obvious knowledge gap, as well as advances more theoretical and comparative debates about international migration, foreign intervention, and the link between migration and development.
The first stage of the research involved various literature, press, and report reviews. This allowed me to understand how and why, from the early 2000s onwards, migration between sub-Saharan and North African countries has become an issue to be treated on the European level. Documents produced by EU partners in charge of implementing projects on the ground were sifted for concrete information, and in order to grasp the possible gap between information passed on to the EU and realities observed on the ground. This helped identify and define key concepts used in EU migration policies and to assess the cogency of existing normative arguments in relation to decision-making. This stage was followed by a qualitative empirical study of migration in Chad and Niger. The aim of fieldwork was first of all to observe the means, in terms of equipment and personnel, that are deployed locally to monitor borders, control roads, and as the case might be, arrest and repatriate migrants.
I have shown that migrations from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe through the Sahara are very limited in absolute and relative numbers, and that the vast majority of sub-Saharan migrants in North Africa have no intention of leaving the continent. Despite of this, in Europe, the fear of invasion is still kindled and legitimise ever-growing restrictions on the freedom of movement of certain categories of people, at whatever cost. Similar to their North Africa neighbours, Sahelian states are now involved in various ways in the European fight against irregular migration. In Niger and Chad, people accused of migrant smuggling risk arrest, and migrants are forced to turn back if they are caught in the Sahel even before being in an irregular situation. As a result, irregular but socially regulated transport options tend to disappear, to be replaced by means of transport that are both irregular and clandestine. Those tend to be more difficult, expensive and risky. Notwithstanding, the tiny proportion of sub-Saharans who have, for several generations by now, attempted to migrate to North Africa continue to do so. But the overall conditions of travel, life and survival in the desert are worsening. Meanwhile, the number of casualties at the (recently declared) Saharan frontier of Europe continues to rise. Our results show that for long, the fact that people crossed borders illegally or rather extra-legally did not imply the existence of ‘human smugglers’ that were identified as such, by themselves, by migrants, or by local authorities. Yet to arrest and condemn a few people in order to impede the mobility of a few others means forgetting the historical dimension of human mobility in this part of Africa. Indeed, the Sahara is not merely a desert crossed, but it is also an area shaped by migrants, merchants and transporters who have contributed and are still contributing to the urbanisation of the area and to its economic vitality. Moreover, none of the national and international policies implemented in the area has never led to a real and sustainable decrease of the number of trans-Saharan migrants. Practices change accordingly, but they do not disappear; clandestinity is always an option. What international intervention has achieved is to disturb a long-standing trans-border migration system that concerns first and foremost the countries of North Africa and the Sahel.
The project has developed an innovative research framework in order to study migration in the central Sahara in a comparative perspective, and to propose a model of evaluation of migration policies that rests grounded in empirical research rather than normative analysis. Comparison has been situated at two levels: one, a synthesis of the existing literature on Saharan and trans-Saharan migration. Secondly, a reflection on the challenges that Saharan migration poses to current paradigms of migration that were developed in more static or sedentary contexts. This part of the project drawn particularly on collaboration with researchers based at the University of Oxford. The project has also provided a model for studying the implementation of international policies through fieldwork such as the Sahara, where migration cannot be studied separately from other aspects of regional economies, nor can the lawfulness of state agents or indeed their integrity be taken for granted. The researcher’s emphasis on his own mobility and shared travelling with migrants constitutes a radical break with current research practice, and encourages methodological advances, in the Sahara and beyond. By a combination of policy research and anthropological fieldwork, the researcher hopes his results to be emulated in migration studies more broadly. Research results also contribute to current debates in Development Studies. Migration and development are often considered to be interdependent, but so far the nature of their link remains controversial. The relationship between migration, development, and human rights is a topic of growing interest among international and regional organisations. Yet while development policies themselves are frequently studied, research that addresses the effects of migration policies on development is rare. Our research show that EU migration policies in the central Sahara have not only profoundly changed migration practices, but that they have also contributed to a transformation of local economic structures, pushing them towards a greater degree of ‘informality’. Our research made it possible to evaluate the impact of migration policies not only on the phenomena that they are supposed to act upon (irregular migration), but also on other fields of social interaction (local economies and transport systems), and hence to investigate and rethink, among other things, the relations between EU migration and development policies.
Migrants coming back from Libya to Niger