Over the past year, the number of migrants flowing into Europe has dropped dramatically. An estimated 150,000 people entered the EU illegally in 2018, the lowest total in the past five years and 92% below the peak recorded during the 2015 migration crisis, according to the border and coastguard agency Frontex.
Even so, Luca Raineri, a research fellow at the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies of Pisa Italy, says Europe’s migration crisis is far from over. Raineri carries out field research mostly in the Sahel, Mali, Niger, and Senegal, studying human trafficking, and human smuggling.
1. Is it possible to show the main migratory routes from Africa towards Europe, at the beginning of 2019?
Starting from September 2017, we witnessed a marked decline in migratory flows that used to reach Italy through North Africa. During 2018 there were signs of differentiation, with growing departures from Tunisia, and a surge of arrivals to Spain through Algeria and Morocco. Spain has become the country most exposed to migrant landings. This was largely predictable, since trying to put a dam on one side always ends up opening a fault on the other.
The paradox is that probably the much-trumpeted role of the Libyan coast guard is not the main deterrent to new departures. The explanation is more likely to be found further upstream: a big dip both tin he number of entrances to Libya across its southern borders and in the transit of migrants through Niger. Migrants now have to use other routes, such as the one through Chad.
European countries have tried to contain flows by working with their African counterparts, taking migrants from Libya back to their countries of origin or bringing them to Europe. But this humanitarian project has failed. During the last year, only 15,000 people have been evacuated and few have been accepted by European countries.
Given the partial closure of the traditional Libyan route, many migrants have tried to reach the Mediterranean shores through Algeria. The Algerian reaction to this growing migratory pressure has led to brutal mass expulsions, which according to some estimates have affected up to 40,000 people.
Another migrant route passes through Sudan. Several militias, which act more or less directly under the authority of the Khartoum government, are well positioned to counter the illicit people smuggling. Instead, they have become an integral part of the smuggling of migrants.
2. Are there any factors that affect the choice of a route rather than another by migrants?
Generalisations are difficult to make. Many migrants flee extreme poverty, while others are well off. Migrants often leave behind countries or regions. Inhabitants of some villages to leave for the adventure. Others leave due to the prestige that acquire those who challenge a difficult path to improve their personal condition.
3. Did the military intervention of some European and Western powers in Niger have any repercussions on migration through the African country?
The French military operation Barkhane has no interest in stopping migrants since it is an anti-terrorism mission. Companies known for smuggling migrants won contracts to build the French base of Madama. This makes sense. If you have to fight terrorists in a specific area, it is crucial to enlist local help.
At the same time, he EU is exerting strong pressure on Niger to reduce migration. It funds cooperation between different police forces and strengthens border posts. EU pressure also resulted in what I consider the single most important change: a new law in Niger that criminalises the smuggling of people. Given that Niger has the highest dependence in the world on foreign financing, EU threats to cut aid if the law is not enforced carry real power.
4. If Niger stabilises, are there other African countries that can take its place of migration hub?
I don’t think so. Niger will remain central for the northern transits. Small numbers of migrants cross Mali. Some flows are moving even in Chad, although the local regime is so brutal. There have been episodes of military attacks by the Chadian armed forces against migrants, fearing that these people could join hostile militias.
An important phenomenon has been the discovery of gold deposits throughout the Upper-Saharan region. For many human traffickers, mining has become an alternative to their previous illicit activities.
5. One last question. How would you rate the EU’s intervention in Africa? Is it working or not?
It is difficult to summarise whether it is working or not. If we take the reduction of irregular migration to Europe as a yardstick of success, then the results are undeniable.
What is more questionable for me is whether this reduction is a product of EU action. The collapse of the Libyan dinar has made Libya less attractive for migratory flows. Mass deportations carried out by Algeria in recent months represent another strong deterrent to moving North.
Statistics show that the contribution of the Libyan coast guard has been minimal, while the anti-smuggling agreements with the Fezzan militias have proved to be more decisive. The EU strategy has a potentially dangerous side effect of strengthening militias and associated networks of organised crime. These organisations threaten the solidity of Libyan national institutions.
Europe emphasises – at least verbally – the protection of human rights, and in this regard it is difficult to speak of success. All international reports testify the deterioration of human rights of migrants in Libya and elsewhere.
This interview has been edited for clarity.