06 Jun, 2019

The geopolitics of trans-Mediterranean migration in an era of declining flows

by Luca Raineri

1. Since 2017, migratory flows crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe have radically changed. This is arguably the outcome of the resolute policy measures adopted by the European Union (EU) and its member states to address the so-called “migration crisis” which invested Europe in 2014-2016. Violent civil conflicts in Syria and Libya had resulted in massive population displacement and increased border porosity in the European neighbourhood. At the peak of the “crisis” in 2015, more than 1 million migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees reached Europe irregularly across the Mediterranean Sea, with more than 850,000 through Turkey and Greece alone, reportedly the continent’s biggest migratory wave since the Second World War. In April that same year, the shipwreck occurred in Lampedusa costed the life of more than 800 migrants coming from Libya in what the UNHCR later defined as “the gravest humanitarian disaster in recent times”. 

While the qualification of migration “crisis” appears poorly fitting, given the much higher flows of migrants and refugees targeting other countries less resourced than the EU, these events shocked European public opinions and prompted an urgent reaction by European authorities. Adopted in May 2015, the European Agenda on Migration provided an overarching strategic framework to address these challenges and oriented the efforts of the EU and its Member States towards promoting stabilisation in neighbouring countries, strengthening border controls, disrupting the business model of smuggling and addressing the root causes of migration. 

2. In particular, the EU engaged transit countries crossed by major migratory flows to contribute to the control of migration, in exchange for substantial political and economic support. Three countries have been targeted most notably: Turkey, through which the largest majority of migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan transited; Libya, which conflict had precipitated into chaos, de facto becoming the major launching platform of migrants’ vessels to Europe; and Niger, the hub of West African migrants in transit to North Africa and Europe. 

In March 2016, EU and Turkey passed a controversial deal, which outsourced the containment of migratory flows from Asia to Ankara. In exchange, Brussels offered a generous aid package of 3 billion euros, and a substantial political support of which the Turkish President Erdogan benefited when, following a failed coup in 2016, he managed to curtail civil rights and strengthen his power with limited interference by the EU. 

Turning to Africa, since summer 2016 the EU urged Nigerien authorities to criminalize the smuggling of migrants to Libya, by seizing vehicles and arresting smuggling kingpins. Nigerien authorities implemented such measures only half-heartedly, since “the business of smuggling” was locally seen as culturally legitimate and economically profitable in a context characterized by endemic fragility and limited job availability. Aiming to encourage their cooperation, however, the EU ensured Nigerien authorities a steady political support, in spite of deteriorating human rights standards; moreover, they made of Niger one of the main beneficiaries of the EU Trust Fund for Africa, a newly created development tool designed to tackle the root causes of migration and promote stabilization: an offer that Niger, one of the poorest and most aid-dependent countries on Earth, could not refuse[1].  

Lastly, since early 2017 the EU step up its cooperation with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) in the field of migration, by supporting the strengthening of a Libyan coastguard and the creation of a Libyan maritime rescue coordination centre in order to increase Libya’s capacity to intercept and return migrants at sea. Among EU Members States, Italy spearheaded these initiatives: the signature of a memorandum of understanding with Tripoli’s authorities in February 2017 paved the way for Rome’s engagement in the attempted stabilization of Libya’s South and the channelling of EU funds earmarked for the fight against migrants smuggling. 

In a country characterized by ongoing civil conflicts, the presence of ISIS and Al-Qaeda strongholds, rampant trafficking of arms and narcotics, and a profound economic crisis, Libya’s authorities hardly perceived migration as a priority. Nevertheless, EU support proved much needed to Tripoli’s GNA crippled by the antagonism of rival governments and militias in the East of Libya, and by the mounting allegations of corruption among its own powerbase in the West. As a result of these ambiguities, however, EU- and Italy-sponsored measures proved less impactful then expected, and migratory flows from Libya to Europe continued to growth until mid-2017. 

The situation radically changed since July 2017 when, almost overnight, some well-known criminal organizations based in Sabratha, a migration hub west of Tripoli, halted their operations and turned from fostering smuggling to joining anti-smuggling control efforts. This surprising shift prompted allegations that former smugglers had traded their “conversion” in exchange for economic compensations and political co-optation, perhaps with the financial and political support of foreign intelligence services, a rumour further corroborated by one of the accused themselves in an interview with The Guardian[2].

3. Overall, these measures contributed to radically altering cross-Mediterranean migration flows. In the East, detected border crossings from Turkey to Greece declined from 885,000 in 2015 to 182,000 in 2016 (the majority of which in the first trimester, i.e. before the implementation of the EU-Turkey deal), and to 42,000 and 56,000 in 2017 and 2018 respectively. The latter figures are largely in line with the pre-crisis level, and the arrivals of the first four months of 2019 (approximately 10,000 persons, including both sea and land borders) are in line with these trends. While Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis remain the most commonly observed nationalities of migrants along this route, it is noteworthy that the number of Turkish reaching Greece is increasing apace, both in absolute and in relative terms: they were approximately 8,000 in 2018, and 2,000 in the first third of 2019. At the same time, Turkey has become the country hosting the largest refugee population worldwide, with more than 3.5 million refugees, a figure much larger than that of the EU overall. 

Similarly, irregular crossings along the Central Mediterranean Route (CMR), from Libya to Italy, declined dramatically, from 181,000 in 2016 to 119,000 in 2017. Notably, the largest majority of the crossings were observed in the first half of the year, when they were projected to reach 200,000 units, and they collapsed since July. In 2018, irregular migration from Libya stabilized to pre-crisis level, and actually even below the Gaddafi-era average, with 23,000 crossings detected in 2018. The decline of Sabratha has led to the rise to prominence of alternative embarkation points, including Garabulli al Al-Khoms, East of Tripoli, Zuwarah, a Berber-populated town next to the border with Tunisia, and Tunisia itself.

Interestingly, also the composition of these flows changed: while West Africans represented the majority of migrants reaching Italy in 2016 and (the first half of) 2017, especially from Nigeria, Guinea and Ivory Coast, their proportion plunged afterwards, and in 2018 approximately half of the migrants along the CMR were from North or East Africa, including Tunisia, Eritrea, Sudan and Algeria. Again, this is arguably the outcome of the measures adopted in Niger to curb irregular migration, which prompted a dramatic decline of the crossings observed from Agadez – North Niger’s migration hub – from 334,000 in 2016 to approximately 70,000 in 2017 and 90,000 in 2018. In this case, too, the composition of migratory flows has changed, with Nigeriens now representing almost the totality of migrants in transit observed in Agadez. Niger’s anti-smuggling measures, in fact, do not apply to Niger nationals, who tend to engage less in long-range migration to Europe than in circular migration to Libya, where seasonal jobs are still available to Sahelian migrants.

4. Available evidence, however, suggest that these measures have not reduced so much the determination of prospective migrants to leave, since they have had a limited impact on driving triggers of migration, such as the lack of opportunity and disparity of conditions; instead, they have principally managed to alter the routes, destinations and modality of migratory flows and human smuggling. From East Africa and the Horn, one notices intensifying migratory flows across the Red Sea to the Gulf countries, via Yemen. In spite of the worsening humanitarian situation, in fact, the current instability increases the porosity of the borders. Available estimates suggest that approximately 160,000 Ethiopians and Somalis arrived in Yemen in 2018, more than the overall number of migrants having irregularly reached Europe via the Mediterranean that year, and more than the total number of migrants from all nationalities that arrived in Yemen in 2017 (approximately 100,000)[3]. 

From West Africa, instead, the constraints on the route through Niger, Libya and Italy are increasingly re-orienting migratory flows to Morocco and Spain. Since the implementation of the Morocco-Spain deal in 2004, crossings along the Western Mediterranean route had remained constantly in check, between 5,000 and 10,000 units a year. Since 2017, though, the deterioration of Rabat’s control in the Rif region created new opportunities for more departures from Morocco’s Western coast. As a result, the number of crossings to Spain doubled to reach 23,000 units in 2017; and it doubled again for the second consecutive year in 2018 to reach a record high of 57,000 arrivals, making of the Western Mediterranean Route (WMR) the main gateway to Europe that year.

Observations in early 2019, with more than 8,000 arrivals in the first four months and more to come with the upcoming warm season, suggest that this trend may continue. With the rise of the WMR to Europe, the role of Agadez as a regional smuggling hub is being eroded by the emergence of alternative platforms further West, such as Gao and Timbuktu in Mali. Malian towns are not only more suitably positioned to reach Morocco, via Algeria; perhaps more importantly, the current conflict in Mali undermines the capacity – let alone the willingness – of state authorities to enforce border controls and curtail northbound migration. At the same time, non-state armed groups in Mali profit by contributing to organize and/or disrupt migratory flows, depending on the convenience of their shifting alliances[4].

And while Algeria had been implementing a very harsh policy of deportations of (suspected) migrants, with approximately 45,000 expulsions performed under duress since 2016[5], the current political turmoil may shift Algerian authorities’ focus away from the fight against migration in the months to come. 

5. Among the (not so unexpected) outcomes of the measures recently introduced to reduce irregular migration and fight human smuggling to Europe, one finds the progressive marginalization of traditional smuggling initiatives, characterized by homespun organization and loose coordination, and the parallel rise of better organized criminal cartels capable of meeting the growing entry costs of the smuggling market. This increases migrants’ and refugees’ vulnerability to deception, abuses and exploitation, and the scope of human trafficking schemes reducing migrants into slavery is broadening. In particular, available reports have documented the increasing exploitation of migrants and refugees in bonded labor, artisanal goldmining, and prostitution[6].  

Given the profitability of these schemes, critics have also highlighted the risks of connections between criminal organizations devoted to smuggling and trafficking, and law enforcement theoretically tasked with fighting them. The collusions documented by the UN between the Libyan coast guard targeted by EU capacity building and the cartels smuggling fuel and migrants from Libya are a case in point[7], which leads one to question the sustainability of the current measures tackling irregular migration.

Dr Luca Raineri is a research fellow in International Relations and Security Studies at the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies of Pisa, Italy. He is also a member of the Research School on Peace and Conflict of Oslo. His areas of expertise include critical security studies, African politics, geopolitics, and peace and conflict studies. His research focuses mainly on the impact of extralegal economies (narcotics, arms and people smuggling and trafficking) on security and development in Africa. Since 2010 he has carried out several rounds of field-research in Senegal, Mali, Niger, Tunisia.

  1. Lebovich A. (2018), ‘Halting ambitions. EU migration and security policy in the Sahel’, ECFR Policy Brief 266, London: September 2018;
  2. For a detailed analysis of these developments, see: Micallef M., Reitano T. (2017), ‘The anti-human smuggling business and Libya’s political end game’, ISS and Global Initiative against TOC, North Africa Report 2, Geneva: December 2017;
  3. Mixed Migration Centre (2019), Quarterly Mixed Migration Update: East Africa & Yemen, Geneva: April 2019;
  4. United Nations Security Council (2018), Report of the Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 2374 (2017) on Mali, S/2018/581, New York: August 2018;
  5. Amnesty International (2018), Forced to Leave. Stories of Injustice against migrants in Algeria, Tunis/London: December 2018;
  6. See for instance: Tubiana J., Warin C., Saeneen G. (2018), ‘Multilateral Damage. The impact of EU migration policies on central Saharan routes’, Clingendael CRU Report, The Hague:  September 2018; Women Refugee Council (2019), “More Than One Million Pains”: Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys on the Central Mediterranean Route to Italy, Washington D.C.: March 2019;
  7. United Nations Security Concil (2017), Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), (S/2017/466), New York: June 2017.