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Oct 7, 2016 | 09:16 GMT

9 mins read

North Africa: The Other Side of Europe's Migrant Crisis

Each year, thousands of migrants reach Europe from North Africa by way of the central and eastern Mediterranean routes. Now the European Union is looking for ways to put a stop to these treacherous journeys.
(ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Bullets
  • Managing migrant flows along the central Mediterranean routes will require cooperating with multiple Central and North African governments, impeding progress in building comprehensive migrant agreements.
  • Egypt will hasten to address the increased flow from its shores as more young Egyptians join the migration to Europe.
  • Libya's coast will remain insecure as long as its government is unstable. 

To talk of a single migrant crisis in Europe can be misleading. The eastern routes carrying migrants over the Mediterranean Sea have commanded international attention for the sheer number of Syrian refugees who have traversed them to enter Europe and for the European Union's negotiations and subsequent migrant deal with Turkey that the crisis prompted. Despite their higher profile and amount of traffic, however, the eastern routes are not the only migrant paths into Europe across the Mediterranean, nor is Syria the only country from which migrants are fleeing. Thousands of migrants also reach Europe each year from North Africa by way of routes crossing the central and western Mediterranean.

Migrants take multiple paths across the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. An agreement between the European Union and Turkey struck in March 2016 significantly cut the flow on the eastern routes. The number of migrants taking the central routes has remained steady, if comparatively lower than on the eastern routes at its peak.

Though these paths are less traveled than the eastern routes, they are no less treacherous. Most deaths among migrants who headed across the Mediterranean this year — one of the deadliest on record — occurred along the central route. To address this problem, the European Union is trying to negotiate agreements with the countries from which the migrants travel, much as it did with Turkey earlier this year. But the arrangements will only be as effective in constricting migrant flows as are the governments of the North African countries from which they depart.

A Much Longer Journey

Migrants who cross the central Mediterranean are usually traveling the last leg of a much longer journey. Most people who embark from North Africa have migrated there, driven by poverty, repression or a lack of opportunity in their home countries. Nine sub-Saharan nations — Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, Gambia, the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Somalia, Mali and Senegal — contribute the vast majority of the human traffic along the routes. Border guards who are easy to bribe and borders that are difficult to secure conspire to enable migrants to make the arduous and expensive trek north to the coast.

Truly stemming the tide of migrants along the central routes, then, is more a matter of keeping people from heading into North Africa than of stopping them from leaving there. This will be a tall order for the five North African countries. To alleviate some of the economic desperation driving migrants north, Europe set up the $1.8 billion Emergency Trust Fund for Africa in late 2015 to pay for projects including education development and employment support in 23 African countries that typically feed the migrant flow. But the negotiations and development work that the money will pay for could take decades to actually reduce emigration from sub-Saharan Africa, if the targeted governments even accept the aid in the first place. In the meantime, the European Union is looking for willing partners in North Africa with which to forge migrant deals. The more robust the laws for the resettlement and processing of migrants in a given country, the more likely an agreement between that country and the European Union is to succeed, despite the stumbling blocks it will inevitably encounter.

Egypt: A Different Priority

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently highlighted Egypt as a country with which the European Union should work to enhance migration controls. Egypt's parliament is close to passing a bill, drafted in late 2015, to crack down on smuggling operations that shuttle migrants into the country and onto boats bound for Europe. But the country has a bigger problem when it comes to migration; recent reports suggest that the number of Egyptians setting sail for Europe via the central routes has grown. This revelation has been a source of embarrassment for the Egyptian government, which has long struggled to employ its people. In recent speeches, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has implored young Egyptians to consider the jobs that the government is working to provide for them and to stay in the country. These pleas are meant to appeal to the European Union as much as they are to stop Egypt's younger generations from leaving the country and taking their chances across the Mediterranean.

Furthermore, though reports of arrests of smugglers in Egypt have increased, the country will not be able to preclude migrant departures from the country without first addressing shortcomings in its coast guard and border patrol. The legislation moving through parliament does more to punish smugglers who have been caught than to encourage law enforcement to do their jobs, for instance by raising their pay to discourage bribery. The law also disproportionately focuses on smuggling at the coast and does not adequately address controls on border points where migrants enter Egypt, farther south in Upper Egypt or at the juncture of the Libyan and Egyptian deserts. The country's strategy to curb migration focuses on curtailing the flow of young Egyptians onto the central Mediterranean routes without regard for the steady volume of foreign migrants leaving Egypt's shores, limiting the efficacy of any future migrant deal.

Tunisia: The Challenge of Channeling Aid Money

Along with Egypt, Merkel also proposed Tunisia as a North African country with which the European Union should increase its cooperation on migration. The country already has a deal with the European Union — the 2014 Mobility Partnership — though it has not yielded much in the way of results and only scratched the surface in working to secure Tunisia's largely open coastlines. One of the problems with the agreement is that Tunisia's security apparatus has yet to recover from the events of the Arab Spring. In the wake of the revolution and the ouster of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, moreover, Tunisia was too preoccupied with domestic affairs, such as drafting a new constitution and dealing with jihadist threats, to enforce the deal. Now that a functional government has been officially settled in Tunis, Tunisia could be a better partner to the European Union in helping to stop the flow of migrants.

A new deal with Europe could be a boon for Tunisia. In mid-October, the European Union will open discussions to ease visa restrictions for Tunisian citizens visiting Europe, a prize that has lured the country's government to the negotiating table. As part of the talks, the European Union is considering dramatically increasing its financial aid to Tunisia — 300 million euros through 2020 — in exchange for its cooperation in stanching the flow of migrants. How effectively Tunisia will be able to uphold its end of the bargain remains unclear, though. Relative to other countries, migrant traffic through Tunisia is lighter. Furthermore, no matter how much money the European Union gives Tunisia, there is no guarantee that it will be distributed effectively, something the country has struggled with in the past. If the government does not funnel the funds to foster job creation in the regions where unemployment is most severe, smuggling — and, by extension, migration — will continue unabated.

Morocco and Algeria: The Route Less Traveled

Compared with the eastern and central Mediterranean routes, the western route originating in Morocco or Algeria is a much less pressing concern for most members of the European Union. For one thing, fewer migrants use the route to get to the Continent. For another, Morocco is the only North African country with a comprehensive immigration policy of its own, and it was the first to broker a mobility partnership with the European Union. In addition, because of the country's capable intelligence and security services, organized criminal networks are not able to thrive in Morocco as they do elsewhere in North Africa.

Algeria, on the other hand, presents more of a challenge. The country is short on well-paying jobs, especially in its rural regions, and smuggling is a lucrative business. So far, the Algerian government has failed to offer competitive alternatives to discourage the country's smuggling operations. Though Germany added Algeria to its list of "safe" countries — to which asylum seekers can be repatriated more easily — it is one of the trickiest North African nations with which to increase cooperation. Successful joint naval drills between NATO and Algeria have opened up the possibility of deeper cooperation on land, for instance joint training undertaken between Algerian border officials and EU partners. Still, the Algerian government is wary of committing too much at once.

Libya: A Worsening Problem

Libya, where most smuggling ships on the central migration routes set off, poses by far the most difficulty for the European Union's mission to contain migration from North Africa. The country was once an epicenter of migration for sub-Saharan and North African workers looking for jobs in the energy and services sectors. In fact, under the rule of Moammar Gadhafi, Libya actively courted migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa because it had more jobs than its population could fill. Even then, however, some migrants extended their search for opportunity across the Mediterranean, and in 2008, Gadhafi made a comprehensive deal with the European Union to halt the flow of migrants to the Continent. Today, times have changed drastically for Libya, though it remains the main launching point on the central routes. In the aftermath of the 2011 uprising that killed Gadhafi, Libya's competing and unstable government factions have been fighting over the country's future, complicating decision-making. Nonetheless, Libya's leaders have taken steps to help curb migration to Europe. The European Union struck a deal with Libya in August, offering the Libyan coast guard aid and training to improve its ability to apprehend and return migrants to its shores.

But implementing the deal — not to mention stopping migrants headed for the central Mediterranean routes — will be a formidable undertaking. Even if the newly trained and funded coast guard is effective in sweeping for migrants, the migration crisis will be far from resolved. Libya has 31 known migrant detention centers, but only eight of them are protected and monitored by the United Nations. The rest of the facilities may not comply with EU humanitarian standards, making it difficult to offer Libya the "safe" nation status. As more migrants enter the country, the number of detention centers needed to house them will rise, and so will the number of unmonitored facilities. Although the agreement is a good first step toward a more comprehensive solution, until the Government of National Accord has assumed greater control over the country's security services, Libya's borders will remain more or less open to migrants.

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