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Migration from west Africa to Europe is bound to increase. "Tougher border controls" are not the answer

Workers in Niger taking part in the "Exode". Image: Stefano Manca

European governments need a more flexible approach to immigration, but no politician is willing to say so

It’s the wet season now in the Sahel – the critical moment for production of the annual cereal crops that must sustain the population of this arid Saharan fringe for the next 12 months. But it’s always an uncertain time: rains often fail, or arrive at the wrong moment; and nine dry months follow all too soon.

Failure means food crisis and a further twist to the economic insecurity that is a permanent fact of life. For communities across the Sahel, from Senegal to Niger and Chad, migration – and the earnings that expatriates then send back home over the years that follow – are a vital survival support.

And it matters all the more these days, with the environment and the sustainability of traditional farming and pastoralism, under pressure from climate change and population growth.

But this is not a system in stable equilibrium. Pressures abound and as some fresh opportunities open up, others are shut off.

There is a long tradition of migration to France from the Kayes region of western Mali; many locals would spend some years abroad, leaving their families at home and sending money back to reinvest in their communities or set up a business for their retirement.

But the imposition of tougher border controls has disrupted the pattern of movement to and fro, and thus given migrants a stronger reason to remain in Europe, with or without legal status, eventually seeking to bring their families.

Libya in crisis

Meanwhile, the downfall of the Muammar Gadaffi regime in Libya has also changed the dynamics of trans-Saharan people movements. The evaporation of its tough security controls opened up space for people smugglers to operate more freely across the desert, to gather migrants on the coast and them ship them off across the Mediterranean in over-crowded boats.

But Gadaffi’s overthrow also brought the disintegration of the old Libyan economic model, in which potential discontent was bought off through lavish oil-fuelled spending. Affluent but sparsely populated, Liyba’s model was heavily reliant on West African labour to build infrastructure and keep business and services going.

Libya attracted particularly large numbers of workers from Niger – where many communities in the Tchin Tchabarden region, for example, depended on remittances for the vast majority of their income.

The aftermath of the revolutionary war saw a dramatic upsurge in bullying rascist behaviour that targeted sub-Saharan Africans, perceived as protégés of the now despised former regime.Huge numbers fled home.

This left many Sahelian households without the remittance income from Libya on which they had been relying.

But not all trends have been negative.

There are many Sahelian villages where, rather than travelling north to the Mediterranean or Europe in search of work, young men habitually migrate in the other direction, seeking seasonal work in the cities of the West African coast – Lagos, Cotonou, Accra and Abidjan.

Much of this region has enjoyed a decade of sustained economic growth, shrugging off the marginal impacts of the 2008-10 global crisis.

Last year’s slide in oil prices has come as a bit of a jolt to southern Nigeria and Ghana, but they are still growing. And after a prolonged crisis, since 2011 it has been back to boom times in Côte d’Ivoire – the world’s biggest cocoa producer – where Sahelians are the backbone of the plantation workforce.

Citizens of countries within ECOWAS – the Economic Community of West African States –enjoy freedom of movement rights (just as Europeans can travel to seek work across the EU). So many Nigériens, Burkinabès and Malians return home for the July-September peak farming season in the Sahel, before going back to work in the coastal belt for the rest of the year.

But for all the opportunities in coastal West Africa, conditions inland in the Sahel remain precarious.

The environmental constraints on any further growth of traditional agriculture or pastoralism are severe.

Landlocked, with limited natural resources and facing the continued threat of jihadist terrrorism, countries such as Mali, Niger and Chad will struggle even to avoid a decline in living standards and a worsening of malnutrition, desertification and youth unemployment.

Such are the social and economic pressures confronting communities across the Sahel that the momentum behind migration can only intensify.

Tougher border controls may placate European voters but they are not a real solution.

Anti-immigration climate

But there have been signs of fresh thinking. Back in 2008, the EU experimented with a more positive model, establishing a migration advice centre in Bamako, Mali, supported by France and Spain. There were hopes that this could facilitate the award of temporary work permits, so Malians could formally apply for seasonal work in the vineyards and vegetable fields of the Mediterranean.

But in today’s political climate it has proved difficult to translate such pioneering ideas into practical arrangements.

This year the EU is setting up the first of several pilot shelters for migrants in Niger, though the focus now is on helping people establish livelihoods in their home countries.

But while development in the Sahel may, fundamentally, be the most effective response, it is going to be a very long haul. The social and economic pressures in the region are intense.

A start has been made by the United Nations, with the first ever Sahel strategy that brings together emergency humanitarian relief for immediate crises with longer term efforts to tackle poverty and build up resilience and food security.

Niger has some of the world’s highest birthrates – and most severe levels of chronic malnutrition. Mali is struggling to contain persistent jihadist violence, and Chad has just suffered a first wave of terrorist attacks.

Burkina Faso is navigating an uncertain passage from the 27-year strongman rule of Blaise Compaoré, deposed in a people power uprising last October, to a first genuinely open and free election.

Senegal is stronger in political and economic terms. But even there the social pressures remain immense and President Macky Sall faces huge popular impatience over the cost of living and demands for improvement in key services such as education.

And yet this is also a moment of opportunity. West Africa and Europe are connected by deep human, cultural and political ties, while the economic benefits of stronger collaboration increasingly flow both ways.

Surely they can be natural partners in trying to shape a more prosperous and sustainable development model for the Sahel.

Paul is an Associate Fellow of the Africa programme at Chatham House. He has expertise in French and EU Africa policy, development policy, grassroots development, development finance, and project and trade finance. He writes for, among others, the Economist intelligence Unit, Middle East Economic Digest, Africa Confidential, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and Sasakawa Africa Association.

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