Hafed Al-Ghwell: Migration is the new dirty war

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In an era marked by geopolitical upheaval and humanitarian crises, the surge in migration from the areas around the Sahara to the southern shores of Europe perfectly encapsulates the distressing narratives of our time: struggle, desperation, and exploitation.

The mass movement of people along this migrant corridor, long a subject of international concern, has descended into what might most aptly be described as a “dirty war,” given the convergence of conflict, political autocracy, and geopolitical maneuverings inherent to the issue; especially when we consider Russia’s recent forays into a restless region abandoned by France, and later this year, those of the US.

The Sahel, a region that lies between the Sudan’s savannas to the south and the Sahara to the north, and stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, remains fraught with multifaceted crises resulting from combinations of environmental degradation, extreme poverty, persistent jihadism, intercommunal violence, and decades of instability.

Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso bear the brunt of this, as malign actors continue to exploit local grievances and failures of governance to extend their own spheres of influence, enhance their operations, and entrench themselves in the region’s expansive ungoverned spaces.
Every year, thousands of people die and many more are displaced as a result of violent escalations linked to extremist groups. This persistent human insecurity not only devastates local economies but also uproots communities, compelling vast numbers of people to embark on perilous journeys in the hope of finding refuge or a better life in Europe.

The exodus from the Sahel is intricately linked to shifting regional dynamics, including the political collapse and ensuing chaos in Libya that began in 2011, which has transformed the country into a key transit point for migrants. The International Organization for Migration and other agencies consistently report on migrants in their thousands who attempt to traverse perilous routes via Libya, only to end up facing abhorrent human rights abuses. Many perish along the way.

Critics and humanitarian organizations also decry the fact that official data tends to underreport the severity of an unfolding crisis that is not fueled solely by the quest for better economic opportunities. Between untenable situations in their home countries and the horrific uncertainties about what lies in store at the end of their journeys, for many of the migrants who have already attempted dangerous journeys, and the many more sure to follow, their actions are a desperate bid simply to survive.

Worryingly, Tunisia, once hailed as a beacon of democracy in the Arab world, is now stuck in a seemingly irreversible descent into autocracy. This shift has not only intensified internal dissent but significantly contributed to a worsening migration crisis at its borders and on its shores.
Clampdowns on personal liberties and political opposition, as well as the public vilification of sub-Saharan migrants, mean Tunisia is now both a source and transit point for migrants trying to reach Europe, in search of what they have lost under the ever-tightening grip of the current regime.

READ: ICC probe into Libya’s war crimes to be completed by 2026

This dangerous drift, egregiously compounded by economic miseries and social strife, paints a grim picture of a nation in decline. Tunisia’s embrace of controversial ideologies such as the “great replacement” theory — publicly supported by the current regime, which in February last year accused sub-Saharan Africans of diluting the Tunisian identity — reflects a dangerous trend of scapegoating that inflames social tensions.
The result is that Tunisian authorities are cracking down on migrants, forcibly displacing hundreds of them to desert regions on the nation’s borders with Libya and Algeria, and in doing so displaying a chilling sense of indifference to humanitarian norms.

These sweeping actions not only shine a glaring spotlight on a wayward regime’s disregard for its international obligations but place additional burdens on already precarious migrant routes, precipitating a humanitarian debacle with both immediate and long-term implications for the wider Mediterranean migration crisis. Given its historical ties to Europe, Tunisia’s lurch toward autocracy, and its corollary effects on migration, add a layer of complexity to the EU’s engagement with North African states.

 

The main aim of Russia’s military and political engagement in these regions is to counter Western influence but it has a more insidious side effect: the further destabilization of already volatile regions.

 

Europe, already struggling with striking a balance between its democratic values and migration control, is increasingly finding its policies tested as the situation in Tunisia continues to worsen. Clearly, the repercussions of the nation’s descent into authoritarianism extend far beyond its shores. This poses challenges to regional stability and procedures for the safe repatriation of migrants that ensure their human rights and dignity are respected, and places a strain on concerted efforts to provide viable pathways for legal migration and asylum.

Additionally, the growing presence of Russia in Libya — and its expanding influence across the Sahel, ostensibly through Moscow-affiliated private military contractors such as the Wagner Group — represents a strategic maneuvering that casts a dark shadow over the deepening migration crisis.

The main aim of Russia’s military and political engagement in these regions is to counter Western influence but it has a more insidious side effect: the further destabilization of already volatile regions.
This not only intensifies local conflicts but also potentially accelerates flows of migrants toward Europe, in a scenario that is eerily similar to the 2015 European migrant crisis, during which Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, Afghans and Eritreans attempted to reach Europe to escape war, intercommunal violence or severe hardship.
As this disheartening narrative and its wide-ranging implications continue to unfold, Europe appears fragmented and indecisive. A partnership agreement with Egypt to curb migration through North Africa, alongside similar deals with Libya, Morocco, and Mauritania, reflects a strange strategy of externalizing migration controls through the southern extension of Europe’s borders.

READ: Libya: 107 migrants freed from captivity in police raid

Likewise, the relocation of European political discourse on the issue to the other side of the Mediterranean, by political leaders such as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, is a tactical but potentially futile attempt to manage migration flows at source and transit points.
Such measures are indicative of a broader European retreat from a cohesive policy on migration. This plays into the hands of autocrats and external powers such as Russia, which seem to be a step ahead in their geopolitical calculations.

What Europe should have done, and still could do, is approach migration management from the standpoint of regional collaboration, rather than attempt to compartmentalize engagement. This could help to discourage countries such as Tunisia from pushing migrants toward Libya and Algeria or, as an investigation by the Washington Post discovered was happening, simply abandoning them in the middle of the desert.
By treating migration as the shared challenge it undoubtedly is, Brussels would then be able to speak and engage with one voice, both within the bloc and with nations in North Africa, to help insulate its coordinated efforts on migration from shifting political winds.
In the run up to the European elections in June, the issue of migration and the bumbling responses to it have created a rift between the frontline countries that bear the brunt of the influx and countries in the north of the continent that are wary of funding futile interventions.

The dizzying web of political, military, and humanitarian issues that entangle the issue of migration from areas around the Sahara to Europe paints a very grim picture that is likely to get even worse as clandestine, opportunistic actors continue to capitalize on the collapse of state structures and the weakening of security.
Moreover, the decline of European willpower in its efforts to craft decisive policies on migration simply compounds a crisis that is as much about the displaced as it is about the geopolitics on which their fates are dependent.

Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. X: @HafedAlGhwell


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