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Migration in the Sahel: putting back human rights, cooperation and solidarity at the centre

The following op-ed was originally compiled for ISPI and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

Discourse and policymaking around migration in the West Africa region tend to be dominated by the EU lens focusing on containment and the ‘fight” against irregular migration. Particularly following the 2015-2016 migration ‘crisis’ in Europe, reducing irregular arrivals to the EU has been one of the main priorities of migration-related projects and funds, making it fundamental to ensure that States of ‘origin’ or ‘transit’ act to deter irregular movements. In recent years, the Central Mediterranean Route has seen the number of migrants decreasing, reassuring EU States that their investments have paid off.

Resurgence of movements along the Atlantic route

However, the recent resurgence of movements along the Atlantic route to the Canary Islands, a route which was heavily utilized in the early to mid-2000s but has been more or less “dormient” ever since, seems to question the validity of such an approach. In 2020, more than 23,000 refugees and migrants arrived on the shores of the Canary Islands, compared to approximately 2,700 in 2019. With approximately one recorded death for every 20 arrivals, the Atlantic route is the most dangerous irregular maritime route to Europe. Despite these risks, refugees and migrants interviewed in the course of a recent MMC research reported being pushed by economic imperatives and the lack of opportunities – for instance lack of education, access to land, bad governance (i.e. fishing sector in Senegal) etc. This was often amplified by social and family pressure and the ‘success stories’ of others who ‘made it’.

According to a Gambian migrant interviewed in Mauritania:

Anyone who has nothing will not be respected… I migrated to escape poverty and stigmatization, to have something of my own such as a well-built house, a vehicle. [I want] to build a better future for me and my family, to no longer ask my relatives for things, to be independent of other people, because I am seen as a jinxed but poor person who cannot provide for the needs of my relatives.”

The migration journey along this route impacts refugees’ and migrants’ physical and mental health. The boat passage is very long, arduous and characterized by seasickness (which can be fatal in very severe cases), insufficient food and water, intense fear, dehydration, putting refugees and migrants in considerable danger. Interactions with smugglers could also result in protection incidents, such as extortion, scams, and physical violence. In addition, refugees and migrants interviewed for the study also reported violations at the hand off border police and other national authorities. There are also longer-term impacts of the route reported by refugees and migrants related to emotional and mental health.

For those who return to their country of origin from Mauritania, the recent MMC research on the Atlantic route points to a tendency towards re-migration. Refugees and migrants may find it difficult to return home after a failed migration attempt, particularly as migration journeys often require substantial family investment at the great personal sacrifice of relatives and result from collective family decisions. Thus, many persevere in their migration quest, even if it entails considerable risk or hardship.

Mixed migration dynamics in the region

It is important to note that the resurgence of movements along the Atlantic Route is taking place in a regional context where the dynamics at the origin of migration and displacement remain very strong and are even intensifying in some cases. In 2020, in certain parts of West Africa the security situation drastically degraded, with consequences for regional mobility. In Burkina Faso, for instance, the numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) almost doubled, reaching 1,074,933 as of 31 December 2020. Conflict-induced North-South movements have reportedly also identified, in particular between Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. These are expected to continue as the Sahel conflict threatens to move southwards.

Also, the impact Covid-19 on mobility is felt in the region. After a substantial decline in migration flows in West Africa in March – at the time when regional governments implemented travel bans and border closures – there has been a month by month increase in flows. MMC’s research shows that pandemic has already become a driver of migration, with more than one-third of West African refugees and migrants respondent who left after April 2020 indicating that the Covid-19 related crisis was in some way a factor in their decision to leave, mostly due to the impact on economic factors. It also shows that despite a perception of increased protection risks related to the closure of borders – and the need to rely to a greater extent on underground routes – people continue to migrate.

Putting back human rights, cooperation and solidarity at the heart

To conclude, the resurgence of movement along the Atlantic route and associated dynamics during the journey, in the Canary Islands and in the context of deportations to Mauritania, is a clear reminder that human rights of concerned individuals should be at the centre when responding to mixed migration challenges. Refugees and migrants intercepted at sea and returned to Mauritania, after the physically and mentally taxing boat journey, should be systematically allowed more time to rest and recuperate, rather than immediately being taken and left at the borders with Senegal and Mali without further support. EU States should put in place sound screening procedures to make sure that vulnerable individuals, or refugees and migrants entitled to some form of protection in Spain, are not deported. When deporting, EU States should put in place all guarantees and safeguards needed to make sure that people returned to Mauritania are treated in line with international human rights standard. Alternate modalities of return with greater support and accompaniment to the migrant’s country of origin should be established.

In addition, the situation in the region and its potential impact on migration drivers, it is a reminder that, while tackling with yet another ‘crisis’, EU States should continue investing in economic cooperation, support to conflict resolution and, when needed, solidarity, as it is the case for the discussion around Covid-19 vaccination in the global south. Last, but not least, safe and legal pathways for migration from West Africa to Europe, including through the development of opportunities for circular migration, should be increased.