The EU Loop: Linking Migration to Security in the Sahel Region

Generally speaking, the European Union (EU) approach to Africa was shaped by the perception of the “need” of decreasing migration flows towards the EU as a security priority and as a necessity to safeguard the EU order. Notably, the interest in the Sahel region enshrined in the 2011 EU Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel (85Kb pdf) (henceforth ‘Strategy’) was a result of the advocacy of eight Member States to step up the EU engagement in the region, following the continuous unrest in the area (2.2Mb pdf). The involvement of DG Migration and Home Affairs of the European Commission (HOME) as one of the main actors implementing this security-related Strategy speaks for itself about the multilevel conceptualisation of migration as a securitarian threat, endorsed by the Member States as well as from the EU institutions.

As a matter of fact, the EU engagement substantially grew after the outburst of conflict in Mali in 2012 and the migration crisis unfolding in 2014-15. As Bøås puts it, those events pushed the Sahel at the top of the EU agenda, but also contributed to forging an ‘emergency’ approach based on short term priorities, neglecting long term considerations. In this sense, the EU initiatives in the region share the same rationale as the one behind the 2016 EU-Turkey deal: on the one hand, the agreement with Turkey intended to drastically reduce migrations through the Eastern Mediterranean Route; on the other hand, the EU approach to the Sahel region focus on reducing the number of migrants crossing the sea through the Central Mediterranean Route, whereof Sahel countries, notably Niger and Mali, are the main transit countries. This is linked to the fact that three states belonging to this region, namely Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, are part of the ECOWAS Treaty (2.8Mb pdf) which eases the circulation of citizens of member countries in the territory of other members.

Nonetheless, the reduction in the number of migrants from this region directed towards the EU is not per se a proof of effectiveness of the EU externalisation of migration policy. Quite the contrary. Indeed, research shows that the EU approach to migration in the Sahel undermined the social and political systems of the Sahel countries leading to increased instability, which in turn encourages migration towards Europe. This could be interpreted as a byproduct of the EU bias in favour of security and migration control rather than promotion of good governance, which has been demonstrated in the literature (485Kb pdf). This argument supports the consideration put forward by Papagianni, according to which the current externalisation of EU migration policy consists mainly in tackling third countries’ border management problems rather than the root causes of migration.

Moreover, the projects financed through the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa are a showcase for this point, whereas the support given to the G5 Sahel, formed in 2014 by Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso, tends to neglect the development aspects of the regional cooperation and seems to concentrate mainly on its security priorities, with the aim of ensuring border management and addressing the jihadist menace.

When it comes to the EU missions in the Sahel, namely EUCAP Sahel missions and EUTM Mali, the same tendency can be observed. The recent modifications of the EUCAP Sahel Mali mandate approved by the Council on the 7th January 2021 and the renewed and expanded 5th mandate of EUTM Mali confirm the EU support addressed predominantly at the security aspects of the G5 Sahel at the expenses of an approach based on fostering development to tackle the country’s problems. Similarly, the amendments approved by the Council Decision (CFSP) 2020/1254 of 7 September 2020 to the mandate of EUCAP Sahel Niger stress the need to “support of the Union’s objectives on migration, strengthen the Nigerian security forces’ capacities in border management and in the fight against irregular migration”.

What Hintjens and Bilgic (375kb pdf) call ‘EU proxy war on migrants’ ultimately offers more problems than solutions since it does not make the European citizens feel safer and at the same time it undermines the legitimacy of the EU. Indeed, the EU does lose a great degree of legitimacy in consideration of the fact that the securitisation of migration and the policy of externalisation of border management led to the creation of a context where the rights of migrants and refugees are continuously violated with complete impunity.

In conclusion, it can be noticed that the EU is caught in a loop whereby it strives to fulfil its need of preventing migration by controlling its management in third countries, with the effect of taking an ‘emergency approach’ and focusing mainly (if not only) on short-term priorities related to border management, while avoiding to tackle the root causes of migration. Therefore, instability persists or increases and so do migration flows, creating a lose-lose situation. Furthermore, as argued by Venturi, the EU actions in the Sahel demonstrated how the EU is not anymore guided by a normative approach, but rather by functional considerations. And what is worse is that those latter are not even dictated by reasons of efficiency or interest, but by the willingness to show responsiveness to the perceptions of its domestic constituencies’ needs resulting from a process of securitisation of the migration issue.

Short biography

Giulia is a student at the College of Europe, where she is enrolled in the International Relations and EU Diplomacy Studies Programme. In particular, she is currently dealing with the external dimension of EU internal policies and the internal and external dimensions of the EU Area of Justice Security and Freedom. While being a UN online volunteer at L’Osservatorio - Research Centre on Civilian Victims of Conflicts, she published a report entitled ‘The Multinational Joint Task Force: achievements and challenges’, touching upon the terrorist threat faced by a number of states in the Sahel region