Tag Archives: militia groups

Europe’s new border guards

Written by

Gunnar M. Sørbø is a social anthropologist, former director of the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI), and former Chair of the Board of the NCHS.

This text is based on an op-ed which was first published in Norwegian in Bergens Tidende, 5 May 2019: Europas nye grensevakter.

Are we supporting a development which ultimately sends even more refugees towards Europe?

DOUBLE-DEALING: To a large extent, militia groups allied with the regime in Khartoum have exercised migration control in Sudan. They patrol the border to Libya claiming to stop migrants from traveling north, while simultaneously smuggling people into Libya in cooperation with actors on the other side of the border, writes Gunnar M. Sørbø. Photo by Physicians for Human Rights, USA

More than a million migrants crossed the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe during the 2015 refugee crisis, the vast majority arriving either in Greece or Italy. The following year the European Union entered the so-called “EU-Turkey Deal”, a statement of cooperation between European states and the Turkish government. The agreement was meant to ensure that migrants and refugees arriving in Turkey, most of whom were fleeing Syria, would remain there, and that migrants making it to Greece would be returned to Turkey.

From a European perspective, the agreement with Turkey has been successful. Only about 360.000 migrants and refugees arrived by sea in 2016. The arrivals were distributed quite evenly between Greece and Italy, the two European countries that received most of the migrants leaving Northern Africa. To ensure that the flow of people would be further reduced, the EU as well as several singular European countries made similar bilateral agreements with Libya, and later with countries in the Sahel region south of Libya: Sudan, Niger and Chad.

Norway is among the European countries which has intensified its focus on the region over the past few years. As with other countries, the motivation behind the increased support has not been limited to stopping large-scale migration, but also to stop the spread of Islamic terrorism. This type of terrorism affected Norwegians directly in 2013 when an attack on the Norwegian energy company Statoil’s gas facility in Algeria resulted in the loss of Norwegian lives.

In Libya, the EU made an agreement with the government in Tripoli. At the time, the Libyan authorities had limited territorial control and depended on various militias for survival. Presently, they are fighting the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, who is based in the eastern part of Libya and is supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Libya has faced political destabilization since the former head of state Gaddafi lost power and was killed in 2011.

Thus, Italy suggested to create checkpoints along the border in southern Libya, an area controlled by militias often in conflict with each other. The countries south of Libya also tend to have problems controlling their border regions, yet authoritarian heads of state have promised to exercise migration control in exchange for much needed financial support from Europe.

This type of “outsourcing” means that Europe has become entangled with some unusual border guards that are difficult to control.

In Sudan, the task of controlling migration has to a large extent been handed to militias allied with the regime in Khartoum. These are the same armed groups that were responsible for excessive use of force displacing large groups of people from their homes during the Darfur crisis of 2003-2004. They patrol the border to Libya claiming to stop migrants from travelling north, while simultaneously smuggling people into Libya in cooperation with actors on the other side of the border.

The same armed forces (Rapid Support Forces – RSF) have also been active at the border between Sudan and Eritrea. Studies conducted through a joint effort by universities in Sudan and the Chr. Michelsen’s Institute/The University of Bergen show that migrants from Eritrea, Syria and other countries continue to journey through Sudan. However, the migrants are paying a higher price than before, taking new routes, and doing so at a greater risk.

While Sudan has received support from the EU for “managing” migration, the regime’s brutal policies and the country’s wrecked economy are contributing to a steady flow of Sudanese people wanting to leave their own country. In 2014-2016, 9,300 Sudanese arrived in Italy, and in 2017, twenty per cent of those granted political asylum in France came from Sudan.

A report from the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands (“Multilateral Damage”, 2018) confirms some of the tendencies we have observed in Sudan. Firstly, new migration routes have emerged, more dangerous and secretive than before, and therefore also more expensive and criminalized. The total number of migrants making the journey has decreased, but evidence suggests that the number of migrant deaths has increased.

Secondly, the overall stability in these countries is threatened as the number of ungovernable militia groups grow. Some of these armed groups profit from stopping migrants, others from smuggling migrants northwards, and a considerable number practice both. In Niger, the ban on migration has disturbed the fragile balance that was established when the Tuareg and Tubu rebels in the northern part of the country entered a peace accord with the government.

The local economy has deteriorated, and new militias have emerged in the border regions. A common denominator for all these countries is that armed groups outside of the state’s control are becoming more powerful and constituting a security threat.

Political developments in Sudan during April and May 2019 have led the RSF leader Hemetti to power as second-in-command in the Transitional Military Council (TMC), now participating in talks with the protesters about a new government. In Libya, both parties in the war for the capital Tripoli are depending on alliances with militias. Many of them are keeping migrants and refugees in custody and subjecting them to torture and extortion, before a small number – barely 500 in the first three months of this year – gets transported en route to Europe.

In a desperate plea for help from the EU, the Libyan Prime Minister is threatening that up to 800,000 people will cross the Mediterranean if Libya were to face political collapse. This is most likely an overstatement, as there are probably not that many refugees and migrants wishing to reach Europe from Libya right now, and because transportation by sea is arranged by mafia-like organizations that may be dissolved if the political chaos in the country is amplified. Nevertheless, the prime minister’s statement speaks volumes about the vulnerability of the agreements that have been made.

Most European countries are aware of the risks associated with “externalizing” border control, but across Europe the field of migration is characterized by realpolitik. Lowering the number of migrants and asylum seekers reaching Europe has become the overarching objective.

We are seemingly becoming less concerned with the policies’ unintended consequences. This is probably caused by European migration policies claiming to answer all our concerns: not just migration, but also security, political stability and terrorism – based on the assumption that human trafficking, drug trafficking, arms dealings and terrorism are driven by a conglomerate of mafia-like organizations and that these are hurting local communities in the affected regions.

However, most people involved in migrant smuggling do not view themselves as criminals, and their activities may also create positive ripple effects in many local communities across border regions. 

Before the overthrow of Gaddafi, when many migrants from other African countries went to work in Libya, assisting migrants was part of the formal economy. Now, the practice is considered criminal. This may result in participants formerly engaged with assisting migrants moving their affairs elsewhere, for instance into activities eroding the state’s control such as revolt and terrorism.

Many European politicians probably recognize that the agreements that are being made strengthen forces we would rather not be associated with, whether this is an increasingly authoritarian president in Turkey or militia groups in the Sahel region. Yet, the question we must ask ourselves is whether this policy is sustainable in the long run. I am here thinking not only of the immense human suffering caused by such policies, but also whether we are supporting a development which will ultimately push even more people in the direction of Europe.