The sub-Saharan belt is a region that rarely hits the headlines but, for Europe, it constitutes a crucially important area for the issues of immigration and security

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Last update: 2022-04-22 08:59:22

The sub-Saharan belt is a region that rarely hits the headlines but, for Europe, it constitutes a crucially important area for the issues of immigration and security. To date, the agreements signed between Brussels and the local governments have neither helped the latters’ populations nor resolved the situations of regional instability.

Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey are the countries on which European attention focuses when people talk of a migration emergency. The Sahel (i.e. all those countries in the sub-Saharan belt extending from the Red Sea towards the Atlantic, from Sudan to Mali) rarely makes news although economic and climatic factors, local conflict and jihadist terrorism create emergency situations with which Europe will have to reckon in either the short or the long term. Indeed, the places from which or through which almost all the immigrants who have swollen the central Mediterranean flows in recent years have come or passed (Nigeria, Eritrea, Gambia, Guinea, Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Somalia, Senegal and Mali… ) are in this area. These migratory movements have their roots in the Sahel and it is into the towns and along the tracks of this region that one must go looking for the dynamics that underpin the trafficking of human beings in the direction of Europe.

Over the last two years, the European Union has deployed a frenetic and “emergency” activism directed at halting the migrant flows towards Europe. To do that, it has undertaken a rapid succession of pressing negotiations with transit countries (Turkey, Niger and Sudan, amongst others) aimed at devolving management of the migrants onto them.[1]

So far, the agreements following these negotiations have not produced the desired effect, however: with the (perhaps temporary) exception of the EU-Turkey agreement, the arrivals have not halted and the departures are also continuing at a rapid pace. The figures speak for themselves. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the persons registered as arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean routes between January and August 2016 numbered over 280,000; only a little less than those arriving the preceding, record year (350,000 in the first eight months). Of these, more than 160,000 disembarked in Greece and almost 120,000 in Italy, the very great majority of them coming from Libya.[2]


The Central Mediterranean Route

The migratory pressure on the central Mediterranean route has remained all but unvaried.[3] If this route receives less attention than the eastern one (which is more ‘attractive’ to the media because the people using it come, above all, from war zones under the spotlight), it is important nonetheless and is a cause for concern amongst the European legislators and the Italian ones, above all. The central Mediterranean trajectory has the Libyan coast as its primary terminal on the African continent and Italy as the European terminal, insofar as the boats rescued at sea off Libya are, at the moment, being taken to the Italian coasts and to Lampedusa and the coasts of southern Sicily, in particular.

Much has been said about the situation in Libya but there has been little reflection on the countries in the Sahel belt. They are, nevertheless, the places from which almost all the people following the central Mediterranean itinerary come. This is particularly so since 2015, when the majority of Syrians and Middle Easterners fleeing conflict abandoned the risky central Mediterranean route in favour of the one through Turkey and Greece. The data speak clearly: the countries most represented by those disembarking in Italy nowadays are Nigeria (20 per cent), Eritrea (12 per cent), Gambia, Guinea, Sudan and Ivory Coast (7 per cent), Somalia, Senegal and Mali (5 per cent).[4]

European politicians have adopted a basically unanimous approach to the migratory flows from Africa: that of containment. To such end, a series of meetings between Europe and Africa have been held at a continental and regional level and bilaterally. Partly in the light of Italy’s position in the Mediterranean, Italian diplomacy has often played a central part. These meetings culminated in November 2015 in the migration summit between the European Union and the African Union (AU), which took place in the Maltese capital, Valletta. The conference proposed to, “fight the root causes of irregular migration, increase co-operation on legal migration and mobility and reinforce the protection of refugees and asylum-seekers,” but above all, to “fight against irregular migration, smuggling and trafficking in human beings.”[5] However, beyond the token announcements, the Valletta meeting (like various other previous sub-regional “processes” before it)[6] has produced few results, and those produced have been unclear. The diplomatic teams involved have proved unable to analyse the real territorial dynamics, either from the perspective of what is causing the African migrations or from that of the trafficking through the transit countries.[7] This for a multitude of political reasons that can be summarized in the fact that the EU has sought to stem the flow of arrivals in order to sedate a domestic public opinion whipped up by populist rhetoric whilst, for their part, the African source or transit countries have shown interest only in receiving aid in return for co-operation and not in discussing or tackling the situation.

The evident weakness in the Action Plan produced at Valletta has not prevented this document from acting as the driving force for the “Migration Compact,” a European plan for fighting illegal immigration that was launched in July 2016 and promoted by the Italian government.[8] Essentially, despite its various expressions, the keystone of the European strategy on migratory flows from the Sahel has never changed: contain the arrivals by devolving the halting of migrants onto the transit countries outside the EU, in exchange for development aid and police agreements regarding the repatriation of the same migrants. It is the same procedure as the one defined with Turkey, in relation to the Balkan route. All this is happening with very few questions being asked about the domestic situation in the transit countries or how the aid will be used and even fewer about the deep-rooted causes of the migration coming from the Sahel area. The result is an externalization of the European border (in a manner not dissimilar to what happened in past decades with the Italo-Libyan agreements between the Italian ex-prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and the Libyan ex-leader, Muammar Gaddafi, with blocks imposed on the migrants around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, or again, with the agreements between Spain and Senegal designed to arrest the pirogue route towards the Canary Islands) and a lack of interest in the medium and long-term dynamics underpinning the phenomenon.

Leaving to others every possible political evaluation of the European resolutions on migration, one cannot hide the fact that they have been shaped by a short-sighted analysis that has nothing to do with the reality on the ground. Indeed, they are not supported either by reflection on the root causes and nature of the migratory flows along these routes nor by reliable, objective information about what is really happening along these travel and trafficking routes. Furthermore, there is no analysis of the specific features of migratory flows from Africa in comparison with the Middle Eastern and Asian ones.


The Two Itineraries Through Sub-Saharan Africa

There are certain factors that ought to be taken into consideration for the purposes of improving European policies, helping to resolve the causes of the migratory flows at source, fighting the trafficking in human beings and fostering the safety of those who wish to undertake the journey to Europe.

First of all, mapping of the flows towards Libya demonstrates the existence of two main itineraries across sub-Saharan Africa: one from East Africa and one from West Africa. The first originates in the countries in the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia, above all) and it crosses the Republic of Sudan (which not only is a transit country but also generates its own emigration flow northwards) in order, then, to enter into southeast Libya, bound in the direction of Kufra.[9] From there – principally because of the current conflict between the Misrata militia groups, the various Western countries’ special forces and elements of IS in the zone of Sirte – the journey continues towards Sabha, capital of the Fezzan region and heart of the trafficking in persons and goods in southern Libya.

The second, on the other hand, originates in numerous western African states (Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia and the Ivory Coast, in addition to other states in the Gulf of Guinea) and the Sahel (Mali and Burkina Faso)[10] and it leads the migrants into Libya through Niger. From Niamey, the capital of Niger, the route continues on to Agadez and the northeast of the country. In these areas, the economy is, in fact, based on the trafficking of human beings and smuggling. The migration journey then enters into the Libyan Fezzan region and, precisely, the city of Sabha, where the eastern and western flows conjoin. In Sabha, the migrants are massed together by the traffickers until the convoys are ready to take them northwards, in the direction of the western Libyan coasts whence the majority of the boats put to sea in the direction of Italy.[11]

The migration routes described above sometimes coincide with and sometimes cross over other trafficking and smuggling routes that run both south-north and north-south: drugs, cigarettes, arms, cars and spare parts, but also goods (such as petrol) that are still subsidized by what remains of the state in Libya. Of course, there are groups that draw their lifeblood from the whole region’s precarious socio-political and security conditions and, for them, human beings are simply one of the many goods that produce profit. The routes are dominated neither by any one specific group, nor by big, transnational criminal networks. Each stretch is, rather, controlled by one or more groups. These confront each other, weapons in hand, vying for hegemony. One could say, borrowing the words of a smuggler from Niger, that “whoever can, in the region, does business by trafficking.”[12] The criminal networks exploit the porous borders and the weakness (or absence) of the state authorities in order to traffic in persons and goods.[13] And this goes as much for a region currently beyond the control of a central state, such as the Libyan Fezzan region, as for two other key transit countries for migrants along this route, Niger and Sudan, with which the EU boasts it has reached crucial agreements for containing migratory flows. In actual fact, these agreements offer proof of the political short-sightedness in Brussels: both in Niger and Sudan, varying degrees of well-established interconnection between exponents of the governing class at both the central and the local level, the border-control and security forces and the criminal networks controlling the routes (interconnections tied to the specific realities of the territory) can, in fact, be observed. In these two countries, the institutions have in many cases been eroded by numerous instances of collusion with the trafficking gangs: the latter’s economic power permits them to corrupt the state authorities who ought to be monitoring and halting the migrants’ passage, in accordance with the agreements reached by their countries’ leaders in distant European cities. The result is that, on the ground, the money invested by the EU produces no positive results and the authorities charged with externalizing the European border either receive bribes for pretending not to see the caravans pass or are directly involved in running the trafficking.[14]


A Trafficking that Already Existed

It is, furthermore, of fundamental importance to mention the anything but “novel” nature of the migration coming from the Sahel and thus shoot down any argument about unpredictability and, therefore, emergency in the European response. Indeed, there has been major migration from sub-Saharan Africa since the end of the 1990s. It has followed various routes but has had one single aim: reaching Europe. If, as stated above, various agreements between European and African countries have permitted the externalization of many European borders over the years, they have not stemmed the flows but have, rather, marked a slow redefinition of the migratory routes, making the one through Libya increasingly central.[15] This country is a crucial place of transit for those, from every corner of Africa, seeking to achieve their aspirations to social and economic mobility. This is true, above all, since the moment when, more than fifteen years ago, the ex-leader of Libya, Gaddafi, decided to change his policy on Africa, opening up the borders to the immigration of the “continent’s brothers” and fostering the creation of the current African Union. The flows of migrants entering Libya in transit for Europe were already significant during the Gaddafi era. The principal difference is that during the “Guide’s” regime, the human trafficking involving the Libyan territory was controlled by the Libyan authorities; they managed the people trade in their own country and, to some extent, across the Sahel. Partly in accordance with his negotiations with Italy and the EU, Gaddafi decided when, how and in what quantities African migrants were to be permitted to leave the Libyan coasts and, in the meantime, he employed them in menial labour.[16] When the regime collapsed in 2011, the networks linked to the human trafficking also imploded. A single, centralized system was replaced by a series of new criminal groups active in Libya and the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. These often fight each other for control of the whole lucrative, illegal economy generated by migration and trafficking. “For those working on the human routes,” said one trafficker, “the migratory exodus is basically an excellent business.”[17]

Finally, a basic consideration of Europe’s contradictory approach to the phenomenon must also include the causes pushing the migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to undertake the journey and the consequent definition of their status by the European authorities. It may be said that – with the exception of the Eritreans fleeing mandatory conscription and some of the Gambian citizens who are escaping political and homophobic repression and attacks on freedom of expression – the overwhelming majority of migrants following the central Mediterranean route does not come from situations of war or famine. That does not mean that there are no men or women in Africa who are fleeing violence or drought. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of Nigerians and people from Cameroun, Chad and Niger are fleeing the atrocities of Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin and the brutalities of the very armies that are fighting the terrorists. In the same way, the natives of South Sudan are fleeing the civil war that is bloodying the continent’s most recently born state and the Burundians are abandoning their country following a long post-election crisis that has been risking turning into a new fratricidal conflict for the last two years. None of them are undertaking the journey towards Lampedusa, however. That is so for a series of interconnected structural reasons: the journey costs and those who are escaping armed conflict do not have the means to pay for the journey that will take them as far as the Libyan coasts. The refugees and displaced persons fleeing the wars are forced to survive in makeshift camps set up near the conflict from which they are fleeing.[18]


Those Who Flee to Europe

The Africans who undertake the migration journey towards Europe, on the other hand, have had (according to the local economy yardstick) considerable sums of money at their disposal: savings scraped together by whole families in order to allow one of their members to tackle the journey. It is inaccurate to call them “refugees.” Perhaps it is more appropriate to call them “economic migrants.” The EU seeks to exploit this legal distinction. What the European political leadership is forgetting, however, is that it is much more important to emphasize how these people – and the many African families they have behind them – consider that, despite the huge risks of the “journey,” it is less uncertain to “invest” their savings in the effort to reach Europe and improve their quality of life rather than bet on their own countries.[19] This happens because the governments of the sub-Saharan states “producing” the migrants – states that are the EU’s political, military and economic allies – are led by predatory politico-economic élites that have constructed corrupt politico-economic-social systems in which economies distorted to the exclusive advantage of the very few prevail.[20] These governments with whom Europe carries out negotiations directed at “fighting the root causes of irregular migration” and to whom it is supplying further development aid are partners that are just as pernicious as the transit countries’ governments with whom it make agreements to halt the flows and externalise its borders.[21] The leadership in these countries whence the flows originate have not, over the decades, created any hope or prospect of well-being or development for their populations and have thereby marked their increasing detachment from their own citizens and violated the latters’ fundamental socio-economic rights. Ignored by the European diplomats committed to repairing the breaches in their own borders and bending to their own electorates by way of populist responses, this problem is a particularly live issue for young people throughout the sub-Saharan belt.[22] This is true, above all, of the young people with a medium-high level of culture living in the urban centres who nevertheless have no access to the élite’s nepotism. The young people from the upwardly mobile classes feel that they will fail if they stay at home. Or, rather, they feel that they will not have the possibility even of trying to succeed because they have already failed before starting. These young people maintain, on the other hand and without taking the physical risks into account, that investing in the journey may still bear fruit and fulfil dreams of social mobility and betterment both personally and for the whole family unit.

The EU will soon find itself at a new crossroads regarding a phenomenon that is destined to be a lasting one: either continue to sign questionable agreements with corrupt, non-representational governments hated by their own populations, ignoring the reality and building a wall of paper around its own borders – a wall that will be taken by storm and will crumble; or make its own political choices regarding African immigration on the basis of a careful analysis on the ground. Only in the latter case will the EU avoid worsening its relations with the populations in the sub-Saharan belt and be able to put the dynamics of a virtuous circle into effect with the African continent.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] The best known of these agreements is the one with Turkey, which came into force last March. However, a series of meetings and multilateral pacts (the EU-AU Summit at Valletta in November 2015 and the Khartoum Process in November 2014), as well as bilateral ones (including those with Sudan and Niger which involved Italy directly), have also been concluded, in the context of migration from Africa.

[2] For more detailed information on the exact figures for the migratory flows towards Europe, see

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See

[6] The Rabat Action Plan for Western Africa (July 2006) and the more recent Khartoum Process for Eastern Africa (November 2014) should be remembered.

[7] In this respect, see point 4 of the Action Plan entitled Prevention of and fight against irregular migration, migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings, in which only one line is dedicated to the issue of corruption as a reason both for the migration and for the inability of the authorities to fight it, whilst another single line refers to the fact that smuggling and trafficking (of every kind of sellable goods, including human beings) has become a central economic factor in the entire region through which the central Mediterranean route passes.

[8] In this respect, see

[9] See Eritrea: Ending the Exodus?, International Crisis Group, August 2014

[10] There exist migratory routes from Western Africa that cross Mali and then continue through Algeria up to the coasts but these routes are very dangerous (often fatal) and are avoided as much as possible by the migrants themselves.

[11] Interviews conducted by the author in Sabha, Libya, in March and June 2015; and in Niamey and Agadez in July 2015 and April 2016. See, likewise, Central Sahel: a Perfect Sandstorm, International Crisis Group, June 2015

[12] Interview conducted by the author with a smuggler from Niger, Agadez, Niger, July 2015.

[13] See Central Sahel: a Perfect Sandstorm.

[14] Interviews conducted by the author with political and tribal exponents, smugglers and members of civil society in Niamey and Agadez, Niger, April 2016, and Khartoum, Sudan, in September 2015. See, also, Central Sahel: a Perfect Sandstorm.

[15] Interviews conducted by the author with migrants setting out and in transit, Gao, Mali, 2005 and 2008; Niamey and Agadez, Niger, 2005 and 2007; Dakar and Mbour, Senegal, 2006 and 2007; Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 2007 and 2008; Khartoum, Sudan, 2010; and Humera, Ethiopia, 2007 and 2009.

[16] The Italo-Libyan agreements of 2008 should be remembered.

[17] Interview conducted by the author with a trafficker, Tripoli, Libya, March 2015.

[18] See Stefano Liberti and Emilio E. Manfredi, “Distinguere tra migranti e rifugiati è pericoloso”, Internazionale, 27 August 2015

[19] Interviews conducted by the author with migrants setting out and in transit; with relatives of migrants setting out or in transit, and with young people aspiring to undertake the migration journey: Dakar, Senegal, June 2016; Abidjan, Ivory Coast, July 2016; Lagos, Nigeria, April 2015; Niamey and Agadez, April 2016; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, November 2015, and Khartoum, Sudan, May 2014.

[20] See Central Sahel: A Perfect Sandstorm.

[21] See

[22] Interviews conducted by the author; see footnote 19.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Emilio E. Manfredi, “The Sahel, a Forgotten Strategic Frontier”, Oasis, year XII, n. 24, December 2016, pp. 29-37.

Online version:
Emilio E. Manfredi, “The Sahel, a Forgotten Strategic Frontier”, Oasis [online], published on 16th March 2017, URL: