Challenges brought on by human migrations in the Mediterranean are nothing new. Throughout the last several decades, we have witnessed movements of people fleeing difficult living conditions in the southern Mediterranean and the African continent in hopes of reaching what they believe to be a modern day “El Dorado” in the European Union. These movements have only increased over the last ten years as people tried to escape the dark conditions in their countries during the Arab Spring and its aftermath. During this period, movement out of Syria has been particularly intense since the onset of the multifaceted crisis there in 2011.
This phenomenon preceded the Arab Spring and escaping war is not the only factor motivating people to search for a better life elsewhere. Differing socioeconomic perspectives are also a common factor in causing migration. While migrations are all meant to be licit and regular, we tend to consider – especially seen through a Western lens – that only certain people are entitled to migrate. The fact is that those who come from poorer countries have more difficulty crossing national borders and/or doing so legally. This is one of the world’s injustices that must be reconsidered and overcome, especially as the ageing populations in countries of “the West” become increasingly reliant on immigrants.
To better understand the current landscape of migration in the Mediterranean, one of the world’s most concentrated regions for migration routes, we sat down with Hassan Ammari and Youssef Chemlal, two volunteers at Migr’Actions with a long experience of working with NGOs specializing on the matter.
Hassan Ammari, Youssef Chamlal, first of all, what can you tell us about your backgrounds?
We have been working in this field for more than two decades now. Migr’Actions is one of the projects that we are part of. It has a very active Facebook page and it tries to reflect the day-to-day realities faced by migrants as they try to cross the Mediterranean. Besides that we have worked and/or are still working with some of the existing structures at a more local level: the Euromed network, Migrants Europe, the French League for Human Rights, Alarm phone and Alarm phone Sahara, Alarm phone Watch The Med, Alarm phone Méditerranean, and Doctors Without Borders among others. We cover an extensive geographical area concentrated on North Africa: Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and also the borders between these countries, while not forgetting about the borders between these North African countries and countries such as Niger and Mali.
In 2017, we met with many observers and volunteers throughout North Africa and some non-North African countries, such as Burkina Faso and Senegal, to think about what we could do to try and save the people that were dying attempting to cross the Sahara Desert. We decided then to create Alarm phone Sahara, together with many European partners including Fondation de France, Afrique Europe Interact, and others. Migr’Actions was born out of this project. It is connected to Alarm phone Morocco and focuses on the situation in the Moroccan town of Oujda. It is a project that brings detailed information about what is ongoing in the region and what realities migrants are facing.
Based on the data you have gathered and your experience in North Africa and its neighborhood, what can you tell us about the regional routes that are being used by migrants?
There are several routes that are used by migrants. The main one goes through the town of Agadez, Niger. It is a crossroads for migrants that originate from 17 African and West African countries: Cameroon, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Guinea, plus others. Agadez truly became a focal point for migrations with the creation of the Schengen area. There is also a route that goes through another important crossroad, Gao, Mali. Similar key routes exist such as the one that goes from Darfur and Sudan to Egypt. But most migrants that want to reach countries of the European Union will be found in Agadez and Gao: those two towns see 80-90% of the total of migrants that are on their way to other destinations.
Are there any other crossroads that are important and worth mentioning?
There is another route that concentrates a maximum of 20% of these migrants that extends from Mauritania to Western Sahara. Here the major crossroad is the town of Bir Gandus in Western Sahara. There we can find a lot of French-speaking migrants, most of them from Senegal or Mali but also Gambia. The context generated by the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the importance of Bir Gandus which a total of around 30-35% of migrants pass through. It is important to know that Bir Gandus connects directly to the town of Nouadhibou in Northwestern Mauritania. From there many migrants try to reach the Canary Islands. People in Nouadhibou originate generally from towns such as Laayoune and Dakhla (Western Sahara), Ifni and Tarfaya (Morocco), Port of Saint Louis in Senegal, as well as Nouakchott in Mauritania.
Do migrants mainly come from African countries?
There are some exceptions such as at the border between Morocco and Algeria, where some migrants come from the Middle East, India, Nepal, or Bangladesh for example. But those are really special cases in the subregion, as most migrants are indeed Africans. And some of them ended up exploring new routes. Many people originating from Gambia, Senegal, and the South of Morocco are now making use of the Atlantic Ocean as a way for them to try and reach the Canary Islands.
What are the real reasons behind the consistent waves of migrations over time?
In Oujda where our action is concentrated, there have been seven to eight successive waves of migrations since the Schengen area was announced and then established. We saw movements of migrants coming from Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Central Africa, and Zaire among others. They all shared something in common: they were fleeing conflicts and situations of war. Wars do generate waves of migrations.
Closer to us, the Arab Spring in 2011 brought the obvious issue of the Syria conflict. With the war in this country, we witnessed serious numbers of Syrian migrants coming to Oujda. Some of them came through the border between Algeria and Morocco, but others came directly from Libya or Turkey. The conflict in Yemen generated a similar situation, though their numbers were very limited in comparison to Syrians.
Apart from that, we can mention the case of Libyans, Tunisians, and Moroccans that happened to be living and working in Libya before the Arab Spring came and caused them to lose everything. Many of them also ended up in Oujda. And the intention was always the same: try and reach the European “El Dorado,” which is a strong motivating force for 80-90% of the migrants.
What can you tell us about the European Union (EU) and its role in these crises?
Unfortunately, the EU tries to convince all those that work on migrations, as well as the European governments themselves, of the fact that the Maghreb countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) could be potential host countries for migrants. But this is not true. And the EU pressures do not work. To give an example, in 2014, following pressures exerted by European and international NGOs, Morocco officially launched its “National strategy for immigration and asylum.” This plan was meant to achieve several objectives, among them the “regularization” of migrants that were present on Moroccan soil. Migrants asked for regularization indeed, out of their fear of being persecuted and/or chased out of the country. Some of them got their residency cards and considered settling down in Morocco, but others only followed these steps as a way for them to benefit from legal status while maintaining their intention of eventually reaching the EU. This applies to Syrian migrants too, but with one main difference compared to other migrants. Broadly speaking, Syrians we know prefer to avoid the threats of the Mediterranean Sea and to try and reach Melilla by land.
So current strategies do not work?
Not only do these strategies not work, but they end up benefiting smugglers the most. Smugglers know how to play the situation to their advantage, financially speaking. And here we are talking about both criminal and smuggling networks. Look at the many prostitution networks that you have in Spain for example, where even some minors are brought to the country on specific criteria. These situations have to do with the migration issues that we are talking about here.
But we also shouldn’t forget about the conditions of some detention centers. In Algeria and Morocco there are no detention centers, both governments and public opinion reject their creation. But in Libya, it is different. Detention centers ended up becoming centers for torture and abuse. There are also situations that clearly qualify as enslavement. Some Libyan businessman and farmers go to these detention centers to choose migrants with specific criteria and use them for their own businesses or fields. Such cases have been reported in detention centers in the Libyan towns of Zawiya, Zuwarah, Tripoli, and even Benghazi. Doctors without Borders has visited some of the centers and reported on the events taking place there, finding cases of torture, abuse, miscarriage, among others. There are also reported situations of rape, extortion, and general mistreatment. So, do these strategies work? Of course, they don’t. And many people prefer risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean instead of having to endure such conditions in Libya.
Are there any possible solutions to these situations?
There are always solutions. Western and European countries must let the migrant’s countries of origin benefit from their natural wealth and resources. This is the only way to get people in these countries to believe in their nation’s future and to focus on ways of pushing forward. Apart from giving back control of their own resources, Western countries, including the US and Canada, could do a much better job when it comes to backing the rule of law in these same countries of origin. Very few South Mediterranean governments abide by the rule of law or international principles and standards, and yet they remain backed by their Western counterparts. Back to the European countries and governments, they must make a clear choice: respect human rights and the rule of law unconditionally or reject them fully. But they cannot keep sitting on the fence the way they have been doing for decades. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom of movement and Europeans have no reason not to abide by this principle. They shouldn’t forget that Europe itself was built in part thanks to an African workforce. Migration is something positive, it brings an added value with considerable benefits to society.
This interview was conducted by Barah Mikaïl, associate professor of Political Science and director of the Observatory of Contemporary Crises, at Saint Louis University – Madrid.
To quote this article, please use the following reference: H. Ammar & Y. Chemlal (2021), “Migrations: ‘The EU should stop sitting on the fence.’” https://crisesobservatory.es/migrations-the-eu-should-stop-sitting-on-the-fence-h-ammari-y-chemlal/
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