Closer cooperation on cross-border issues: the EU approach to the Sahel

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch25 Jan 2016Annemarie van de Vijsel

Migration in the Sahel is receiving increasing political attention. The EU Special Representative for the Sahel, Ángel Losada Fernández, has been given the mandate to address the issue of continuing insecurity, the main cause of migration out of the region. After meeting Losada early January, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bert Koenders, announced that the Netherlands will invest 1.5 million euros to reduce human trafficking in the Sahel. The Broker held an exclusive interview with Losada after his visit with Koenders and the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Lilianne Ploumen. He shared with The Broker his approach to mitigating migration in the Sahel’s wider security and development context.

Losada, a Spanish diplomat and former Spanish Ambassador at Large for the Sahel and Special Envoy for Libya, has a large and challenging mandate as EU Special Representative for the Sahel. The region has a complex context of conflict, fragility and transboundary trafficking, in which a large number of local, national and regional actors are engaged. The Sahel region, comprising Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, is unstable, with the crisis in Mali as an aggravating factor. This explains why the European Union has positioned Mali as the focus country in its Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel. Besides focusing on the national level, importantly, the EU recognizes the transboundary influences on security in the region. Issues such as the trafficking of drugs, weapons and people across borders thrive on the limited reach of states and instability in the region. The second largest flow of migrants to the EU crosses the Sahel and travels on to Libya or Morocco, from where they cross the Mediterranean Sea. Because of these transboundary influences, the EU takes a regional approach to Mali.

No security without development

Losada explained that, to address these related and transboundary issues, the EU Sahel strategy takes a comprehensive approach to security and development, arguing that there is no security without development and no development without security. The EU first applied this strategy, which builds on tackling the root causes of migration and countering violence in the Sahel, in 2007, well before the outbreak of the conflict in Mali, as Losada emphasized. In general terms, the EU approach to the Sahel has not changed much since that time, as it still aims to combining security and development. Yet, according to Losada, an important change over the last year has been that, despite some initial hesitation, partners within such a comprehensive approach, most prominently NGOs and the military, have been working more closely together. Their cooperation is now more accepted and more widely applied and, therefore, the security and development policy is more appropriate.

Tackling the root causes of migration in the Sahel

Besides a regional approach centred around Mali, migration is explicitly mentioned as a key priority in Losada’s mandate for his 1.5-year term, which interestingly was not part of the mandate of his predecessor, Michel Reveyrand-De Menthon. To tackle one of the drivers of migration, investing in African youth, who lack opportunities, is important. This point was emphasized by Minister Ploumen in her meeting with Losada. Ploumen said that investing in youth will ‘reduce the chances of them falling victim to smugglers or extremists’. The dual focus on hard security and ‘soft’ human security is also visible in the EU’s approach to migration – in its focus on border security and countering trafficking, as well as on investing in development to address the root causes of migration in the longer term, most importantly by focusing on youth employment. Recently, the president of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, also announced the transfer of extra money for the development of the north of Mali.

A regional approach to cross-border security issues and organized crime

With a regional approach to the Sahel as a relatively new core element of the EU strategy, Losada explained that cooperating across borders with regional actors will be his main priority for the upcoming term. Due to the transboundary character of security issues in the Sahel, it is important that security and law enforcement agencies and the local population cooperate more closely in border areas and across borders – as well as beyond the Sahel region to countries like Libya and Nigeria. Especially Libya is important in this regard, said Losada, as out of all migrants in the Sahel region, only a quarter move on to the north. Most of them get stuck in a ‘black hole’ in Libya where the situation is difficult. Criminal groups are taking advantage of this situation by illegally trafficking people.

As an additional problem, border control is not an easy task in the Sahel. Losada said: ‘In Spain we say: “It is very difficult to put a door in the sea”. But the same thing goes for the Sahel; how can we put a door on the desert?’ Therefore, not only regional and interstate cooperation is crucial, but the government and international actors must be in touch with the population. This is also important to prevent criminal and extremist groups from trumping the state as the relevant security provider.

To coherently address the interrelated issues of security and development in the Sahel, Losada’s predecessor advised him to invest in strong coordination and close cooperation with EU delegations, member states, the headquarters in Brussels and EU missions, including the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions. Losada emphasized that the EU should also stay in close contact with regional actors active in the Sahel – the UN, MINUSMA, AU, ECOWAS and their special envoys – to make sure that their security approaches are complementary. At the UN level, EU member states contribute to MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, as well as to two EU training missions in Niger and Mali focusing on building the capacity of law enforcement agencies. The Netherlands is active in MINUSMA in north Mali and last week Germany, which until now has been posted in the capital Bamako in the south, committed to cooperate with MINUSMA in the north. Finally, the G5 Sahel – Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad – announced in December that they would enhance regional coordination on countering terrorism and fighting organized crime.

Enjoying the dividends of peace

Security is fragile in the Sahel. The upcoming ratification of a unity government in Libya on 17 January will hopefully mean that the larger region is one step closer to much needed regional stability and better control of illegal migration, said Losada. He emphasized that the EU will keep working to progress on these issues in the years to come: ‘I hope for more stability in the Sahel in the coming years, so that the people, especially in the north of Mali, can enjoy the dividends of peace’.

[Update on Libya: On 19 January, a UN-backed unity government was nominated for Libya, however, on 25 January, the internationally recognized Libyan parliament rejected the proposed unity government.]