Compiled Articles and Reports on North African Irregular Migration

Between 2015 and 2018, 110,803 irregular migrants from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya were apprehended at sea or in littoral areas by EU nations, western Balkan states, Algeria, and Tunisia. 74,713 of the apprehensions took place in 2017 and 2018, underscoring the rapid escalation of the Maghrebi migration trend.

Over the last several years I've conducted several cross-regional research projects on North African irregular migration, looking at drivers and the routes and means used by the migrants to get to Europe. Another project is underway, with results to be released in the Spring of 2019. 

In advance of that, this post offers some recent reports, articles, commentary, and media interviews I've done on the subject.

Reports, Commentary, and Graphics

Social media bridges North Africa’s divides to facilitate migration,” ISS Today, Institute for Security Studies. Co-authored with Amine Ghoulidi (March 2019).

Algeria’s protests and migration: the fearmongers have it wrong,” ISS Today, Institute for Security Studies. Co-authored with Sofian Philip Naceur (March 2019).

AU summit 32: Maghreb’s changing politics of migration,” ISS Today, Institute for Security Studies (February 2019).

"Tunisia isn’t a migrant transit country – yet," ISS Today, Institute for Security Studies. Co-authored with Max Gallien (August 2018).

Irregular Migrants & Facilitators Intercepted by Tunisian MOI & MOD (June 2017 - June 2018),” La Línea, (June 12, 2018). 

The Top Refugee Issues to Watch in 2018,” Refugees Deeply (January 12, 2018).

Out of the Streets and Into the Boats: Tunisia’s Irregular Migration Surge,” MENASource, The Atlantic Council. Co-Authored with Max Gallien (November 2017).

At the Edge: Trends and Routes of North African Clandestine Migrants,” Institute for Security Studies and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (November 2016).


Interviews & Media Commentary

Naiara Galarraga Gortázar, “Italia también patrulla el Estrecho,” El Pais, 03 September 2018.

Agence Presse France, “Tunisie: arrestation de 50 candidats à l’émigration clandestine,” 11 February 2018.

Agenzia Nova, “Immigrazione: boom di nordafricani in Italia nel 2017, oltre 15 mila ingressi nel 2017,” 12 January 2018.

Sofian Philip Naceur, “Jagd auf Migranten,” Junge Welt, 10 October 2017.

Alan Clendenning and Vanessa Gera, “Rubber dinghies, old fishing boats feed Europe migrant rush,” Associated Press, 23 April 2015.

Tunisia isn’t a migrant transit country – yet


The last year has seen a significant decline in irregular migrant departures from Libya and a steep rise in departures from Tunisia. This article disabuses the persistent claim there's a link between the two phenomenon, explains why, and argues that Tunisia needs an open policy debate on how to handle transit migration. Published by ISS Today, it can be accessed here.

Out of the Streets and Into the Boats: Tunisia’s Irregular Migration Surge

Co-Written with Max Gallien. Originally published by the Atlantic Council's MENASource. Available here.

Normally, the beaches of southern Tunisia are quiet in November. It is the start of the lean months, when few tourists arrive and the jobs which depend on them vanish. This year is different. Tunisia’s beaches have a new customer: Tunisians trying to go to Europe

Between October 1st and November 8th, more Tunisians took to the seas than in 2015 and 2016 combined, with Italy and Tunisia detaining 4,709. In total, more than 8,700 Tunisian migrants have been caught by Italy and Tunisia in 2017. There are suspicions this represents only a fraction of those who have left.

The rise in migration is as unexpected as it is dramatic; it became clear with Italian interdictions roughly doubling each month since July. By October, 45 percent of irregular migrant arrivals in Italy had departed from Tunisia. However, few in Tunis seemed aware of the surge until a migrant boat sunk in early October, killing 45. Afterwards, irregular migration became a high-profile issue in Tunisia. But, there is little agreement on what is causing the surge.

The catalyst for the surge seems to differ from the last significant episode of Tunisian migration, which occurred in the wake of the 2011 Jasmine revolution and saw over 28,000 young men and women departing for Italy in a matter of months. In that instance, post-revolutionary distraction and the weakness of Tunisia’s law enforcement enabled the migration surge. There is scant evidence that law enforcement weakness is a factor now. 

There is media speculation that the Tunisian migration surge was connected to the Libyan militias blockading their country’s departure beaches in July and August, which is right when the Tunisian migration surge started. The Libyan militias’ actions led to a drop in migrant departures. However, that correlation seems spurious. The fact is that the people being apprehended by Tunisian and Italian border patrols are predominately Tunisian, not Sub-Saharan or from other north African countries. The rise in Tunisian migrant apprehensions has occurred both in Tunisia and Italy, indicating it is not a change in routes but in absolute number. There is also little evidence that large numbers of sub-Saharan migrants going through Libya are crossing the border from Libya to Tunisia, an influx that would be difficult to hide.

Under Pressure
To understand why migration is increasing, the best place to start is with the origin of many of the apprehended migrants: Tunisia’s southern and interior regions, such as Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, and Tataouine, to name a few. These regions have a long history of economic and political marginalization and frustration; which occasionally sparked mass unrest. The 2011 revolution caught fire in these regions with calls for dignity and economic justice long before they swept the streets of Tunis and other coastal cities. However, what is much less discussed is that since the revolution, the economic and political marginalization fueling frustration in these regions is unresolved, and for some has worsened. For Tunisia, 2017 has been particularly rough.

This is clear in Tunisia’s southeastern governorates of Tataouine and Medenine. One percent of the population, at least six hundred men, from Tataouine Governorate’s capital city, departed in only a few weeks in September. More from the two governorates have since followed. The livelihoods of a large percentage of the population in this region depend on the informal economy, which is closely tied to licit and illicit forms of cross-border trade with Libya. The sheer scope of the informal cross-border trade is staggering. Until recently, gasoline smuggling from Libya employed 5,600 people and generated 320 million Tunisian Dinars per year.

This summer, gasoline smuggling on the Tunisia-Libya border collapsed. This was largely due to the emergence of smuggling as a potent political issue in western Libya. A deepening economic crisis, rising prices, and frustration over the diversion of fuel by smugglers have led a growing number of Libyans to protestpush local authorities to crack down on smuggling, or embrace militias espousing an anti-crime narrative. Action against smugglershas occurred even in Libyan cities like Zuwara and Nalut where fuel smuggling was an economic mainstay. Tunisian efforts to buttress border security in the wake of terrorist attacks in Tunis and Sousse also played a role, making smuggling more difficult, dangerous, and expensive. The collapse of the cross-border gasoline trade has had a significant impact in Tunisia’s southeast, putting thousands of gasoline smugglers and informal vendors out of work. This has tripled the price of gasoline in the southeastern governorates, putting pressure on household budgets already squeezed by high inflation and a rapidly depreciating dinar.

At the same time, police raids have confiscated the assets of multiple members of the informal financial sector in Tunisia’s southeast, in the context of the government’s ‘War on Corruption’. These informal money lenders play a vital role in providing funds, credit, and connections for informal trade operations throughout the Maghreb. This security response to a complex economic issue, has not been tied to the formalization of the informal monetary system, but to the contraction of its capital base, further depressing the region’s economy. 

In general, the growing pressure on the informal economy has not been accompanied by a growth in opportunities in the formal sector for the newly unemployed or underemployed. The conditions for private investment remainpoor, while the majority of the new ‘Tunisia 2020’ investment projects go to the coastal and northern regions. While tourism, struggling after the 2015 attacks in Sousse, has bounced back to a degree, it only provides a season’s income for young men. Fishing, another traditional income stream in the southern coastal regions, has had a difficult year as an invasion of blue crabs has led to a double digit drop in fishermen’s livelihoods, leading many to turn to migrant smuggling or sell their boats to other traffickers. 

International policy has not helped, and at times worsened, the situation of many of those now leaving the country. Pressure by the IMF for Tunisia to adopt an austerity-focused economic reform program has left little room to consider development options for marginalized regions. IMF demands to cut thousands of public sector jobs will further strain the far larger number of families who depend on income from these jobs for survival. International actors pushing to open Tunisia’s economy could exacerbate the imbalance of opportunities within the country. 

Pessimism and Protest 
Economic hardship is not a new phenomenon in southeastern Tunisia. However, what has been particularly striking in recent conversations with young men in these regions has been the sense of resignation and growing pessimism. The worsening economic situation has not just depressed incomes, it has led to a growing conviction that economic accumulation, and hence upward mobility, are not possible for ordinary citizens. Faith in a central promise of the revolution is dissipating rapidly. “I just want to make enough money to live, just to build a house and buy a car. That is my whole ambition, that's not much. That is my right, but it’s a right that we don't have,” noted a young man in Medenine, before quoting a popular proverb: “We accepted the suffering, but even the suffering doesn’t accept us."

There is little expectation that the government will deliver on repeated promises of economic development, jobs, and a better life. In the spring and summer of this year, frustration with the government drove a series of large protests across Tunisia. In the governorates of Kairouan, Zaghouan, and Kef, large crowds took to the streets to demand economic development, jobs, and dignity. In the southeast, protesters demanding jobs took over an oil pumping station at El Kamour in Tataouine, leading to a three-month blockade, violent clashes with security forces, and one death. The standoff at El Kamour ended in a similar way to the protests earlier in 2017: government promises of economic development and jobs without coherent proposals. With little evidence that jobs will emerge, many in the southeast and other marginalized regions have no choice but to look for other alternatives. 

Migration is a Displacement, Not a Solution
Tunisia’s spring and summer of protest appear to have given way to a fall and winter of departures. The drivers of both the protests and now migration are similar: frustration over regional inequality, worry over a worsening economy, and anger over a lack of jobs. The economic situation in Tunisia has not bottomed out yet. However, Tunisians have little faith that the government can resolve the economic challenges facing the country. Liquidating family savings to fund a husband or son’s trip to Europe is a dangerous gamble, but for a growing number of Tunisians it appears to be a gamble worth making. “We are already like refugees in Tunisia” another young man told me. “We have our citizenship, but right now in Ben Guerdane, that only means duties—there is nothing here for us.” 

The political and economic impact of rising migrant departures are complex. Tunisia’s relations with Italy do not appear to have suffered yet. There may well be a hope in Rome that most Tunisian migrants quickly pass through, heading north to the large Tunisian diaspora communities in northern Europe. This sentiment could worsen, especially given the Italian public’s souring sentiment on migrant arrivals

Within Tunisia, rising migration provides an outlet for the unemployed, and in the short term may be the one thing that keeps a combustible social situation from exploding. This may give the government necessary breathing room to address difficult economic and social problems. Rising migration is not a panacea in and of itself. It will not solve the problems of regional inequality, economic opportunity, and dignity. Absent government action to address these points, reckoning with them will simply be punted to the future.

Italy claims it’s found a solution to Europe’s migrant problem. Here’s why Italy’s wrong.

Co-Authored with Jalel Harchaoui. Originally published on the Washington Post Monkey Cage, Available Here.

The seas off western Libya have been quiet since late July. Before that, they swarmed with smugglers’ boats overfilled with migrants, mostly sub-Saharan Africans heading for Europe. From 23,000 migrants per month, the flow of arrivals has slowed to a trickle.

The migrants are accumulating on Libya’s coast and many are incarcerated in opaque circumstances. Their movement has been stymied by militias, who have turned on the northbound flow of migrants they once profited from. Deep in the southern desert, emergent militia groups evince the goal of closing the border with Niger and Chad to migrants moving north — attempting to patrol areas that none of Libya’s three rival governments ever secured.

Motivating the Libyan militias’ newfound zeal for blocking migrant movement is a new policy spearheaded by the Italian government and embraced by the European Union. The approach relies on payment to militias willing to act as migrant deterrent forces. Italian government representatives use intermediaries such as mayors and other local leaders to negotiate terms of the agreements with the armed groups. They also build local support in the targeted areas by distributing humanitarian aid.

There are two channels for compensating the militias. First, multiple reports detail direct cash gifts. Second, a more politically consequential flow of money moves via the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The E.U. is a major donor to the GNA, and Rome is apparently in a position to earmark some funds for entities that it wishes to reward. This official process allows Rome to claim it doesn’t remunerate the militias directly and the GNA to maintain that it stopped the flow of migrants.

Migration has emerged as one of the most politically charged issues in Europe in recent years. Since 2014, 1.7 million irregular migrants have arrived on the continent. In this context, the E.U. has sought to offshore migration enforcement, incentivizing its neighbors to halt the migrant flow by offering economic aid and political concessions.

To this end, in 2016, the E.U. struck a deal with Turkey, which significantly cut the flow of departing migrants. The E.U.’s attention then turned to Libya, with a view to duplicating the Turkish bargain. However, efforts to shut the migrant corridor — now the primary one into the E.U. — were impeded by Libya’s fractured political and security landscape. As it became clear that the vast majority of migrants now arrived, and stayed, in Italy, the E.U. rallied behind Italy’s approach.

While a narrow tactical success, the E.U.’s policy pushes the goal of a stable, united Libya farther out of reach for three principal reasons.

The policy empowers nonstate armed groups

The pay-them-to-stop scheme has introduced a novel way for amoral, uncontrolled armed groups to carry on extracting rents from the still-raging migrant crisis. Previously, migrants and smugglers paid militias a tax to depart for Europe. Now, the E.U. — coordinated by Italy — in effect pays a tax to the same groups to keep the migrants in place.

The payments also offer militias an imprimatur of legitimacy. That makes it easier for local power brokers to build political capital while continuing to profit handsomely. And if the funds stop, the armed formations can resume and tax migrant smuggling at any point.

Libya’s interior minister says that this policy assists in a “reconversion” of Libya’s militias into legitimate economic pursuits. This is fanciful. Militias leaders, and fighters beneath them, have the leeway to engage in other facets of Libya’s war economy — including smuggling of subsidized fuel and other commodities.

In 2015, an Italian oil company hired militias in western Libya to protect hydrocarbon installations. The militias gladly accepted the protection mission even as they continued profiting from human smuggling. This underscores that purchasing services from militias does not “reconvert” or reform them. The additional revenue only empowers them.

The policy stunts efforts to build a credible security apparatus in the near term

As a result of the arrangement promoted by Italy, Libya’s militias are now considered part of the GNA’s official security forces. This is a textbook case of hybrid security: A weak government claims that it has co-opted independent militias by offering them money. Armed groups in such situations continue pursuing their agenda and shun political compromise.

Libya is already deeply challenged by a hybrid security sector. Eighty percent of the country’s border guards derive from militia units. The guards’ continued militia ties and involvement in illicit activity hobble the effectiveness of the force. In interviews, Libyan security officials stress that one of their biggest concerns is how to handle and professionalize these hybrid forces so that they become genuinely integrated. By rewarding militias without scattering or reshuffling them, the Italian approach delays that integration process.

Italy’s strategy may breed conflict

The numerous armed actors not yet included in these deals are unlikely to watch passively as their enemies benefit. Some will seek to seize territory made more valuable by the new situation. Others may improvise alternative migration routes. In still other cases, militias will fragment, as fighters repudiate the commitments made by their leaders. Violent clashes in the city of Sabratha in mid-September are an illustration of this.

Moreover, factions aligned with Libyan National Army leader Khalifa Hifter, opponents of the GNA, will be tempted to intervene militarily to stop their rival from deriving political legitimacy from E.U.’s migrant strategy. An array of violent ripple effects across western Libya and beyond are thus to be expected.

For the moment, migration flows from Libya are down. However, migration routes were always just a symptom of state fragility. That fragility — and the vast challenges that remain to security and state consolidation — is the real crisis in Libya. The E.U.’s policy, instead of ameliorating the latter, sacrifices institutional strengthening in the pursuit of expediency.

By concentrating power into the hands of unaccountable actors, it undercuts the development of statutory security forces. Put bluntly, it weakens an already-weak state. Any approach that preferences short-term gains against migration while undercutting efforts to stabilize Libya is one with long-term strategic risks.