ARP No. 8: Shifting Borders: Africa’s Displacement Crisis and Its Security Implications

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By Wendy Williams

October 17, 2019

This review has highlighted the multitiered nature of the population displacement crisis in Africa. The vast majority of this displacement is a symptom of serious governance dysfunctions (some of which have evolved into armed conflict). If these governance weaknesses could be remedied or constrained, it would significantly reduce the scale of the displacement challenges on the continent and by extension the strains faced by the international community.

Deep-seated economic, demographic, and environmental factors are further contributing to the pressure on African households. This is fostering increased economic migration, most evident in the surge of migrants heading toward the African coast of the Mediterranean since the mid-2010s.

There is also a security element to the displacement crisis. This does not imply that displaced individuals are a threat themselves. Rather, the surge in people on the move has created an opportunity for criminal and violent extremist groups in the Sahel-Sahara to access a new revenue stream. The nexus between weak governance and militantism, therefore, is contributing to the exacerbation of both migration and violent extremism.

Given the multifaceted nature of the challenge, a multilayered series of diplomatic, security, migrant protection, and development policies is needed. Significant reductions in levels of displacement are possible in the near term with more assertive policy initiatives in the leading African countries of origin. Longer-term strategies will be needed to address the underlying structural drivers of migration. While often presented as an African problem, large-scale population movements are a transcontinental challenge. Corrective action will be needed in countries of origin, transit, and destination if the effects are to be mitigated. International actors will have vital roles to play at each juncture.

Assertive Diplomacy

1. Protracted conflicts are the key driver of displacement in Africa and require intensified regional and international engagement to bring them to closure. African and international actors intent on reversing the displacement crisis in Africa must recognize that conflict is the principal driver of human dislocation on the continent. Unless these external actors exert serious effort into ending conflict, much time, effort, and money will be misdirected to temporary solutions. The fact that all armed conflicts on the continent are internal points to the important role that governance and the lack of power-sharing play in Africa’s displacement crisis. Reducing conflict as a driver of displacement, therefore, will require greater diplomatic engagement to incentivize negotiation and upholding political resolutions.

Most of Africa’s armed internal conflicts are also protracted—averaging more than 11 years. This demonstrates that belligerents are often unable to resolve their differences on their own and require trusted external engagement. Conflicts that have been left to fester, such as Burundi, the DRC, and South Sudan, show that it is far costlier to allow these crises to expand than to intervene at an early stage.

Just six countries in conflict account for more than 75 percent of all refugees, asylum seekers, and conflict IDPs in Africa (South Sudan, the DRC, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Nigeria). Consequently, bringing any of these conflicts to closure would go far toward resolving the continent’s displacement crisis. In other words, the potential benefit from greater African and international diplomatic engagement and conflict resolution is hard to overstate. Unfortunately, too often the political will to uphold stated regional norms of governance and conflict resolution is lacking.

The African Union’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) is an institutional mechanism for early warning and preventive diplomacy, peacemaking, and recommending interventions where necessary to promote peace, security, and stability. The AU, however, has failed to act decisively on past PSC recommendations, especially when the perpetrators of abuses include sitting governments. The failure of the AU and Regional Economic Communities to call out and enforce an end to the repressive tactics being employed has encouraged further intransigence.

While African conflicts are often seen to be intractable, in fact they often persist because of insufficient attention on the part of key regional and international actors.

When political will exists, African states have shown commendable commitment to supporting peacekeeping missions. There are about 74,000 African peacekeepers serving in AU and UN peacekeeping missions in 12 African states.59 This roughly doubles the levels seen in 2010 and reflects a growing commitment of African political leaders to these collective security processes. These deployments are widely seen as having mitigated further deterioration of security in the countries in which they are deployed.

In certain contexts, however, the AU has failed to either negotiate a political resolution to an escalating crisis or muster the political will to deploy peacekeepers in the early stages of a conflict to minimize the fallout, even when a weak sitting government is responsible for the instability. Burundi and South Sudan are notable cases in this regard. Thus, while African conflicts are often seen to be intractable, in fact they often persist because of insufficient attention on the part of key regional and international actors. More proactive diplomacy backed up with the credible deployment of force can help change the trajectory of these conflicts.

2. Penalize repressive regimes. Governmental intimidation of citizens is another driver of displacement in Africa. Nine of the top 10 countries causing forced displacement in Africa are authoritarian. Economic migrants, furthermore, are indirectly affected by repressive governance and corruption through push factors such as the inability to find work, earn an education, or open their own businesses. Such population displacements, in effect, reflect citizens seeking refuge from their governments. Left unchecked, the repression, disenfranchisement, and state-sanctioned political violence by these governments will continue to generate further displacement. This creates real economic, social, and political costs on transit and receiving countries. Effectively, these repressive governments are “exporting” the burden of their poor governance onto their neighbors and the international community.

Rather than solely focusing on the symptoms of this problem, a strategic solution to Africa’s displacement and migration crisis will entail redirecting the political costs of these government policies back onto the precipitating actors themselves with the aim of pushing them to modify their behavior. Such diplomatic pressure, ideally championed by the AU and RECs, is in keeping with the stated principles of the Africa Charter for Democracy, Elections, and Governance. According to the Charter, signed by 46 African governments and ratified by 31, the state parties committed to upholding principles of democracy and respect for human rights on the continent. The Charter calls for the AU to sanction members that violate these principles.

Diplomatic engagement could start with the encouragement of voluntary participation in the recently resuscitated Africa Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) consultations. The APRM was established to hold member countries mutually accountable to standards of good political, governance, and socioeconomic development. However, if the repressive governments show no genuine actions to modify their behavior, increasingly assertive diplomatic engagement should be adopted. Escalating measures of peer pressure should include condemnation, commissions of inquiry, and suspension from regional bodies. This can then be expanded to asset freezes and travel bans for leaders of the responsible countries, as well as restricting elites’ access to the international financial system.

Hybrid Commissions of Inquiry: Models for Tackling Corruption and Impunity

With many African countries experiencing the crippling effects of corruption, two hybrid missions in Central America offer valuable lessons for tackling it. In its mandate to combat corruption and impunity, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) combined the efforts of the UN and the Guatemalan government, while the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) was a hybrid effort between the Organization of American States and the Honduran government. Though both experienced setbacks and faced difficult challenges, the CICIG and MACCIH contributed to institutional strengthening. The CICIG even managed to expose corrupt networks that included top state officials and party leaders, including three presidents.60

Absent other resolutions, RECs should also consider a form of “displacement tax” on those governments most responsible for the largest displacements (such as South Sudan, the DRC, Sudan, CAR, Cameroon, Eritrea, and Burundi). RECs already charge their member states dues. Given that it is the neighbors of these governments that are incurring much of the costs of this misgovernance, RECs would be justified in charging the responsible governments an additional fee for the burden created. In practice, this may take the form of privileges, access, or status rather than actual financial or in-kind payments. Nonetheless, this approach would at least be more coherent than the moral hazard inherent in the current reality where international actors are effectively rewarding those governments that cause the most displacement with additional financial assistance.

Toward that end, international actors should avoid making financial commitments to unaccountable autocratic governments and non-statutory militias in countries of origin and transit. Such funds have little likelihood of being used to create productive assets that will entice people to stay. Rather, these funds will most likely be reinvested into the tools sustaining the political economies of autocratic regimes—state militarization, political repression, and patronage—as historically seen in the DRC, Libya, South Sudan, and Sudan. In other words, such fund transfers arguably only exacerbate the conditions that cause the displacement and onward migration in the first place. Any funding assistance in countries of origin facing such a governance environment would be better directed to those nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and subnational governments that have demonstrated a commitment to investing in their people and vulnerable newcomers.

Security Initiatives

3. Minimize violent extremist groups’ access to financial flows generated by irregular migrants. Migrant smuggling and trafficking in the Sahel-Saharan belt has added another fount of income for non-statutory militias and violent extremist organizations. These revenues need to be brought into the security equation in order to address the escalating violence and acts of terrorism. Greater sustained intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance investments can help detect and disrupt these groups’ control and taxation of trade and smuggling routes.

Continued effort is also needed to prevent cash from flowing internationally into the coffers of illicit actors and violent extremists. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) as well as bilateral initiatives have been involved in monitoring and engaging African countries in identifying areas of risk and countering money laundering and terrorist financing, including through informal funds transfer systems, such as hawala.61 Through these engagements, international actors have helped African partners reduce the destabilizing effects of illicit flows on their financial systems. For the majority of countries experiencing migrant smuggling, however, formal financial institutions for individuals to transfer funds are lacking outside of their capitals. Expanding the accessibility and reliability of such retail-level financial networks should be a priority.

Establishing sustainable government control across key transit areas also requires rebuilding trust with peripheral communities. Greater security and reliability for these routes will generate an economic boost on its own, facilitating job creation. Moreover, expanding opportunities for these communities to earn a living from licit goods and services will create ongoing incentives for government-community cooperation. Simply cutting off illicit activity without promoting alternatives will be of limited value to communities vulnerable to poverty, high unemployment, and recruitment by militant groups.

This multipronged approach will have the benefit of both weakening the capacity of these groups to profit off of smuggling and trafficking of humans and contraband as well as strengthening the financial systems of countries most at risk of exploitation by armed groups and violent extremists.

Protection of Asylum Seekers and Migrants

4. Sponsor the opening of consulates dedicated to asylum screening in countries of origin and transit. Just as the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees (CPA) deterred asylum seekers away from dangerous sea crossings by offering in-country asylum screening, so too could a similar program set up in the primary countries of origin and transit reduce the number of asylum seekers attempting to make the perilous journey along Africa’s three main migration routes. If granted asylum, a refugee would be provided with the proper documentation and resources to facilitate legal and safe travel. If not granted asylum, migrants could be warned of the dangers they face and informed of safer, legal avenues of migration such as applying for work or education visas in the desired destination country or alternative safe countries. In either case, providing individuals with real-time knowledge about risks and about legal and safe opportunities available to them would help asylum seekers and migrants alike make better informed decisions.

Establishing consulates from destination countries in well-known transit hubs closer to countries of origin could provide those with legitimate asylum claims an alternative to the treacherous and expensive journey to North Africa and across the Mediterranean. For example, in 2018, France set up a consular office in a migration hub in Niger to screen the 2,000 asylum seekers who had been evacuated by IOM from Libya to Niger.62 While France and a handful of other countries resettled some refugees identified by UNHCR, more comprehensive strategies are needed for the success of such programs. Those not accepted for resettlement remain in UN guesthouses in Niger. Another 50,000 asylum seekers and refugees identified and registered with UNHCR remain in Libya. Moreover, there are still hundreds of thousands of people in Libya facing exploitation and abuse who have not been identified by UNHCR.

Nonetheless, the establishment of consulates and efficient processing of asylum applications along migration hubs in Niger and other countries of origin and transit can save more lives by preventing individuals from embarking on or continuing potentially fruitless and dangerous journeys. The goal is to create opportunities for migrants and asylum seekers to have access to government officials with the authority to grant asylum as well as provide realistic, real-time information about alternatives.  IOM indicates that its public education campaigns have deterred an estimated 55 percent of migrants it reached in Niger from continuing their journeys to the Mediterranean. This also diminishes the smuggling fees and ill-gotten gains from exploitation that will go into the hands of criminal and violent extremist groups.

5. Institutionalize regularized migration. In certain cases, migration can address fluctuating labor shortages. This informal daily and seasonal migration already happens in many places throughout Africa without incident. For longer-term migrants, something as simple as having a basic identification card from their country of origin would provide a modicum of legal status and thus protection. By engaging key stakeholders (e.g., private sector, diaspora groups, civil society, and development partners) a more systematic process can be put in place to create regularized migration corridors for longer-term laborers travelling between destination and origin countries.

A model is the system pursued by the Philippines government on behalf of its citizens working in Hong Kong and Macau. The result has been an instrumental step in the protection of Filipino migrant workers’ rights and ensuring a positive economic relationship between the countries. Creating regularized means for migration will help shrink the illicit economy and make it easier for the security sector to focus on trafficking networks and violent extremists.

6. Step up harmonization of national asylum and migration policies as outlined in the AU’s Migration Policy Framework for Africa. The AU’s Africa Refugee Convention (1969), Migration Policy Framework for Africa (2006), and Kampala Convention for IDPs  (2009) provide legal recognition for all displaced Africans regardless of the driver of their mobility. These conventions cover a comprehensive array of related issues: labor migration, irregular migration, forced displacement, internal migration, the collection of migration data, border management, migration and development, and interstate and interregional cooperation. However, the principles and guidelines embodied in these conventions are often not applied in practice. A priority for AU member states and the RECs, therefore, is to develop country- and region-specific policies that operationalize a unified approach regarding the movement of citizens within their respective regions in order to maximize economic, social, and stability benefits.

As the AU facilitates expanded continental economic integration—such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)—the region must also accommodate the movement of labor to regions of higher economic growth. Otherwise, irregular migrants will continue to be a lightning rod for social tensions and political instability.

In the same way, African governments should accelerate efforts to harmonize their immigration laws—including developing systems that facilitate an orderly, transparent, and legal border crossing process. Such an institutionalized process would reduce opportunities for the exploitation of economic migrants and forcibly displaced populations. Most importantly, it would diminish demand for smugglers.

While some measures will necessarily take some time to implement, immediate changes can be made. As championed by Uganda, South Africa, and Ethiopia, AU member states should work to allow asylum seekers freedom of movement, the right to work, and the right to education while they are seeking refuge. Experience shows that this policy not only provides refugees greater flexibility in identifying their own solution, it helps host communities by spurring economic involvement and investment from the refugees themselves.

Likewise, instead of fining or jailing migrants who do not have the proper documentation, authorities should assist with their obtaining proper documentation or, if necessary, their repatriation. The challenge will not be designing legislation itself, as many good examples already exist, but rather ensuring it is enforced equitably and does not become an opportunity for corruption, bribery, or discrimination.

7. Invest in data collection to facilitate harmonization and policy making. African countries of origin and transit do not always monitor the traffic of people crossing their borders. As a result, there is very little data upon which individual countries, regional bodies, and international actors can make reasoned and effective policy.

Participation in the collection of migration data is useful not only for the purpose of identifying vulnerable populations and budgeting for assistance, but also for urban and commercial planning, among other important local and national governance tools.

To help address the capacity and resource gap contributing to this lack of data, IOM has introduced a migration data analysis tool in 16 African countries. The MIDAS system collects information and biometric data of migrants to provide, among other information, evidence-based migratory patterns of these countries’ cross-border traffic.  A universally accepted and affordable evidence gathering tool to enable the monitoring and assessment of population flows and their causes would greatly aid analysis and policymaking at the local, national, and international levels.

Genuine concerns regarding privacy and misuse of biometric data by repressive governments requires certain restrictions in adapting such tools more widely. Nonetheless, systematic efforts to track population movements can enable better regional coordination.

Expansion of Employment Opportunities

8. Invest in creating job opportunities in economic migrants’ countries of origin. With Africa’s population set to double by 2050, investments will be required to improve the productive capacity of African economies so they are capable of absorbing and benefiting from a growing workforce, expected to reach more than 1.1 billion by then. This will require strengthening public goods such as the quality of educational systems, power grids, roads, and communications capabilities that will enhance productivity as well as Africa’s global competitiveness in export-oriented manufacturing and agricultural production.

Expanding employment options will require strategic investments in economic migrants’ countries of origin (especially in West and North Africa) as well as African destination countries (such as South Africa, Nigeria, and parts of North Africa).

By investing in development strategies that expand employment opportunities in these countries, international actors can better direct their limited assistance resources from treating the symptom to changing the conditions that are displacing so many Africans and causing them to migrate further afield in the first place.

With much of Africa’s growth occurring in urban areas, greater attention to basic urban infrastructure like water, sanitation, and transportation will be vital to forestalling restiveness borne out of the despair of ever-expanding urban shantytowns.63 Investing in girls will be especially important. Educated girls foster better development outcomes for entire communities. They also tend to be older at first marriage, which has the effect of lowering the birth rate, reducing population pressure over time.

Even with rapid urbanization, a majority of Africans continue to live in rural areas. In some cases, rural inhabitants represent 70-80 percent of the population. So job creation strategies must simultaneously invest in agriculture and rural services. Agriculture is a sector that can absorb large numbers of relatively unskilled workers. Research and training on improving the productivity of small-holder farming, strengthening property rights, and a systematic process for land reform will be important means to boosting job opportunities and adapting to the shifting environmental conditions in rural areas.

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