Migration policy in Mali: Corruption and control

Much has been done to bolster security along Mali’s once porous border. Local police forces are only all too happy to implement the new border regime as demanded by the EU, with border crossings often requiring payment of a 'fee’.

French President Hollande (L) greets Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (R) in Paris Foto: dpa

European nations have long been trying to seal a readmission deal with Mali. But until recently, Mali had very little interest in actively participating in the expulsion of its own citizens. Between 2007 and 2009, France attempted to sign a readmission agreement with the West African country whilst simultaneously pursuing guidelines based on the principle of ‚selective migration’. Sarkozy’s advances were perceived by many Malians as a provocation. Deportee associations and the Malian trade union confederation CSTM organised protests in front of the French embassy and were against offering Sarkozy a state visit. In the end, the readmission agreement went unsigned.

Although Mali participated in the Rabat Process, which began in 2006, as well as in a dialogue between the EU and the ACP (a loose alliance of African, Caribbean and Pacific states) on ‘migration and development’, it has only signed one migration agreement to date: with Spain in 2009. It did so on the condition that Spain would offer opportunities to Malians to legally participate in the Spanish job market in exchange for Mali’s co-operation concerning deportations. This promise quickly vanished from the table when Spain became swept up in the financial crisis, which did little to strengthen the appeal of signing readmission agreements in the eyes of Mali’s government.

On 11 December 2016 Mali signed a Joint Communiqué with the EU in which it affirmed its intention to combat “irregular“ migration as well as to actively engage in the deportation of Malian citizens.

However, the Valletta Summit gave the EU renewed vigour to push for Mali to agree to readmission deals. In February 2016 the EU Commission spoke of a “package of incentives“ for Mali that included the following:

- political support (specifically in security policy)

- support for the Malian peace process as well as with efforts to combat terrorism and with the fight against radicalisation and violent extremism

- support in the areas of “border management“ and border control as well as for the modernisation of civil registries

- provision of financial aid from the EU Trust Fund not only for projects that combat the root causes of migration but also for “improved migration management“ and efforts to tackle “criminal networks“

- development aid financed by the EU and its member states to be used as an incentive to encourage the Malian state to engage in dialogue.

At several points, the EU’s document openly stresses Mali’s dependency on development funding from the union as well as military engagement from EU states, e.g. with the presence of European task forces as part of ‚Operation Barkhane’ and the MINUSMA mission. Ultimately, this document clearly suggests that the EU would take advantage of Mali’s military, political and economic dependency to force through readmission agreements.

Growing pressure from Brussels

On 21 October 2016 the EU Heads of State and Government decided that a ‘Mobility Partnership’ deal should be signed with Mali as soon as possible. This was the purpose of Angela Merkel's visit on 9 October 2016. One month later, the EU Commissioner for Migration and the Italian foreign minister followed in her footsteps by paying a visit to Bamako.

The Malian government found itself in a quandary: pressure from the EU was growing – but there was also pressure from the population at home, and Malian leaders were only too aware of the need for remittances paid by migrants. This predicament is perfectly articulated in the increasingly contradictory role of the Ministry for Malians Abroad, which was founded to represent the interests of the Malian diaspora but now finds itself playing an active role in identifying migrants prior to deportation, together with the relevant embassies.

On 22 November 2016 a group of Malian migrants and refugees living in Germany were paraded (some of them in handcuffs) in front of embassy staff in Halle (Saale) as part of a collective identity parade/hearing. Afterwards some were taken directly to a detention centre in Büren. The Malian officials who carried out the hearing were given instructions not just from Mali’s foreign ministry and the ministry of the interior but also from the Ministry for Malians Abroad.

A similar process is in place for dealing with the EU’s new laissez-passer – a replacement travel document issued by EU states that allows migrants to be deported even if their relevant embassy refuses to co-operate. At a conference of the Malian Association of Deported Migrants on 6 November 2016, Broulaye Keita, a representative of the Ministry for Malians Abroad claimed that Mali would not recognise a replacement travel document issued by EU member states. In spite of this, since August a number of individuals have been deported to Mali from France and Sweden using the EU’s laissez-passer.

Undermining freedom of movement

Some of Mali’s neighbouring states – Algeria, Mauritania and Niger – have been on the receiving end of European efforts to create a repressive migration regime, and appear receptive to their demands. Even prior to 2012, the Algerian state was notorious for mercilessly forcing migrants and refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa out into the desert, even regularly carrying out push-backs over the Malian border during the process. When war broke out in northern Mali in 2012, Algeria temporarily closed its southern border. In any case, most migrants were already deterred by what had become an extremely dangerous journey across a war zone.

For its part, Algeria suspended direct push-backs into Mali, instead choosing to send migrants to Niger. In 2001 Mauritania left ECOWAS, the community of West African states, thus also relinquishing its obligation, as laid out in a 1979 protocol, to ensure freedom of movement. The country has considerably tightened its immigration laws, particularly through the introduction of a new mandatory residence card ('Carte de Séjour’) and has started ruthlessly deporting migrants to Sub-Saharan Africa. At the Gogui border crossing, for instance, push-backs to Mali have been taking place for years. It is also becoming more difficult to travel through Niger as EU states are putting the nation under ever-increasing pressure to clamp down on “irregular“ migration. All of this has a direct impact on Mali, as many travellers cross into neighbouring countries from the Republic as they journey northwards.

Closing borders in transit zones

One place where the consequences of this restrictive border policy can be particularly seen and felt is the Gao region, which is located in Mali’s north-east on the border to Niger and home to what are currently the most frequently used trans-Saharan migration routes

“Alongside Agadez in Niger, Gao is one of the central hubs for people travelling from one of many West African countries towards the north,“ says Éric Alain Kamden, who has been working on the ground for NGO Caritas since 2009. It was already a key migratory transit point before the war began; today around 150 travellers pass through Gao every day according to statistics provided by the IOM. It is where many begin their journey to Niger.

Officially, freedom of movement exists between Mali and Niger as they are both ECOWAS members. However, this freedom is increasingly being undermined by a system of controls. At the Yassan border crossing there are mounting reports of travellers being refused entry by the 'Service de Migration’, a department of the Nigerien police, and sent back to Mali. This affects not only Malian citizens but also, and to a much greater extent, individuals from other West African countries. In order to enter Niger, Malian travellers must be in possession of a form of ID that is valid for at least another three months and need to state a contact, preferably in the capital Niamey. This person is then telephoned immediately and must contact the border post from a police station in order to confirm that the individual waiting at the border is indeed entering the country to visit said contact.

Entry refused despite valid passports

Travellers from the south of Mali who only hold one form of identification may only be granted entry if they can provide a contact in Niger, irrespective of when their ID is set to expire. According to an inspector at the Yassan border post, officials have been ordered not to grant entry to individuals from other West African states, e.g. Ghana, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, the Gambia, Senegal and Guinea, who are assumed to be migrants.

In 2016 there were documented cases of excessive control, such as Senegalese travellers being refused entry even though they held a valid CEDEAO passport, an ID card and an immunisation card (i.e. all of the necessary documents). In July 2016, for example, four young people from Mali, Togo, Senegal and Burkina Faso, who wanted to cross the border to install Orange mobile telephone masts for their Nigerien employer, were stopped. Although they were carrying the necessary equipment and despite it being clear that they were there in a professional capacity, they were initially refused entry at the border and were only able to continue their journey when Caritas employee Kamden offered to vouch for them. Kamden was even threatened with losing his own Nigerien residency permit if the four individuals concerned were caught in Agadez trying to travel on to the north.

Kamden is no stranger to such incidents: every day in his job he encounters travellers who are stuck in Gao after having been refused entry at the border or who have returned from the desert. He is convinced that the repressive expulsion practices along the Malian-Nigerien border are a direct consequence of the Valletta process, especially as the intensity of the clampdown by Nigerien border guards has increased only recently.

The IOM as border guards

Kamden says that until recently it was completely normal for people to cross the border between Mali and Niger even without valid papers. Anyone wanting to travel to Niger who was unable to produce a form of identification during border checks merely had to pay a fine of CFA 1,500 before being given an entry permit, which they could then use for a period of 24 hours to enter Niger. This would be impossible today. The implementation of a migration regime tailored to suit the EU is being used to turn West Africa’s free movement zone, which has existed even longer than the EU’s Schengen Area, from a right to a privilege.

One of the actors involved in this is the International Organization for Migration (IOM). At present, a new border post is being set up just two kilometres away from the current border point in Yassan. It will be built and run with the participation of the IOM. The IOM also operates checkpoints on the access road to the city of Gao as well as in Kidal in northern Mali. Here any traveller who is suspected of being a migrant is registered.

The new policy is even becoming noticeable in Gao itself. Here countless individuals are being left stranded and penniless after having to abandon their journey to the north due to encountering difficulties (e.g. falling victim to robbery). They enter the city from the north on the back of trucks driven by Arab grocers. When they try to find a place to sleep, they are often captured by soldiers and taken to the nearest police station. English speakers, in particular, are often suspected of being spies for terrorist organisations, such as Boko Haram or Mujao. If these suspicions cannot be substantiated, they are accused of the crime of ‚loitering in a public place at night’. Kamden claims that previously there were no charges or prison sentences for such crimes in Gao. He suggests these practices are the direct result of increased pressure from partners in Europe.

‘Small-scale police corruption’ vs. freedom of movement

Even Malian police forces have started implementing tighter security controls for travellers, with the line between security duties and ‚small-scale police corruption’ becoming increasingly blurred. Now buses travelling towards the north are frequently stopped and passengers’ documents checked. Travellers have always been asked to pay ‘fines’. But in the Gao region, says Kamden, security forces are especially targeting anyone who appears to be a “likely candidate for migration“. He explains that someone from the south of Mali who is suspected of wanting to cross the border in order to head northwards would have to pay at least CFA 5,000. A similar practice has been witnessed along the route between Bamako and Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. Local residents from Heremakono have reported that even large groups of travellers are regularly being prevented from travelling onwards and left stranded at the border if their papers are deemed invalid or if they do not pay the desired sum.

It is difficult to assess how much of this police harassment of travellers is directly linked to the objective of trying to manage migration. However, compared to just a few years ago, it has become noticeably more difficult to travel without (valid) travel documents, and in this part of the world, owning a passport is not self-evident for everyone. Restrictive control practices have increased since the Valletta Summit. A de facto alliance of interests exists between police officers, who top up their wages by requesting certain ‚fees’, and the migration regime itself, whose aim is to restrict movement towards the north.

In April 2016, a new biometric passport featuring a ‘tamper-proof’ chip was introduced in Mali. It was a more advanced version of Mali’s previous passport design, which also included biometric information. In addition, Mali has recently rolled out a new (and also biometric) CEDEAO identity card.

The country is now a pioneer in passport system biometricisation in the West African region. This step is much lauded by the authorities and the government, not just in Mali itself but internationally, as a key measure to tackling “irregular migration“ and to improving the country’s security. For years, a high number of Malian passports and ID cards were secretly being traded along the route between the Sahel states and the Maghreb region. One reason was the fact that Malian citizens could officially enter Algeria without a visa and move freely within the country. For migrants who were trying to find a way to earn money in Algeria, or who were passing through on their way to another Maghreb state or Europe, this offered a considerable degree of security.

By introducing a biometric passport system, the Malian government hopes to put a stop to this practice whilst helping meet Europe’s aims in terms of migratory policy. And among the Malian population, nationalist rhetoric is being adopted by both sides to argue that people from other nations who are travelling with Malian passports could potentially pose a threat to “national security“. The passport debate is sometimes heavily confounded with an issue which is unrelated to migration but which does pose a very real threat to the safety of Mali's population: the presence of criminal and armed groups. Moreover, the new passports and ID cards are being promoted as a way to facilitate travel and held up as a signature project to demonstrate Mali’s modern political system.

However, many Malians complain that they have encountered severe complications and difficulties when applying for these new documents. For example, the fee required to acquire one of these new and supposedly highly secure passports must be paid to Ecobanc, a private company. But this can only be done by presenting a 'carte NINA’, which was originally designed as a voter registration card.

In practice, this complicated process has, until now, effectively made it impossible for many Malians, including those living abroad, to get hold of a new passport. The increasingly strict passport and ID checks along both external borders and inland routes, compared to previous years when border guards were happy to just take a passing glance, means that anyone who is not in possession of the most up-to-date travel documents, for whatever reason, is now experiencing a de facto restriction on their freedom of movement. This hurdle not only affects people who are emigrating; it can also more generally impact members of specific demographic groups whose lives are heavily dependent on being able to travel between different places and across borders, potentially threatening their livelihood.

For instance, this can affect travelling merchants and migrant workers, as well as nomadic or semi-nomadic livestock breeders, such as the Tuareg people who live in Mali’s northern border region. For years, they have been accustomed to being able to move freely between various territories without having to show a passport. Finally, the creation of a biometric passport system takes on a new dimension when one considers the EU’s desire to gain access to the Malian government’s biometric databases in order to use this information to identify and deport Malian citizens (see above).

Airports: the new frontiers

It is now standard practice at Bamako Airport for all travellers to have their hand and fingerprints scanned when they arrive and depart. Combined with passport biometricisation, it is now much more difficult for someone to travel on another person’s passport. For prospective emigrants who stand no chance of being granted a visa (which are only given under extremely restrictive conditions), this was once one of the few loopholes they could use to reach Europe without risking their lives in the desert or at sea.

In addition to standard police passport checks at Bamako Airport, an initial security control measure is now also being carried out by Securicom, a private security company. According to Ousmane Diarra from AME (the Malian Association of Deported Migrants), this company has the power to stop a passenger from boarding, even if they have a valid visa, based on opaque criteria. Diarra claims that at African airports, Securicom serves as an extension of FRONTEX, the EU's border agency.

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