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Algeria’s Role in Europe’s Migrant Crisis


Migrants Arrive at Lampedusa in August 2007

Managing Europe’s Migrant Crisis

NATO’s role in Europe’s migrant crisis has so far been limited. There is no clear legal role for the Alliance in managing Europe’s border controls and investigating a population that partially consists of refugees from conflict, and partially consists of economic migrants from failing, corrupt or autocratic states. The issue has seemed beyond the organization’s remit, particularly at a time of renewed tensions with Russia. Nor does the Alliance’s most important member, the United States, have a direct national security interest in disrupting the ever-shifting routes of migrants and destroying the trafficking gangs that bring them to the continent. Other international organizations, such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), have instead taken the lead in trying to move European states toward a common action that manages the situation.

Nonetheless since 2004 NATO has committed itself to a zero-tolerance policy on human trafficking. Neither the Alliance nor the EU have yet declared a military response of the sort that was launched against Somali pirates to address the migrant crisis. But NATO member countries are committed to participating in any NATO-led operations to prevent and combat such activity if and when such a policy is formulated. EU members have already discussed proposals back in May for a naval operation to go after the human trafficking networks bringing migrants across the Mediterranean from Libya and these could be reactivated shortly. At the time, NATO said it was ready to aid in any such effort, especially given the ties of the major criminal networks to well-armed Libyan militia groups with access to heavy weaponry.

But for NATO a part of realizing its role in any requested anti-trafficking operation is the cultivation of better military and intelligence cooperation on land and sea with a major southern Mediterranean littoral state. The prime candidate for this would be Algeria, although its coastline is rarely used for human trafficking operations at present. The country occupies a strategic position as a neighbor of the major Saharan states that act as transit countries for migrant routes. Moreover its interior contains a number of major land routes and trafficking hubs for economic migrants going north and east through Algeria to Libya and other destinations.

Routes Across the Mediterranean

Although the Mediterranean is a narrow sea it is still a formidable obstacle to cross as migrant deaths every year show. Frontex is the primary EU agency in charge of maximizing the effectiveness of member states’ joint operations aimed at preventing cross border crime, including human trafficking. According to its data the Mediterranean hosts three major trafficking routes crossing its east, centre and west. Of these, the western Mediterranean route from Algeria and Morocco saw a mere 6,600 people recorded heading illegally to Europe. Meanwhile the eastern and central routes saw 132,000 and 91,300 illegal border crossings respectively, up to July 2015. Further from Syria than Turkey, and in better control of its territory than Libya’s rival administrations, Algeria is demonstrably in better control of its coastal areas than either.

NATO member Turkey is the base for the largest number of migrants attempting to cross via the eastern sea route. But organized criminal networks in Turkey are unlikely to assume the threatening proportions they have in nearby Libya. Though suffering from its own internal security threats from Kurdish and left-wing militants, Turkey still possesses effective state organs with which to fight human trafficking originating from its territory. Moreover as a NATO ally it has been able to call on the Alliance previously for helping in handling Syrian issues, such as the special talks under Article 4 held in July at Ankara’s request.

The same is not true of post-revolutionary Libya since the failure to form a unity government there. Detections for migrants using the central Mediterranean route into Europe reached a staggering level in 2014. More than 170,000 migrants arrived in Italy alone, representing the largest influx into one country in European Union history. Traffickers could not sustain such large flows of people crossing the Mediterranean without bases and infrastructure on land. The lack of rule of law and basic police enforcement in post-Qaddafi Libya has allowed traffickers’ smuggling networks to thrive. As a result migrant detection missions in the central Mediterranean have often turned into search and rescue operations.

The Necessity of North-South Agreements

Between 2009 and 2011 the Qaddafi regime’s bilateral agreement on migration with Italy (which also signed similar agreements with Tunisia and Egypt) severely curbed human trafficking networks’ room for maneuver. The 2011 outbreak of hostilities between the autocratic regime and its Western partners then removed the local cooperation that southern European states had relied upon to curb human trafficking. However if the political will is there, the present size and brazenness of smuggling operations in Libya means there are now identifiable land-based hubs for human trafficking which can be disrupted in the short term by military action.

At present naval migrant detection patrols alone are ineffective as a deterrent because, even if intercepted at sea, humanitarian requirements mean that the migrants are brought ashore to Europe. Trafficking groups often send migrants out in massively unseaworthy old fishing vessels and overladen rubber dinghies gambling they will be intercepted and rescued. Such naval operations also do not disrupt the land-based routes which bring migrants to the Libyan coast, nor suppress the trafficking infrastructures used to house and launch them towards their destination. Furthermore operations involving use of force against land-based camps and smuggling boats beached ashore, such as envisioned by the EU in May, need local intelligence, bases and military/police cooperation to be effective in the long run. Otherwise trafficking groups will simply adapt and shift their operations to new areas.

Fortunately NATO has already been engaged in the Middle East and North Africa for nearly twenty years through the partnership program known as the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) and the more recent Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI). The best choice of local partner remains Algeria, both because it is functional as a sovereign Mediterranean state, and because it has been an MD member since 2000. The MD provides an avenue to approach the Algerian directly from NATO itself without having to rely on EU intermediaries. Meanwhile control over territory and the legal movement of people across borders are common principles that NATO and its non-NATO North African partners can all agree upon. With cooperative security adopted at the Lisbon Summit in November 2011 as one of three key priorities for the Alliance’s new Strategic Concept for the MD forum, the trafficking issue therefore offers a relatively uncontroversial way to approach Algiers about working more closely with the Alliance. This can be politically difficult for North African governments to do on some issues.

Cooperation at Sea – Local Partnership Needed

Algeria’s government has a reputation for jealously guarding its sovereignty on security issues and the perceived lack of transparency on the part of the Algerians has not helped foster a positive working relationship with the U.S. But political consultations are already held between NATO and Algiers on a regular basis at both the ambassadorial and working level to discuss and share views on issues relevant to the security of the Mediterranean. As such the MD forum is perfectly positioned to begin talks about further cooperation with NATO patrol vessels at sea, if the Alliance is called in, especially since the Algerian navy is the branch of the Algerian security services with the deepest history of institutional cooperation with NATO.

One recent example had Alliance ships taking part in a three day exercise last year with Algerian vessels in a deployment which was scheduled a year ahead through the MD’s annual Work Program. That this sort of long-planned operation can go forward successfully shows the possibility exists for a successful overture to be made to Algeria’s military and political leadership regarding wider cooperation at sea. Algiers has so far steadfastly refused to allow ‘boots on the ground’ in its south. A modest proposal to expand the frequency of naval exercises could bypass this and eventually be a step toward joint migrant-detection patrols, with Algerian vessels taking on a new role for themselves in enforcing security in sectors of the Mediterranean region outside home waters. In any case a little cooperation with Algeria at sea now is better than none at all.

In the longer term, increased NATO-Algerian naval cooperation preemptively guards against a sudden future shift in migration patterns or favored routes across the Mediterranean. Today the western route into Europe through Spain and Portugal is quieter than the eastern and central paths, but this will change. The geographic locations from which refugees or migrants leave from constantly shift as regional political and economic situations improve or decline. This year the crisis is in Syria, but two years ago it was Mali where state control collapsed, on Algeria’s own border. Similarly if the law and order situation in Libya improves, trafficking networks may seek to take advantage of their penetration of Algeria’s interior to move migrants north or west instead of east. By developing nascent mechanisms for naval interoperability and institutional collaboration now the Alliance and Algiers will become much faster to communicate and respond in the event of a sudden surge or crisis later.

Guarding the Interior Routes

As stated above partnership leads to interoperability, which then promotes understanding and therefore security. Sadly Algeria’s army has had much less practice at operating alongside NATO than its navy. In the recent past Algeria has refused Western military bases or drones to help it fight Islamic militants in its restive south. However there has already been a 2010 plan for a joint cross-border anti-terrorist force made up of elements from all the Saharan states to patrol the interior of the country. Envisaged as a ‘regional NATO’, it was to be based at Tamanrasset, the capital of Algeria’s southern Sahel province. At the time the target was Islamic militants expanding in Mali, but the people trafficking networks operate in the same lawless environment. Reviving such a plan with Algiers now would create the option of updating the concept of regional cross-border cooperation to curb trafficking networks long before migrants reached the Mediterranean.

The MD is a good forum to discreetly raise the problem of Algeria’s land-based trafficking routes, partly because of the history of twenty years of day-to-day discussions between NATO and Algerian officials there, but also because of the qualitative evolution in relations between Algeria and the Alliance since an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme (IPCP) was signed between Algeria and the NATO in October 2014. This document defines the major principles of Algeria’s foreign policy and defence but combined with a reference to the strategic dimension of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue. It marks the start of a formal legal framework outlining security cooperation between the two and is thus a modest jumping off point for a closer partnership with the Algerian military than was possible in 2010.

A good start could be to use the impetus created by last autumn’s naval visit to schedule an in-land operation. This could be an on-site train-the-trainers session led by NATO Mobile Training Teams, or visits by NATO experts to assess the possibilities for further cooperation in the military field in Sahel province. Both of these are options under the MD Work Programme which can be adapted to the mission of tackling smuggling gangs. As with cooperation at sea initial progress might be slow as the army is already tasked with other security issues such as tackling a low level Islamist insurgency and fighting drug trafficking.

However by developing links to military officers now NATO will reap the benefits in years to come as these men are promoted. Moreover any on the ground capabilities inside Algeria’s interior will pay dividends in an unstable region. Ties between terrorist networks and organised criminal groups in North Africa are traditionally close, such as the case with Libyan traffickers and local militias. Another example is the 2013 In Amenas hostage crisis in eastern Algeria, which was financed by the cigarette smuggling operations of the al-Qaeda-linked warlord who organised it. A modest mission to train Algerian soldiers could yet lead to the longer term creation of a joint cross-border force that curbs trafficking and terrorist threats alike.


Even symbolic cooperation between NATO and a major North African state would represent a step forward in cross-Mediterranean security when it comes to tackling human trafficking. Gaining Algerian cooperation at sea could lead to an agreement to help secure its borders better on land. This in turn could act as a building block to creating a truly regional stability force headquartered in Algeria’s southern Sahel to disrupt trafficking overland in the Sahara. The indirect effects of this would be more efficient at shutting down the traffickers than attacking and destroying traffickers’ boats. Tackling a multifaceted problem like trafficking from North Africa requires more than one solution though, and both initiatives should be pursued.

This article appeared in Volume 5, Issue 10 of the Atlantic Voices journal of the Atlantic Treaty Association, with whose kind permission it appears here.



Neil Thompson

Neil Thompson is a freelance international relations analyst whose work has appeared in the Diplomat, the International Security Network, Geopolitical Monitor, The Independent and various other publications. He holds an MA in the international relations of East Asia and has lived in China for three years and is presently based in London.