The strategic importance of integrated border management in North Africa

By Major Colonel: Salah Sakli, former National Guard of the Tunisian Republic Land Border Directorate.

There is no doubt that conflicts and violence in various parts of the world in recent years have exacerbated the security and socio-economic development problems facing many states.

And due to the process of globalization and the spread of technology, profound changes in the nature and scale of border risks and threats have been taking place all over the world,

And one of the main trends is the diversification of illicit activities in which organized crime groups engage and which are mainly played out at borders, as well as the increase in the number of countries and regions affected by this transnational phenomenon.

As far as North Africa is concerned, there is no shortage of challenges and threats on the borders of this strategic region, where the North African frontiers are supposed to be closed, but in reality they are not, being practically permeable and porous.

Armed with tools designed for the pre-Arab Spring environment, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt face a complex new world of transnational actors exploiting their borders for profit and as a safe haven.

The magnitude and multiplicity of the challenges and threats linked to border management in North Africa generally materialize in the spectre of a rapprochement between terrorism and organized crime, as well as in the social tension and political violence that are being played out at the borders and seem to be taking shape day by day at regional and continental level.

Terrorism has become a growing regional threat, operating mainly in border areas, and is supported by complex organizations combining religious doctrine and criminal networks, which in turn share the same deadly ideology and desire for expansion.

Cross-border crime has taken on many forms, all of which threaten the stability of the region.

One flow of contraband in particular – prohibited products such as petroleum and even subsidized foodstuffs – has reached such a proportion that its sales value exceeds the national security budget of many countries in the region.

The transformation of North Africa into a transit region for narcotics traffickers from other parts of the world to Europe has created an airlift, encouraging new players to get involved in the trade, and subordinate players to take ever greater risks in order to expand.

As a result, the use of drugs – particularly cannabis, but also cocaine, heroin and amphetamine-type stimulants – has spread to large sections of the North African population, and become a public health and safety problem throughout the region.

The impact of trafficking in arms, ammunition, explosives and other sensitive materials on the region’s security is, in turn, causing considerable concern.

Since 2011, the influx of arms from Libya has posed a serious threat to the stability of all the countries in the region and their neighbors, a threat that seems to have become a reality, particularly in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Sudan and elsewhere.

In addition, illicit trade is booming in North Africa, posing a pernicious security, economic and fiscal problem for all the countries in the region.

Recent massive migratory movements of economic migrants and asylum seekers have also added to the challenges facing North African states in effectively managing their borders.

Human trafficking, which is a subset of migration, reached its peak in 2018 and 2019, with slave markets mainly in Libya, where individuals were sold from one trafficking organization to another.

Insecure security, radicalism and kidnapping for ransom complete the picture of challenges and threats on North African borders.

In addition to the obvious threat posed by terrorism and transnational crime, the lines between extremist groups and mafia networks operating in and around North Africa are becoming increasingly blurred.

North African states are also hard hit by the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters, whether as countries of origin and transit, or as neighboring states in conflict zones.

And just like criminal networks, terrorist networks have established connections with the world of the border to ensure the recruitment, preparation and departure of jihadists to multiple fronts in the first instance, before working in the second instance to set up reception camps for foreign terrorist fighters in anticipation of their departure to other conflict zones or their return to North Africa or even Europe to hide, prepare and perpetrate unpredictable attacks.

It is also estimated that advances in communication technologies have opened up new prospects for highly sophisticated crime, and in particular, a significant increase in Internet fraud exploited by terrorists and mafia groups.

This is all the more true given that law enforcement agencies are under-equipped in terms of equipment and manpower, and are often slow to adapt to new trends, whereas organized crime groups know how to adapt and quickly adopt the fruits of technological progress, thanks to the immense profits they derive or expect from their illicit activities.

In some countries, the profits from certain criminal activities are large enough to buy the complicity of officials employed in the highest spheres of government, undermining governance and security at national, regional and even international level.

The insecurity inherent in the political system in this region is usually countered by a “security first” approach and centralization of power and resources.
The result is social, economic and political tensions, aggravated by a political order in most North African countries that is itself a source of insecurity.
This isolates the marginalized population and increases the divisions between powers and populations, particularly in outlying regions.

In fact, border areas in North Africa have always received less political and economic attention than other areas, which has seriously compromised their development and the human security of local populations.

These populations are usually regarded as major players in most illicit activities and, as such, pose a danger to the rest of the region.

This perception has led to the disassociation of border populations and a general stigmatization.

As a result, these populations have suffered limited access to education, healthcare and employment opportunities: their fundamental rights are often trampled underfoot.

The majority of North Africa’s border regions have thus become a social incubator and breeding ground for extremist ideologies.

These challenges and threats are not necessarily in the same order of priority, as this order varies from country to country, but no one can deny that they constitute a permanent source of instability for the whole of North Africa, and that no member country can face them alone.

That said, instead of joining forces to effectively manage transnational security phenomena, the highly disunited countries of North Africa are still favouring a national approach to these threats.

Worse still, their head-in-the-sand policies and the climate of suspicion that reigns between them encourage the proliferation of risks, not least the arms race.
The problem of illegal migration offers an ideal example of the solitary flight forward of North African countries. Perceived as a threat north of the Mediterranean, this phenomenon has always been chaotically managed in the south.

And instead of seeing this transnational problem as a factor in intra-regional cooperation, each state has instead exploited it to discredit its neighbour, while appearing to be the best guardian of Europe’s security.

In the face of such inadequacies, North African countries will remain subcontractors when it comes to border control, and the regional and subregional integration projects that galvanized all the peoples of the region will not advance one iota.

A radical change is therefore needed in North Africa’s approach to border management, to make this region a space of peace and shared prosperity, promoted as a common interest and an essential challenge for the entire region. Going it alone should no longer be an option in North Africa.

Indeed, overcoming the border and promoting it as a bridge linking one state to another can offer North Africa an opportunity to give new impetus to the ongoing enterprise of socio-economic integration and the strengthening of regional unity, as well as to efforts to promote peace, security and stability through structural conflict prevention.

And if North Africans want to be taken seriously abroad, in Europe and around the world, when they speak of peace, rights and equality, they must first achieve peace, integration and, above all, unity within their own region.

In absolute terms, the countries of North Africa have more elements that unite them than disunite them.

With a widely shared language, history, culture and religion, the small number of states that make up North Africa seem perfectly predisposed to at least initiate, and succeed in, a rapprochement in terms of border management.

This objective cannot be achieved unless the countries of the region pool their efforts.

In this pooling, each country must contribute what it can in order to put it at the disposal of its community and that of its neighbouring countries, which should in principle represent the strategic depth of the other, and whose stability must be ensured, not the opposite.

Based on these principles, North African leaders are called upon, first and foremost, to unite their efforts to change laws and policies that have proved ineffective, in collaboration with civil society, which must be fully involved in this process.

A reformulation of border management policies in North Africa, taking into account the ethnic, cultural and socio-economic requirements of the peoples they separate, coupled with a redefinition of the border and its functions by States, could help build one of the best community spaces for peace, security, stability and social cohesion, growth and development.

It is therefore imperative that the North African authorities must therefore implement a regional strategy for the integrated management of their borders, based on a multi-dimensional approach that prioritizes prevention, and provides for joint consultation and response mechanism.