Bringing the desert together: How to advance Sahel-Maghreb integration

Press release

More holistic approach needed to stabilise volatile Sahel region

Europe’s overly securitised efforts are damaging border communities, undermining regional populations and failing to address the root causes of migration and terrorism.

The Sahel is one of the world’s poorest regions, buffeted by climate change, population growth, food insecurity, corruption, and crime. Moreover, the growth of regional terrorism after the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012, and the region’s role as a key transit role for migrants crossing the Mediterranean since 2015, mean that Europe must give the region greater attention if it hopes for stability on its southern border.

Since 2012, region-wide strategies and coordination forums have proliferated, money has poured into the region, and at least 16 different national or multilateral strategies have been created for addressing instability in the Sahel. But these strategies remain overwhelmingly security-focused, ignoring the crucial roles of governance and economic factors. Overly-securitised EU strategies have damaged border communities, undermined regional populations, and failed to seriously address the root causes of migration or terrorism.

A new paper from the European Council on Foreign Relations argues that Europe must implement a more holistic approach to regional stabilisation, emphasising the need for greater regional integration between North Africa and the Sahel, and for the creation of legal migration and employment channels. This approach could diminish illegal migration flows into Europe by creating a larger and more effective internal African labour market.

To accomplish these goals, the paper proposes that French and international efforts focus on four baskets of issues: migration, economic reform, security coordination, and regional institutional frameworks.


Currently tens of thousands of migrants pass through Mali and Niger on their way to Europe, while  recent crackdowns on migration seem only to have pushed people smuggling underground, with no drop in the numbers of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean.

The ECFR paper proposes that EU countries assist in developing a joint framework on migration among the countries of the Sahel, the broader West African region, and the Maghreb, to regularise regional migration and encourage migrants to remain in the region and seek work in the Maghreb.

Economic reform

Regularising internal migration will not be sufficient, however, to keep migrants from attempting the dangerous crossing to Europe. To achieve this, the paper argues that the EU should use new investment funds (such as the EU Trust Fund for Africa and the European External Investment Plan) to finance industrial and agricultural projects in the region. The EU should also encourage further investment from the wealthier Maghreb countries, Morocco and Algeria.

Crucially, the international community should refrain from cracking down on smuggling networks in the absence of a viable alternative for vulnerable border communities. Instead it should consider legalising parts of the informal trade sector, including by offering tax amnesties. As well as providing economic opportunities, this would help leverage border communities to assist with security through cooperation with security forces.


Better security coordination requires moving beyond basic training and focusing instead on streamlining regional security cooperation and focusing on the gap between high-level security planning and tactical training of troops.

The G5 Sahel offers a potential starting point for these efforts, but making this body effective will require member states and the EU to increase their investment to create openings for enhanced interaction with Maghreb states. The EU has already promised €50 million for the joint force, but some reports say budget demands may go as high as €423 million.

Institutional frameworks

The proliferation of regional institutions dealing with the same issues inevitably complicates and restricts regional cooperation. Again, the G5 offers an opportunity to harmonise and streamline regional efforts, but fulfilling this potential will require overcoming European resistance to broadening its scope away from purely security issues. It will also require insulating the body from regional rivalries, for example by bringing Algerian representatives into the G5.


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