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The interplay between conflict, border militarisation, and migration

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Border militarisation can act as a deterrent to people seeking safe passage across borders to escape conflict or any form of violence. It may also make it more difficult for people to access asylum or seek refuge in neighbouring countries, forcing them to take alternative and often more dangerous routes, such as relying on smugglers or crossing perilous terrain. – Picture: Freepik

By Michlene Mongae

The militarisation of borders in conflict-ridden regions emerges as a response to heightened security concerns, aiming to safeguard national interests, uphold territorial integrity, and regulate the movement of people and goods across borders. Rooted in the legacy of colonial rule, militarisation has become entrenched in the politics of many African countries since independence.

The post-colonial political trajectory of many African states reveals a complex web of civil-military relations, shaping their institutions, power structures, and societal dynamics. The relationship between civilian governments and the military has been pivotal in determining political stability, governance effectiveness, and the legitimacy of state authority, varying from co-operative partnership to outright military rule across different African countries.

The management of borders in recent years has resulted in their militarisation which often arises when disputes transition from seeking political resolutions to embracing military strategies, diminishing the possibility of reaching peaceful settlements. This tends to pose challenges to political resolution and the negotiation process, jeopardising existing settlements within and between states.

The consequence of border militarisation extends beyond national boundaries, often exacerbating tensions and insecurity in neighbouring countries. Border militarisation, characterised by the erection of barriers, increased deployment of personnel, and investment in military and security technologies, aims to contain conflict spillover, curb the proliferation of armed groups, and fortify defence against external threats.

Moreover, border militarisation can act as a deterrent to people seeking safe passage across borders to escape conflict or any form of violence. It may also make it more difficult for people to access asylum or seek refuge in neighbouring countries, forcing them to take alternative and often more dangerous routes, such as relying on smugglers or crossing perilous terrain.

Despite these challenges, it is important to recognise the potential for borders to continue serving as spaces for fostering co-operation, dialogue and mutual understanding among kinship, rather than acting as a deterrent to cross-border trade, development and peace and stability. Border management should foster open dialogue between communities and security forces and is critical for facilitating efficient means of fostering trust and collaboration within conflict zones.

The nexus between conflict, migration, and border security underscores the complex challenges facing vulnerable populations. Approximately 40.4 million Africans have been displaced due to conflict, including those who are Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), refugees, and asylum seekers. This is further worsened by the absence of safe and legal migration pathways, coupled with barriers to asylum, which has engendered a perilous environment characterised by migrant deaths, abuse, exploitation, and discrimination.

Examining the multifaceted interplay between conflict, border militarisation, and migration is essential for understanding the intricate complexities shaping the security landscapes within and beyond conflict-affected regions.

[…] border militarisation can act as a deterrent to people seeking safe passage across borders to escape conflict or any form of violence.

The interplay between conflict and migration

The intricate relationship between conflict and border militarisation in borderland regions such as North and West Africa underscores significant security challenges and socio-economic ramifications. One consequence is the bolstering of criminal networks, as individuals travelling without legal documents become vulnerable to exploitation.

Fear of deportation discourages them from seeking help when needed, making them easy targets for abuse. This can take various forms, including demands for bribes from authorities or exploitation of human smugglers. In weak states, smuggling illicit goods, people, and arms facilitation heavily impedes state-building efforts.

The movement of populations, driven by political and structural factors, presents multifaceted security challenges, ranging from an immediate humanitarian crisis to long-term socioeconomic repercussions.

Moreover, the displacement of people has direct security implications. This is particularly evident in the increasing influx of economic migrants and forcibly displaced people along routes such as the Trans- Saharan route. This phenomenon has fuelled a lucrative market for human smuggling with profits often diverted to violent extremist groups and criminal organisations, enabling them to undermine governments and destabilise regions.

In West Africa, particularly in Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali, recent coups have failed to improve conditions, exacerbating forced displacement crises. Mali, for instance, has witnessed a notable increase in the population of IDPs, reaching approximately 380,000 people. Burkina Faso has faced one of the most extensive forced displacement crises in the Sahel region, representing 64% of all displaced persons in the area. Additionally, Western and Central Africa collectively experienced significant levels of food insecurity, with an estimated 58 million people affected.

Borders in Africa: The food security context

The impact of conflict on food security is profound, with over 80 per cent of the unprecedented 137 million Africans experiencing acute food insecurity, residing in countries in conflict-affected countries. This highlights the extent to which conflict contributes to Africa’s food crisis.

Approximately 38 African countries are facing varying degrees of food insecurity, resulting in millions of people and communities not having regular safe access to nutritious food to sustain normal growth, development and a healthy, active life. The threat of violent extremism also exacerbates the humanitarian crisis and regional instability.

Food insecurity on the Continent is concentrated within eight countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Niger and Burkina Faso. Approximately 23.4 million people in the DRC are facing significant levels of food insecurity – the highest number globally. Regions such as Goman witness significant influxes of IDPs alongside notable instances of gender-based violence and sexual exploitation.

Sudan has endured prolonged civil conflict across its Darfur Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions, stemming from the repressive military regime that has governed the country for years. Since the conflict, there are an estimated 6,657,550 internally displaced people in Sudan, with approximately 28 per cent being female children under the age of 18.

Recent years have seen a significant surge in the number of people facing food insecurity, escalating from 6 million to 11.7 million. This spike followed a military coup that disrupted the democratic transition and exacerbated conflict and population displacement.

Examining the multifaceted interplay between conflict, border militarisation, and migration is essential for understanding the intricate complexities shaping the security landscapes within and beyond conflict-affected regions.

Policy consideration for conflict resolution mechanisms

While border militarisation may be intended to enhance national security and protect against external threats, its use of force on civilians and its deterrent effect on those seeking safe passage can have significant humanitarian, human rights and diplomatic ramifications. It is essential for policymakers to consider these consequences and seek alternative approaches that prioritise human security, uphold international law, and promote the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

In an effort to respond to growing border insecurity, the African Union launched the African Union Border Programme (AUBP) in 2007. One of the areas of focus was providing frameworks for cross-border co-operation in an effort to address the root causes of conflicts, thereby structurally preventing them.

In addition, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) as part of its mandate aims to eliminate barriers to trade in Africa, particularly trade in value-added production and trade across all sectors of Africa’s economy.

This necessitates the implementation of border management strategies that prioritise safety and security while facilitating the movement of goods and people across borders.

The impact of conflict on migrants, asylum seekers, and particularly women and children, is profound, with many forced to flee their homes due to violence, prosecution and other drivers of displacement. Yet, these individuals often face additional risks, including arbitrary detention, abuse and exploitation.

Addressing the humanitarian and protection needs of displaced populations requires a concerted effort to uphold human rights principles and provide adequate support to those in need. As such, the African Union introduced the Draft Policy on The Prevention of Smuggling of Migrants in Africa in response to the inadequate legal framework and often absence of gender-responsive policy frameworks.

Moving forward, it is essential to prioritise diplomatic and political solutions to conflicts rather than relying solely on military interventions. By promoting dialogue, negotiations, and conflict resolution mechanisms, stakeholders can work towards mitigating the root causes of conflict and creating safer environments for affected communities.

Additionally, fostering regional co-operation and solidarity is crucial in addressing the complex challenges posed by conflict-related displacement and the militarisation of borders. The realisation of the Africa We Want requires the urgent implementation of key policies that will ensure a peaceful and secure Africa .

Michlene Mongae is a researcher and MA candidate in Military Strategy at the University of Stellenbosch.

This article was first published at ACCORD