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Mexico is Already the Immigration 'Wall' Some Politicians Want
Mexico is Already the Immigration 'Wall' Some Politicians Want
Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-insurgency
Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-insurgency

Mexico is Already the Immigration 'Wall' Some Politicians Want

Originally published in Los Angeles Times

“Mexico is a critical partner,” President Obama reminded reporters during a joint news conference with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on July 22, “and is critically important to our own well-being.” The two presidents praised not only their countries’ immense cross-border trade but also bilateral collaboration on energy, the environment and counter-narcotics. Left unmentioned in their opening remarks was another crucial way Mexico is helping its northern neighbor: as a buffer between the U.S. and Central America’s Northern Triangle, where gang violence, chronic corruption and endemic poverty drives hundreds of thousands from their homes each year.

Two years after the flow of unaccompanied Central American children across the Rio Grande generated U.S. headlines, the humanitarian crisis continues.  Today it plays out mostly in Mexico, whose government has become the region’s “deporter-in-chief,” last year sending back 166,000 Central American migrants, including about 30,000 children, more than twice as many as the 75,000 deported from the United States. By detaining and deporting migrants, Mexico has in effect become the “wall” certain politicians are calling for — which of course does nothing to solve the underlying problems.

Over the past decade, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have seen homicides spiral out of control, approaching levels of bloodshed last seen during the armed conflicts of the 1980s. Gangs dominate major cities and many smaller towns, forcing even the poor to pay extortion. Most chilling for families is the forced recruitment of young boys and girls.  Saying no to the gangs, say refugees interviewed along the border, would mean a death sentence.

The dangers do not end for those who manage to cross into Mexico. Undocumented migrants make perfect victims.  Fearful of authorities, they are highly unlikely to report even violent crimes, such as robbery or rape.  Groups specializing in extortion and kidnapping also know that many migrants have relatives in the United States who can be tapped for ransom money.

Irregular migration, swollen by forced displacement, ends up fueling organized crime and corruption.  No longer can a migrant pay guides – known as coyotes or polleros (chicken herders) – just enough to be smuggled across the US border. Now they must rely on networks that charge thousands of dollars to assure safe passage across territories controlled by various criminal bosses, while paying officials to look the other way.

Regional leaders are finally recognizing that the massive outflow of people from Central America is much more than migration as usual.  The United States has agreed to expand efforts to admit refugees directly from the region so they avoid a long, dangerous journey north. Under an initiative announced July 26, a program previously limited to the under-age children of Central Americans lawfully in the U.S. will now include siblings who are over 21, as well as caregivers. Those most vulnerable could be relocated in Costa Rica while awaiting approval for entry into the United States.

This initiative, however, is unlikely to discourage the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who enter Mexico each year — in part because the country is no longer just a transit country, but also a destination in its own right. Petitions for refugee recognition have more than doubled, straining Mexico’s capacity to process them fairly and efficiently.  Although its refugee commission is offering asylum to a larger proportion of applicants, the numbers deemed eligible still represent only a fraction of those needing protection. 

In the long run, Central American governments must address the economic and institutional failings that turn young people into gangsters and end the impunity of both criminal leaders and corrupt officials.

In the immediate run, the United States should help its “critical partner” stop the cycle of deportation and re-migration by providing Mexico with the resources it needs to shelter asylum applicants, adjudicate their claims efficiently and fairly, and then resettle them where they can lead productive lives.

Niger’s soldiers stand at Bosso military camp following attacks by Boko Haram fighters in the region, on June 17, 2016. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP
Report 245 / Africa

Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-insurgency

The struggle against Boko Haram in south-eastern Niger is increasingly sharpening local conflicts over access to resources. There is no military solution to this insurgency, and the authorities should instead put the emphasis on demobilising militants, solving local conflicts, reinvigorating the economy and restoring public services.

Executive Summary

For the last two years, Niger has been at war with Boko Haram. The conflict has disrupted this poor country’s development, especially public finances, and destabilised the south east, the main scene of armed clashes. In this region, located some 1,350km from the capital and faced with an economic collapse, the battle against Boko Haram has stoked up local intercommunal tensions and exacerbated violence over access to resources. Despite direct support from Chadian troops since 2015 and improved collaboration with the Nigerian army, Nigerien forces have been unable to put a stop to attacks by insurgents, some of whom have links to the Islamic State (IS). The military option has produced results but has also shown its limits. The war effort must be accompanied by an approach that would allow demobilisation of the movement’s militants and promote a political solution to the tensions that have stimulated its local spread. The government must also prioritise economic revival and public service provision to bring relief to an exhausted population, whose suffering fuels the insurrection.

Despite alarmist scenarios, Boko Haram has failed to extend its influence beyond the south-eastern Diffa region. This relatively wealthy territory has a special relationship with the Nigerian state of Borno. Close historical, religious, and economic ties explain the resonance of the message spread by Mohamed Yusuf, the Nigerian founder of Boko Haram. Many Nigeriens, especially young men, became his supporters after they travelled to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, only 425km away from Diffa, in search of religious training or business opportunities. When Nigerian armed forces massacred more than 1,000 of his Nigerian followers in July 2009, many members of Boko Haram found refuge in south-eastern Niger. The movement has long avoided conducting military operations in the country to build up Diffa as a refuge and a place to seek funds, supplies and recruits.

Nigerien authorities initially responded to the Boko Haram threat by keeping the movement under surveillance. They believed that it was essentially a Nigerian problem. This attitude changed in 2014, when the threat became more pressing. Boko Haram’s territorial expansion toward the Niger border was accompanied by a new push to recruit hundreds of young Nigeriens. Persuaded by its regional and international partners to become more actively involved, Niger joined the military efforts of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). The war effort has since proved to be a burden on the national budget and the judicial system and kindled tensions between the government and the military hierarchy.

The Diffa region is suffering from both Boko Haram attacks and counter-insurgency measures taken by the Nigerien authorities, such as the extension of the state of emergency introduced in February 2015 that includes a ban on some commercial activities. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people only survive thanks to foreign aid. Recourse to local vigilante committees and reprisals by Boko Haram against anyone who collaborates with the army have created a difficult atmosphere in which local score-settling, collective fear and informants are all ingredients of a dangerously toxic brew.

On the shores of Lake Chad, in the extreme east of Diffa region, Boko Haram’s presence has aggravated intercommunal tensions, which have degenerated into deadly conflicts since May 2016. Mediation between communities by the authorities since June 2016 is a welcome initiative but has yet to dissipate all of these tensions. On the lake’s islands, a group of combatants who have broken away from the Boko Haram faction led by Abubakar Shekau, head of the movement since the death of Mohamed Yusuf, is exploiting these local tensions. This group is currently trying to take root more permanently and allegedly has close ties with IS.

Faced with Boko Haram’s resilience, the Nigerien government can no longer restrict itself to an approach solely based on military operations and commercial restrictions. In December 2016, the establishment of demobilisation sites signalled a change in the policy of repression that had prevailed since 2015. The government is also drafting a special plan for the resolution of the crisis in the Diffa region. With the support of regional and international partners, it must continue in this direction and expand its counter-insurgency strategy that goes beyond a mainly military response. This is all the more important given that some insurgents have rejected the excesses of Abubakar Shekau and may try to regain the support of the local population by avoiding the targeting of Muslims. The government must also increase cooperation with its neighbours and make contingency plans for the possible disengagement of international partners, whose public finances are deteriorating and who could opt for more isolationist policies in the months to come.

Recommendations

To reduce violence by going beyond the security response

To the government of Niger:

  1. Discourage the development of armed community militias.
     
  2. Pursue and strengthen the efforts to mediate between communities on the shores of Lake Chad started in June 2016.
     
  3. Ensure equitable and fair access to the lake’s resources, including, if necessary, through a thorough reform of the system of chiefs in the lake area.
     
  4. Propose quickly a plan for resolving the crisis in south-eastern Niger, prepared in close partnership with civil society and elected representatives in the Diffa region, and paying particular attention to reconciliation, the reintroduction of public services and economic revival.

To ease the pressure on the judicial system and prepare for the reintegration of Boko Haram militants

To the government of Niger:

  1. Formulate demobilisation and reintegration policies for former Boko Haram combatants, especially those who have not been involved in serious crimes, while consulting Boko Haram’s victims and their representatives to avoid a cycle of score-settling. The recent establishment of demobilisation sites is welcome but the reintegration of former insurgents is a sensitive issue that requires skilful handling and major long-term investment by the government and its partners.
     
  2. Increase the resources allocated to the judicial system to ensure improved treatment of Boko Haram-related cases, including those dealing with suspects of involvement in serious crimes, which are currently clogging up the country’s courts.
     
  3. Insist that the security services make a strong case to justify the transfer to Niamey prison of people who have been arrested on the basis of intelligence provided by informants.

To Niger’s partners:

  1. Provide advice and human resources to boost the resources allocated to the judicial system.

To suspend economic restrictions linked to the state of emergency and launch a plan to revive the economy of the Diffa region as early as possible

To the government of Niger:

  1. Redirect suspended economic flows by channelling them through the town of Diffa and encouraging exporters to use more secure roads toward Nigeria until the southern Komadougou area becomes stable again.
     
  2. Build the capacities of the public administration to provide the population with tangible judicial, health and education services, encourage the recruitment of local civil servants and the granting of temporary bonuses to civil servants working in the regions affected by the insurrection.

To supervise more effectively the security forces and their budgets

To the government of Niger:

  1. Encourage the High Authority for the Fight Against Corruption (HALCIA) to investigate the use of funds allocated to the war effort.
     
  2. Provide the armed forces on the ground with the resources they need to conduct counter-insurgency military operations, while tightening supervision of the armed forces and requiring that military personnel found guilty of abuses and other crimes against civilians are held accountable.
     
  3. Supervise the vigilante committees to limit their role to the collection of intelligence; prepare policies immediately for their complete or partial demobilisation if the insurrection’s decline is confirmed.

Brussels/Dakar, 27 February 2017