Concerned about the spread of the coronavirus, many smugglers, armed groups and communities are imposing their own restrictions on movement.
There has long been a vast divide in perceptions of human smuggling between those with and without actual experience of it. In the international press, for instance, the industry is commonly presented as a multi-million-dollar criminal enterprise run by hardened criminals. By contrast, for many on the inside, smuggling is a perfectly legitimate livelihood. Human smugglers - not to be confused with human traffickers who use coercion or deception for the means of exploitation- are simply service providers who, for a fee, help migrants cross boundaries and overcome barriers.
With COVID-19, however, this may all be changing. New evidence gathered by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime suggests growing hostility towards human smuggling in regions where the activity is deeply entrenched in the political economy.
In areas of southern Libya - home to key hubs on the "northern route" to Europe - municipalities have called on the military to increase patrolling to combat smuggling. This is a significant shift given that the enterprise underpins many livelihoods in the area. In this region - as well as across Algeria's southern borders and in northern Mali - smugglers also report that they are reducing their activities to avoid spreading the coronavirus.
For the same reason, various armed groups say they have imposed restrictions on movement within territories they control. The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), which has consolidated support across much northern Mali including in the important transit points of Timbuktu and Gao, has limited freedom of movement across the areas it controls. Meanwhile in southern Libya, Tebu militants have become markedly more hostile to human smuggling and intercepted smugglers coming through Niger.
From legitimate livelihood to crime?
Human smuggling - defined as the facilitation of unlawful entry of a person into a country for material profit - is only criminalised in a few places in Africa. In those countries, the activity can attract extremely high penalties. Far more countries prescribe administrative penalties to those found guilty of facilitating irregular migration, distinguished from human smuggling offences partly because they do not include the "material profit" element.
In Niger, a 2015 law became the first piece of legislation in Africa devoted solely to smuggling offences. It criminalised human smuggling in Niger for the first time. Enforcement of this law dealt a significant blow to the economy of the north where the activity forms the core livelihood for many. This change created a considerable disjunct between Niger's legal position on human smuggling - making it punishable by imprisonment of 5-30 years - and the popular perception that smugglers merely provide a transport service for migrants looking for a better life.
In the short term, COVID-19 seems to be closing this gap. As has been the case around the world, the disease has created acute fears of contagion in Niger and created stigma around human movement. This fear is even greater with the coronavirus as it can be spread by asymptomatic carriers.
The Ebola pandemic in West Africa caused similar fears in 2014-15. It too prompted some community-led restrictions of movement. A local journalist at the time reported that the fear triggered by the disease contributed to the 2015 blockade of people smugglers in Zuwara, a town on Libya's northern coast that had previously operated as a key disembarkation point for smugglers coordinating journeys towards Europe.
What will happen after COVID-19?
The impact on human smuggling caused by the Ebola context was temporary. The same is likely to be true of COVID-19. In fact, many smugglers have decided to continue their operations despite the pandemic, including in southern Libya, northern Niger and Chad.
After COVID-19, much of the Sahel is likely to be characterised by spiralling unemployment and decimated livelihoods, together with food scarcity. Fears of contagion are likely to linger, prompting states - and possibly some local communities - to maintain some restrictions on movement.
At the same time, however, demand for smuggling services is likely to spike. Migrants and refugees will need help to navigate journeys that had been made more difficult during the pandemic. Meanwhile, demand may also increase if pathways for legal migration narrow in the wake of COVID-19.
Smugglers themselves, who are often part of the communities they serve, will also face an increasingly limited set of livelihood options. In the face of renewed demand, the lure of smuggling profits is likely to trump lingering fears of contagion.
The smuggling market is experiencing a temporary lull in activity. This is due to both by government restrictions and community-led taboos. When the threat of COVID-19 subsides, this newfound stigma around smuggling may or may not last. But either way, the human smuggling market looks set to recover quickly and expand further. It may become even more crucial to migration within, and out of, the African continent.
This article draws upon a theme examined in a policy brief by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.