Analysis 2018/11: Not a Single Boat: Policing Migration in the Mediterranean Partner Countries

July 26, 2018

Analysis 2018/11: Not a Single Boat: Policing Migration in the Mediterranean Partner Countries

Analysis 2018/11: Not a Single Boat: Policing Migration in the Mediterranean Partner Countries

Not a Single Boat: Policing Migration in the Mediterranean Partner Countries

(Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco)




Researchers and decision-makers preoccupied with illegal migration to Europe agree that any effective policy on migration can only work if restrictive measures to fight illegal migration are endorsed in the source countries. However, far too little attention has been paid to the responsibility of source countries in illegal migration. Even more, there is much less information available in Europe about whether any efforts are done in this regard by Mediterranean partner countries, and if done at all, whether they are effective in any manner. While it is unrealistic to expect from failed states such as Syria and Libya control over their borders, relatively stable countries of the Mediterranean such as Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco are potentially able to fight illegal migration, and prevent the migratory waves towards Europe.

Recently, this question was brought to light in April 2018 when the Tunisian government decided to offer financial incentives for students to prevent them from migrating to Europe.[1] Earlier in the year, in January, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the President of Egypt said that since September 2016, not a single boat of migrants had left Egypt towards Europe.[2]

Despite overall self-gratifying discourses in the Mediterranean partner countries, observers in Europe are sceptical about the obtained results and about whether these countries are doing enough to stop illegal migration to Europe. Regardless of the failed social policies in these countries, mainly the inadequacy between demography and social achievements (especially a disastrous unemployment rate) and political authoritarianism and corruption, which are structural problems in these countries, a general environment of dissatisfaction among the young people provides an immense market for smugglers and illegal migration. It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine these structural problems. Instead, its specific objective is to focus on the measures, policies and strategies taken by the above mentioned four countries in fighting illegal migration.

  1. Lebanon

It is estimated that there are 1 million to 1.5 million Syrian refugees,[3] in addition to 450,000 Palestinian refugees, who live in Lebanon.[4] These two nationalities provide the majority of illegal migrants from the Lebanese shores to Europe.[5] Lebanon is not a failed state, but endures a major political crisis, which weakens its state authority, overshadowed by parallel political forces (e.g. Hezbollah). The absence of control of the entire territory in the country, especially that of the coasts, makes the fight against illegal migration naturally complicated. Besides, fighting illegal migration is not a priority in Lebanon, which is currently in a difficult quest for a government since May 2018.

Lebanon, especially the Christian side, envisions the return of Syrians to their homes as the Syrian government controls, now, most of the territory. However, according to the Lebanese government, The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) “is trying to prevent that from happening, deliberately discouraging refugees from returning”.[6] This crisis between the Lebanese government and the UNHCR erupted in June 2018 when a group of 3000 Syrians who live in ‘Arsal in Lebanon were about to go home to Syria, but the UNHCR, interviewed them, informing them about the possibility that they would face obligatory military service in Syria, improper conditions of life and safety problems, and warned them against going back to Syria. This made the Lebanese government furious.[7] This means that if these refugees do not return home, some or many of them are likely to become migrants to Europe, which predicts a coming migration wave from Lebanon.

Lebanon does not have a national strategy to fight illegal migration. The available data shows that the security forces in Lebanon fight illegal migration as part of its mission to maintain order. For instance, Interpol’s office in Beirut claims “it was able to dismantle a number of networks involved in illegal immigration and several people were arrested and deported to their country of origin”,[8] while independent sources speak of thousands leaving the Lebanese shores on boats.[9] Lebanese Armed Forces also make occasionally announcements that they stopped boats of illegal migrants. In one of these announcements, it said it had stopped a boat with 53 illegal immigrants: with 28 Palestinians, 14 Syrians and 8 Lebanese.[10] This approach is part of an increasingly securitized management of borders and handling of migrants in Lebanon,[11] however undermined by the weakness of the Lebanese state. The latter is unable to offer viable services and/or effective management of the refugees in Lebanon, who rely on international organisations. Furthermore, Lebanon considers Syrians as an emergency, and does not intend to integrate them, to offer them services or regularize their situation in the long run. This could be considered as a push factor of migration towards Europe, which promises better services and a future for them. It is, therefore, of utmost importance for Europe to help Syrians return to their homes.

             Analysis 2018/11: Not a Single Boat: Policing Migration in the Mediterranean Partner Countries

Figure 1: The Eastern Mediterranean route (including Lebanon)[12]

  1. Egypt

As reiterated in March 2018 by Naela Gabr, the head of the National Coordinating Committee on Combating and Preventing Illegal Migration, in Egypt, the Egyptian government claims “not a single boat has illegally left the Egyptian shore to Europe”.[13] While this ambitious result is hardly achievable, the EU and independent sources (especially NGOs) confirm that the Egyptian government succeeded in controlling the Egyptian route.[14]

According to the Egyptian government, this success is due to three measures it took in the last two years, as part of a national strategy to combat and prevent illegal migration, which proved to be efficient. First, „it identified Kafr El Sheikh Governorate as the main Egyptian exporter of illegal immigration, and decided to open the largest fish farm in the Middle East in that Governorate, in addition to a number of projects related to the manufacture and packaging of fish, which created 25 000 jobs for young people in the Governorate”.[15] Egypt’s unemployment rate has been brought from 12.7 in July 2015 to 10.6 in July 2018,[16] but this project alone, naturally, cannot absorb all candidates to illegal migration, especially not of non-Egyptian nationals from East Africa who are not allowed to stay nor to work.

Second, the Egyptian government took exceptional security measures in the fight against illegal migration: the security services, border guards and coast guards have tightened control over all the maritime border ports of Egypt, closing the ports of illegal immigration, and confronting smugglers. As a consequence, there is an “increase in the number of people being arrested for attempting to illegally leave Egypt”.[17] In this concern, the Egyptian government received technical assistance from the EU and the USA to bridge the gaps in border and coast control and surveillance.[18]

Third, Egypt adopted in November 2016 the Law on Combating Illegal Immigration and Smuggling of Migrants. Overall, it is considered as a restrictive migration law, particularly targeting smugglers. For example, the Article 7 states “the penalty of life imprisonment and a fine no less than two hundred thousand Pounds and no more than five hundred thousand Pounds [19]… if the number of the smuggled migrants is more than 20 persons or less provided that it includes women, children, incompetent persons or persons with disabilities”.[20]

It should be noted that this law does not punish illegal migrants at all (and not other Egyptian law does).[21] This void in legislation is illogical since the illegal migrant contributes to the market of illegal migration as much as the smuggler. It is imbalanced to punish the latter with life imprisonment while exonerate the illegal migrant from all responsibility. Smugglers thrive because there is demand, and illegal migrants are tempted to try their chance because there is an offer. This gap in law could encourage illegal migrants to try their luck without the help of smugglers, assured they will not be punished. Although the criminalisation of illegal migrants is a matter of debate in Europe, without dissuading illegal migrants in the Southern countries from pursuing their venue, it could be difficult to stop illegal migration.

Egypt’s success in fighting illegal migration was also the result of support by the EU. In May 2017 the EU created an emergency trust fund of 60 million euros for the initiative “Enhancing the Response to Migration Challenges in Egypt (ERMCE)” to assist Egypt in addressing root causes of irregular migration in Africa. Additionally, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs coordinates with Northern Mediterranean coastal countries, in particular Italy, Greece and Cyprus, to secure coastal borders and prevent illegal migration.[22]

Nevertheless, in the period 2007-2017, according to official estimations, 460 000 Egyptians migrated illegally to Europe, including 90 000 to Italy.[23] This is an alarming situation which the Ministry of State for Migration and Egyptian Affairs Abroad campaigns against; in June 2018, it announced a national campaign against illegal migration, with cars roaming the different governorates of Egypt, warning against smugglers, and the dangers of illegal migration.[24]

Analysis 2018/11: Not a Single Boat: Policing Migration in the Mediterranean Partner Countries

Figure 2: Migration routes from, to, and through Egypt (source: MTM-i-Map)[25]

  1. Algeria

Algeria faces a similar problem to that of Egypt and Morocco as thousands of Sub-Saharan Africans enter from the South, in addition to Algerian citizens, who embark on illegal migration towards Europe. In January 2018, only in the coastal city of Oran (West of Algeria), the Algerian security forces dismantled two smuggling criminal groups.[26] Moreover, in 2017 more than 3109 Algerians attempted illegal migration from Algeria through boats according to the Algerian maritime forces, while the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights claims that the real number is more than 17 500 of Algerians who succeeded in crossing the Mediterranean to Europe while Europe sent back approximately 5000 Algerians to Algeria.[27]

Algerian authorities have, so far, adopted a strong discourse, restrictive law and policy to fight illegal migration. In terms of discourse, it diffuses a religious discourse about illegal migration being the responsibility of everyone in Algeria, with the Islamic Higher Council in the country forbidding religiously illegal migration, diffusing this in the mosques and religious forums in Algeria.[28] In political discourse, Ahmed Ouyahia, the Prime Minister of Algeria, declared in July 2017 that “the African community residing in Algeria illegally brings drugs, delinquency and other scourges. We cannot say to the authorities, throw them in the sea, but people should live in Algeria in a legal way… some people will talk about ‘human rights!’, but we are the lords of our homes!”[29]

As far as law is concerned, Algeria adopted in 2008 a new law regulating the entry and stay of foreigners “which criminalizes irregular migration, with penalties applied to both migrants and any national who employs or houses them, empowering local governors to expel irregular migrants from the country”.[30] Algerian Penal Code punishes both illegal migrants and smugglers. As for illegal migrants, Art. 175 provision 1. states it „is punishable by imprisonment of two months to six months and a fine of 20,000 AD to 60,000 AD or one of these only two penalties, any Algerian or foreign resident who leaves the national territory in an unlawful manner, while using at his border crossing land, sea or air, falsified documents or by usurping the identity of others or any other fraudulent means, to evade the presentation of official documents required or the completion of the procedure required by the laws and regulations in force”.[31] Smuggling of migrants according to article 303 provision 30:  “is punishable by imprisonment of three years to five years and a fine of 300,000 AD to 500,000 AD”.[32]

In regard to action, Algeria has been actively deporting illegal migrants to its southern neighbours. Some 100 000 Sub-Saharan Africans live in Algeria and thousands have been already deported.[33] Algeria launched a campaign in early 2018 in different cities and regions of the country targeting hundreds of Sub-Saharan Africans who beg in the streets or work illegally in the construction industry. They were led to the borders with Niger and Mali, and ejected there.[34] The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Niger has counted “10 000 migrants expelled to Niger since September 2017, in addition to 6 000 voluntary returns since the beginning of the year”.[35]

The security of its southern borders could be the major weakness in the migratory policy of Algeria. Unless it could control its borders with Niger and Mali, it would be impossible to manage the flux and the mobility of migrants within the country, and towards Europe. In the Algerian case, the EU could help in securing the southern borders with Niger and Mali.

  1. Morocco

Being a major signpost in the Western Mediterranean route to Europe, especially to Spain, Morocco lies at the heart of the current migration crisis. Rabat adopted in September 2013 the National Strategy of Immigration and Asylum, the main purpose of which is to offer Sub-Saharan African migrants the opportunity to stay and obtain residence in Morocco, and the services of housing, education and health.[36] The most recent measure of this strategy is the regularization of 25 000 African migrants in 2017 after regularizing 18 000 migrants in 2014.[37] However, this integrative strategy faces major setbacks. On the one hand, integrating those who reached Morocco, supposed to prevent them from crossing the northern borders of Morocco to reach Spain is ineffective as others are entering from the Southern (Mauritania) and Eastern (Algeria) borders of Morocco. On the other hand, many African migrants are not satisfied with staying in Morocco, and amidst misery and friction with the native population in the Northern cities of Morocco, wait for an opportunity to cross the borders.[38]

In addition to this integrative approach, Morocco endorses a securitized approach. In 2017, the Moroccan Ministry of Interior announced that it prevented 50 000 attempts of illegal migration to Spain, and dismantled 73 criminal groups of smugglers. Between 2004 and 2017, the Ministry claims it dismantled 3207 criminal groups of smugglers. The Ministry also asserts that in 2017, it conducted 1970 operations of voluntary return of Sub-Saharan Africans, while between 2004 and 2017, it sent 23 900 people back to their countries.[39]

From a European point of view, the integrative approach can only be effective if regularized Sub-Saharan Africans abandon the project of joining Europe. The Moroccan strategy is incoherent in how it accepts most applications of residence of Sub-Saharan Africans while it encourages them to return. As a consequence, a “migratory bomb” stands at the Moroccan-Spanish borders where more than 15 000 Sub-Saharan Africans and Moroccan citizens tried to enter, in 2017, crossing the borders of Ceuta and Melilla, the two Spanish cities in the North of Morocco.[40]

Currently, Spain and the EU are relatively satisfied with the efforts of Morocco to fight illegal migration.[41] However, without the collaboration with African countries to control the borders in the South and East of Morocco, and active collaboration with European countries to return the Sub-Saharan Africans, the waves of African migration to Morocco will not cease, but will be further encouraged by the integrative approach and by proximity to Spain[42]. Integrative approaches of Sub-Saharan Africans in North Africa are better suited to absorb a considerable number of migrants, and could be a viable solution. The EU could help through specifically designed programmes the integration of these migrants in North Africa.

Analysis 2018/11: Not a Single Boat: Policing Migration in the Mediterranean Partner Countries

Figure 3: Migration routes in North Africa (source:[43]



In this paper, the aim was to assess the current measures taken by Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco to fight illegal migration. In this regard, we have identified four major tendencies: 1. A strong commitment to development and security in Egypt, with a determined choice of control over the territory and criminalization of smugglers. 2. The migration apparatus in Algeria lacks strong commitments of Egypt, especially in terms of development, but relies on a securitized approach towards its Mediterranean and African borders and the criminalisation of both illegal migrants and smugglers. 3. A third approach that could be labelled integrative-securitized, followed by Morocco, and consists in encouraging the Sub-Saharan Africans to stay in the country, while tightening the access to Europe. 4. Finally, Lebanon could be seen as a case of a weak state, in which fighting illegal migration is not a priority. That said, Lebanese security forces, whenever and wherever they have some authority, routinely fight illegal migration, intercepting the boats of illegal migrants.

An analysis of these measures revealed that every time a country endorses a national and comprehensive strategy to fight illegal migration, it always has a positive impact even if limited as is the case in Egypt, Algeria and Morocco, despite discrepancies between the three countries. Coherence of the approach, securitization, punitive legal measures and temporary infrastructure framework for emergency situations like the one in Lebanon are all important aspects of the EU’s cooperation with such countries. Although the discourse about “not a single boat” is impractical, it still is a good objective to aim at, reducing on the way considerably the extent of the problem in the Southern Mediterranean countries. For Europe, a key policy priority should, therefore, be to support the commitment of these countries in fighting illegal migration, and incite them to fully endorse responsibility towards illegal migrants who leave their territories, and tighten further their policies.

[1] Tunis tuʻalij nazif hijrat al-kafaʼat bi-l-hawafiz al-maddiyyaتونس-تعالج-نزيف-هجرة-الكفاءات-بالحوافز-المادية (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[2] Thalath ijraʼat khallasat Misr min al-hijra ghayr al-sharʻiyyaإجراءات-خلصت-مصر-من-الهجرة-غير-الشرعية/ (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[3] Lebanon – Situation: Syria Regional Refugee Response – UNHCR (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

Lebanon – European Commission – Europa EU…/lebanon_syrian_crisis_en.pdf (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[4] Lebanon – UNRWA (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[5] al-Hijra “ghayr al-sharʻiyya” min Lubnan… la taʻni al-hukumaالهجرة-غير-الشرعية-من-لبنان-لا-تعني-الحكومة (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

Tarabulus al-lubnaniyya bawwaba li-l-muhajirinطرابلس-اللبنانية-بوابة-للمهاجرين-ومكافحة-التطرف-ذروة-فشل-الدولة (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[6] Tensions between Lebanon and UNHCR over Syrian refugees (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[7] al-lajiʼun al-suriyyun fi Lubnan: hal yuwajihun ihtimal al-ʻawda al-qasriyyaاللاجئون-السوريون-في-لبنان-هل-يواجهون-احتمال-العودة-القسرية؟

[8] Réalisations du Bureau Central National de Beyrouth (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[9] al-Hijra ghayr al-sharʻiyya min Lubnan ila urubba tazdad kathafatan (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[10] al-Hijra ghayr al-sharʻiyya min Lubnan ila urubba tazdad kathafatan (last accessed on 20 July 2018).

[11] Simone Tholens, „Border Management in an Era of ‘Statebuilding Lite’: Security Assistance and Lebanon’s Hybrid Sovereignty”, International Affairs 93 (2017), p. 875.

[12] Eastern Mediterranean Route (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[13] Mashariʻ misriyya saʻadat fi al-qadaʼ ʻala al-hijra ghayr al-sharʻiyyaمشاريع-مصرية-ساعدت-في-القضاء-على-الهجرة-غير-الشرعية (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[14] Joint statement following the EU-Egypt Association Council accessed on 20 July 2018)

Egyptian officials discuss immigration with Europe border agency FRONTEX: Egypt’s Foreign ministry (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[15] Thalath ijraʼat khallasat Misr min al-hijra ghayr al-sharʻiyyaإجراءات-خلصت-مصر-من-الهجرة-غير-الشرعية/ (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[16] Egypt Unemployment Rate  1993-2018 | (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[17] Thalath ijraʼat khallasat Misr min al-hijra ghayr al-sharʻiyyaإجراءات-خلصت-مصر-من-الهجرة-غير-الشرعية/ (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

Eric Reidy , ‘The Route is Shut’: Eritreans Trapped by Egypt’s Smuggling Crackdown (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[18] Enhancing the Response to Migration Challenges in Egypt (ERMCE)  (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

Egypt 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[19] No less than 9500 euros and no more than 24000 euros approximately.

[20] Egypt: Law No. 82 for 2016 Issuing the Law On Combating Illegal Migration & Smuggling of Migrants (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[21] The Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights said that the reason “there is no penalty for illegal immigrants in Egypt because this is prohibited internationally according to international organisations”. See:

Al-Muhajirun ghayr al-sharʻiyyin.. dahaya am junat?المهاجرون-غير-الشرعيين-ضحايا-أم-جناة

[22] Enhancing the Response to Migration Challenges in Egypt (ERMCE) (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[23] al-Hukuma tuharib al-hijra ghayr al-sharʻiyya bi-sayyara  tajub al-muhafazat (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[24] al-Hukuma tuharib al-hijra ghayr al-sharʻiyya bi-sayyara  tajub al-muhafazat (last accessed on 20 July 2018).

[25] Erica Aiazzi, Vanessa Iaria, Paola Monzini, Study on Smuggling: Case Study 1: Syria/Lebanon – Egypt – Italy. Brussels: European Commission, DG Migration & Home Affairs/ European Migration Network, 2015, p. 21.

[26] Kathafa fi muhawalat al-hijra ila urubba wa-l-shurta tuhbit ihdaha fi ʻard al-bahrالجزائر-كثافة-في-محاولات-الهجرة-إلى-أوروبا-والشرطة-تحبط-إحداها-في-عرض-البحر (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[27] Raqm qiyasi jadid: azyad min 3109 harraq jazaʼiri hawalu al-hijra ghayr al-sharʻiyya sanat 2017 (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[28]Mukafahat zahirat al-hijra ghayr al-sharʻiyya “masʼuliyyat al-jamiʻ” (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[29] L’Algérie raciste ? Une directive anti-migrants, finalement retirée, fait polémique dans le pays (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[30] Haim Malka, Destination Maghreb: Changing Migration Patterns in North Africa, Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2018,  p. 14.

[31] Algerian Penal Code

[32] Idem.

[33]  Expulsion de migrants subsahariens : « Oust of Algeria» (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[34] L’Algérie accélère les expulsions de migrants subsahariens dans le désert (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[35] Les expulsions massives de migrants par l’Algérie suscitent l’indignation accessed on 20 July 2018)

[36] Stratégie Nationale d’Immigration et d’Asileégie%20Nationale.pdf (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[37] Régularisation de migrants au Maroc: 25.600 dossiers déposés en 2017 (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[38] al-Muhajirun al-afariqa bi-l-Maghrib wa-rihlat al-ʻubur nahwa al-majhulالمهاجرون-الأفارقة-بالمغرب-ورحلة-العبور-نحو-المجهول/a-16686348 (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[39] al-dakhiliyya tuqaddim hasilat muharabat al-hijra ghayr al-sharʻiyyaالداخلية-تقدم-حصيلة-محاربة-الهجرة-غير/ (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[40] Más de 15.000 migrantes intentan llegar a Europa desde Marruecos en el primer semestre del año (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[41] Morocco’s Migration Policy Receive Acclaim of European officials (last accessed on 20 July 2018)

[42] 14 kilometres separate Morocco from Spain and few meters separate Ceuta and Melilla from the Moroccan side.

[43] Migrants in Morocco: Background (last accessed on 20 July 2018)