So-called ‘illicit economies’ have existed in North Africa for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It is in this region - perhaps more than anywhere else in the world - that theline between licit and illicit trade is blurred. Many ‘transnational’ smuggling routes predate the very borders they transgress.
In recent years, the migration crisis and global preoccupation with terrorist movements operating in the region has transformed what was once seen as ‘innocent smuggling’ or ‘informal economy’ into a matter of national security. As the destination for many goods smuggled through the region, the European response has primarily focussed on hard security measures, like border fortification and increased surveillance. Yet these approaches have returned few security dividends, and in many cases may have placed borderland communities under ‘significant economic stress’. The devastating socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 for vulnerable populations in the region must force us to refocus on the structural drivers and enablers of illicit trade.
Several factors have pushed the region to the forefront of the global security agenda, not least the threat of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and affiliated groups operating in the Sahel. In recent years, however, the region has primarily been framed through the lens of the ‘migrant crisis’, marked by the exponential growth of irregular migration into Europe via the ‘Mediterranean route’. This focus on migration and violent non-state actors has drawn attention on the ‘porosity’ of borders in the region. For example, the Maghreb is central to a number of global illicit trafficking routes, transporting arms, illicit narcotics, stolen goods and trafficked human beings, primarily into Southern Europe. The three most commonly smuggled commodities in the Maghreb region are fuel, pharmaceuticals and cigarettes – with cigarettes being the most established of these trades. Routes are often mainstream commercial channels, carrying both legal and illicit goods.
Yet the fact the Sahara connects a number of global trafficking routes is far from newsworthy. This has been the case for centuries. What has changed, however, is the volume and ease with which illicit goods are transported along these routes. Time tested routes are now supplied by a globalised supply chain. Today, drug trafficking cartels in South America are connected with their counterparts in Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt faster and more efficiently than ever. In 2019, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime documented a notable displacement in cocaine trafficking from West and Central to North Africa, with the region accounting for 69% of all cocaine seized in Africa in 2016.
Several notable seizures have followed this pattern. In 2018, seven Moroccans were arrested ‘for their alleged links to a transnational criminal network involved in the international trafficking of cocaine between Morocco, Latin America and Europe’ when over one tonne of cocaine was seized near the port city of El Jadida. A record 701 kilograms of cocaineoriginating in Brazil was seized on board the Vega Mercury in the Algerian port of Oran in the same year.
As several experts have pointed out, however, narcotics and weapons are in many ways ‘a niche among a huge variety of goods smuggled in the region’. Indeed, the most relevant ‘illicit’ goods from a local perspective are consumer ones, including fuel, textiles and foodstuffs. These goods contribute to the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in the region's borderlands. In this context, the most important drivers of illicit trade in the region are structural, economic and political, not ‘porous’ borders.
In the case of commodity trafficking in particular, state subsidies create high profit margins for legitimate goods diverted to contraband markets. Domestic level inequality and the marginalisation of borderland communities also remains an important factor. As other scholars have noted, far from ungoverned spaces, these routes are regulated by dense networks of ‘informal institutions that determine the costs, quantity and types of goods that can pass through certain nodes, typically segmenting licit from illicit goods.’ The elaborate and structured architecture of the illicit market is, ironically, made more effective by weak national-level governance frameworks in the region.
It is here that the devastating economic and social impact of COVID-19 must force us to reframe the way we look at the drivers and consequences of illicit trade. At the time of writing, North Africa is the worst affected region on the continent. Egypt, Morocco and Algeria have over 3000 confirmed cases each. Projections suggest the region is expected to have at least 10 million more people living on less than $5.50 per day. It is informal workers and the poor who will be hardest hit by COVID-19.
For too long, the consequences of illicit trade in North Africa have been viewed from a purely euro-centric or global security point of view. Although some efforts have been more nuanced, much capacity building assistance continues to focus on measures such as border fortification, surveillance and anti-corruption efforts. This problem with this approach is that it overlooks the complex socio-economic drivers of illicit trade in the region. These structural factors are far from simply academic. They should draw attention to the role of illicit economies as the provider of public goods and the need to go beyond catch all terms like ‘illicit trade’.
In times of crisis, as in the Arab Springs, Libyan civil war, and now COVID-19, these illicit economies are often lifelines. We cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that ‘organised crime networks’ are also providers of essential goods and services. Hard security measures have their place, but these must be complemented by community-focussed approaches, in order to provide viable alternative livelihood opportunities. The World Bank’s ongoing Youth Employment Program in the Marrakesh-Safi region of Morocco is one such example, providing opportunities for young people of varying skill levels to access the formal economy. The EU’s Trust Fund for Africa also introduces a much needed development component to more securitised migration responses, but some have questioned if this has gone far enough.
The need to contextualise and localise the concept of ‘organised crime’ in North Africa emerged as a key discussion point in the illicit trafficking session the 2019 ISPI Mediterranean Dialogues (MED). The tragic economic and social impact of COVID-19 is an opportunity to refocus on the relationship between ‘illicit economies’ and local communities in these areas. Doing so is essential to understanding and distinguishing between different drivers and types of illicit trade in the region, whether narcotics, arms or contraband commodities.
Are trafficking routes and groups in North Africa a national and global security threat? Absolutely. But to combat them effectively, we need to consider the ‘drivers’ of illicit trade from a humansecurity perspective. In an era of COVID-19, a nuanced approach to the linkages between organised crime and resilience is more important than ever.
 More than 116,000 migrants reached Europe this way in 2018, a major decrease from the 172,000 in 2017, 360,000 in 2016, and more than 1 million in 2015. Though declining overall, migrant smugglers continue to adapt, with the Western Mediterranean route to Spain via Morocco becoming the most popular that year, registering over 57,034 arrivals in 2018.