Since independence, North African governments have struggled to effectively manage and secure their borders. Fragile borders have long been seen as a contributing factor to the weakness of states, exacerbating social ills such as smuggling, poverty, violence, and unstable governments.
Over the last decade, Maghreb countries have seen an increase in cross-border trafficking which has led to a flourishing informal economy that has negatively impacted already inefficient and poorly functioning governments. Porous frontiers have also led to inter-regional bickering between Maghrebi countries, which have contributed to inconsistencies and uncoordinated responses to national security threats in the region. Further adding to the region’s border issues, North Africa is the primary migration route and thoroughfare for human traffickers moving migrants from Africa to Europe. The recent, steep rise in migration to Europe has intensified pressure from the EU on Maghrebi countries to pursue more aggressive border policies.
To address these various issues, Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia are engaging in more confrontational border security strategies. In an article for Sada based on interviews with over 400 individuals from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, Max Gallien and Matt Herbert argue that the new border policies in North Africa are inefficient and ineffective. The authors explain in detail why the region’s recent security efforts raise the risk of instability, undermine security, and weaken diplomatic ties.
These new systems of border management have put frontier communities under significant economic stress. Tunisia’s and Algeria’s walls have choked local small-scale smuggling networks, pushing local communities into poverty, protest, and crime. They have also given security forces new room to abuse power, as seen by the noticeable rise in the number of smugglers wounded and killed on the Tunisia–Libya border.* The Tunisian border town of Ben Guerdane saw large-scale protests and strikes in 2016 and 2017, and an ongoing sit-in has blocked the Ras Ajdir border crossing in protest against Libya’s anti-smuggling policies. Across the border in Algeria, one community member bemoaned that “people are growing impoverished, and it is only the drug traffickers who still make money.”
The more aggressive border policies do little to counter terrorist challenges. Governments, in the Maghreb and internationally, frequently stress the links between smugglers and terrorists. This linkage has provided justification to crack down on smugglers who operated unmolested in previous generations. There are some connections between specific smugglers and terrorist organizations, motivated by the smugglers’ financial interests or extortion by terrorists. However, such connections are relatively rare. For most smugglers, association with terrorists raises their own risks of operation. Security forces that would normally turn a blind eye to contraband movement are far more likely to respond with force if there is any implication of a terrorist–smuggler nexus. “For a lot of people,” explained one Tunisian security official, “smuggling is a livelihood, and they wouldn’t risk that by getting involved with terrorists.”