Putin has triggered a migrant war on Europe

Russian mercenaries in northern Mali
Russian mercenaries in northern Mali

Just as the world’s collective attention has pivoted from the battlefields of southern Ukraine to Israel and Gaza, global events far from our immediate concern are once again threatening to throw European security into chaos.

Summer in the landlocked and largely arid country of Niger saw the overthrow of the recognised government of president Mohamed Bazoum – a key Western ally in the fight against the Islamist militants destabilising Africa’s vast Sahel region.

Their violence had led to multiple military coups and political unrest across the Sahel, leading to large movements of people towards Europe. People smuggling gangs wasted no time in exploiting this chaos. Whether run by thugs, terrorist organisations or petty criminals, these gangs have taken advantage of the lack of security and stability to exploit desperate people. This mass exodus has simultaneously allowed criminals, whether opportune or organised, and religious extremists to make their way north by mingling in with civilians.

Prior to July’s coup, ousted president Bazoum enforced legislation criminalising the people smugglers with lengthy prison sentences. Four months later, and the Russian-leaning illegitimate military rulers have overturned the eight year old law, giving people smugglers impunity to continue plying their destructive trade.

The Russian Wagner PMC group – rightly proscribed as a terrorist organisation in the UK – has been busy in the Sahel, courting Niger’s immediate neighbour Mal in the aftermath of its 2021 coup. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the regime in Niamey is now undoing legislation aimed at assisting European security interests, diverting European attention away from Moscow’s continued criminal activity in Ukraine and elsewhere. Putin is now in effect weaponising migrants to help create chaos across southern and western Europe, following an established Kremling playbook of fermenting unrest to split Western tension.

This will undoubtedly result in further waves of migrants on Europe’s shores – both vulnerable and genuine asylum seekers, and those who come to Europe with more malign intentions and extremist ideologies.

If Brussels is at all serious about becoming a security actor, then the European Union must begin reinforcing its ailing border force structures, and double-down on interdicting what will almost certainly be a much higher number of migrants arriving from north Africa next year. And it must not be distracted, again, by ever-changing global events.

Robert Clark is Director of the Defence and Security Unit at Civitas

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