Better police-civilian relations can reduce irregular migration

Security sector reform should tackle causes of migration, including the popular view that governments are unresponsive and unfair.

As we approach the new decade, the focus of Europe’s decision makers remains on the foreign policy dilemma of the past 10 years: migration. Tens of millions of euros were spent on economic, social and security programmes meant to slow irregular migration to the continent.

Of these, security programmes have increasingly taken centre stage. The European Union (EU) and member states have promoted a securitised approach to migration – treating irregular migrants and migration as a national security threat. EU countries have implemented many programmes meant to build the capacity of security forces in the countries from which irregular migrants come, and those through which they transit.

This has mostly involved the disbursement of equipment, such as vehicles and surveillance arrays to Niger and Tunisia, or tactical training, such as to the Libyan Coast Guard. The aim has been to create partner security forces that are able to secure borders and prevent irregular migrants from reaching Europe.

Cross-border threats in the Sahel, notably terrorism, have grown since European interventions began

These security sector programmes have shown few unambiguous successes. Cross-border threats in the Sahel, notably those posed by terrorist groups, have grown since European interventions began. Migrant departures from Tunisia and Morocco have surged, not abated. In Libya, a rise in the coast guard’s capacity has stymied migrant departures, but sparked significant international concern around human rights abuses and criminality.

The EU and member states’ focus on building security force capacity misses the chance for security sector reform that could address the underlying factors driving migration. Structural inequality is the main one.

Structural inequality refers to the reality that across much of the world, one’s birthplace, family and class determine the nature and degree of government services one can access, and the types of interactions one has with government officials. Irregular migrants, especially from the Maghreb, routinely cite such inequality and injustice as among their reasons for migrating.

Because structural inequality is hard to understand and measure, there has been only limited effort by EU countries to address it. But until this happens, even the most well-intentioned programmes meant to build government services, risk re-enforcing the divergence in access and opportunity in a society.

Structural inequality won’t be modified by reforming the security forces alone. But because security forces are often the state representatives most seen by citizens, improving their interactions with people can hugely impact societal perceptions of government responsiveness and fairness. This could help mitigate what drives migrants to take the risk of travelling to Europe.

Reform that changes attitudes can have a more durable impact than security aid initiatives

If structural inequality is to be addressed, the reform of a nation’s security sector must focus on changing prevailing attitudes in the security forces on fundamental questions. Who are security forces tasked with protecting in a society? What are their responsibilities towards all classes of citizenry? And what role do citizens have in the policing process?

Attitude change is slow to achieve and difficult to accomplish. The sort of individual human rights training favoured by donors when designing security reform initiatives is insufficient in focus, duration and design to truly shift fundamental views. Measuring attitudinal change is also difficult. The metrics used for capacity building don’t apply – such as counting the number of trucks donated or courses delivered.

If done right though, reform aimed at changing attitudes can have a far more durable and deeper impact than security aid initiatives. The EU and its member states should tailor their security programmes to meet this objective. This will require reaching out not only to recipient governments when designing programmes, but to a wide variety of local stakeholders. This approach will provide a holistic picture of the challenges and appropriate solutions.

Donors should also be realistic about how to achieve attitudinal change within a security service. One-off training on human rights is unlikely to do much. Neither are rote classroom-based lectures that inform officers of what they should do.

The benefit of attitudinal change must be defined in terms of operational success not just human rights

Rather, attitudinal change requires ongoing programmes that engage with those components of a security force that most shape officer thinking and action, such as training academies and mid-level commanders. To build support for reform there must be an explicit focus on the benefits it offers security agents on the ground.

The usefulness of attitudinal change should be defined not only in terms of human rights, but also of operational effectiveness. Simply changing their approach to engaging with citizens, especially those who are marginalised, will help overstretched security officers do their job better. Finally, for the EU and member states, this approach may require new thinking on how to measure impact.

Rather than doubling down on policies to block migrant movement, EU countries should promote the reform of security forces to mitigate some of the factors that drive migrants to leave home in the first place.

Dr Matt Herbert, Senior Research Consultant, ISS

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Picture: Adapted from ECHO/H Burrows

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