Mahamane Ousmane is an unrepentant people smuggler. He makes no effort to deny transporting migrants “countless times” across the Sahara into Libya. When he is released from prison in Niger’s desert city of Agadez, he intends to return to the same work.
The 32-year-old is even more adamant he has done nothing wrong. “I don’t like criminals. I am no thief. I have killed no one,” he says.
As Ousmane speaks, a small circle of fellow inmates in filthy football shirts and flip-flops murmur in agreement. The prison at Agadez, where the French once stabled their horses in colonial times, now houses an increasing number of people smugglers. These “passeurs,” as they are known in French, have found themselves on the wrong side of a recent law criminalizing the movement of migrants north of Agadez.
Aji Dan Chef Halidou, the prison director who has gathered the group in his office, does his best to explain. “Driving migrants out into the Sahara is very dangerous, that’s why it is now illegal,” he interjects.
Ousmane, a member of the Tubu tribe, an ethnic group that straddles the border between Niger and Libya, is having none of it. “Nobody ever got hurt driving with me,” he insists. “You just have to drive at night because in the day the sun can kill people.”
A powerfully built man who speaks in emphatic bursts of English and Hausa, Ousmane worked in the informal gold mines of Djado in northern Niger until they were closed by the military. Then he borrowed money to buy a pickup truck and run the route from Agadez to Sebha in Libya. His confiscated truck is now sinking into the sand at the nearby military base, along with more than 100 others taken from people smugglers. Ousmane still owes nearly $9,000 on the Toyota Hilux and has a family to support. “There is no alternative so I will go back to work,” he says.
“We need to implement this law gently as many people were living off migration and they were promised compensation by Europe for leaving it behind, but this hasn’t happened yet.”
While the temperature outside in the direct sun nears 120F (50C), the air conditioner in the warden’s office declares its intention to get to 60F (16C). It will not succeed. As mosquitoes circle overhead, Halidou’s earlier enthusiasm for the law evaporates. “Agadez has always been a crossroads where people live from migration,” he says. “We need to implement this law gently as many people were living off migration and they were promised compensation by Europe for leaving it behind, but this hasn’t happened yet.”
Ali Diallo, the veteran among the inmates, blames Europe for his predicament. Originally from Senegal, he made his way across West Africa to Libya working in construction. His life there fell apart after the Western-backed ouster of the Gadhafi regime. The steady supply of work became more dangerous and his last Libyan employer shot him in the leg instead of paying him at the end of a job.
“In Senegal there are no jobs, in Mali there are no jobs, but there were jobs in Libya and that was all right,” he says. “Then the West killed Gadhafi and now they want to stop migration.” Diallo retreated two years ago to Agadez and found a job as a tout or “coxeur” matching migrants with drivers. This was what he was arrested for. He has a question: “Didn’t the Europeans think about what would happen after Gadhafi?”
Niger is prevented from being the poorest country in the world only by the depth of misery in Central African Republic. It was second from bottom in last year’s U.N. Human Development Index. Niamey, the country’s humid capital on the banks of the River Niger, has a laid-back feeling and its population only recently passed the 1 million mark.
But the city’s days as a forgotten backwater are coming to an end.
Along the Boulevard de la Republique, past the machine-gun nests that block approaches to the presidential palace, concrete harbingers of change are rising from the reddish Saharan dust. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have vast new embassy complexes under construction that will soon overshadow those of Libya and France, the two traditional rivals for influence in Niger.
As one European ambassador said, “Niger is now the southern border of Europe.”
Further north in the Plateau neighborhood, the development aid complex is spreading out, much of it funded by the European Union.
“What do all these foreigners want from our little red town?” a senior Niger government adviser asked.
In the case of the E.U. the answer is clear. Three-quarters of all African migrants arriving by boat in Italy in recent years transited Niger. As one European ambassador said, “Niger is now the southern border of Europe.”
Federica Mogherini, the closest the 28-member E.U. has to a foreign minister, chose Niger for her first trip to Africa in 2015. The visit was seen as a reward for the Niger government’s passage of Law 36 in May that year that effectively made it illegal for foreign nationals to travel north of Agadez.
“We share an interest in managing migration in the best possible way, for both Europe and Africa,” Mogherini said at the time.
Since then, she has referred to Niger as the “model” for how other transit countries should manage migration and the best performer of the five African nations who signed up to the E.U. Partnership Framework on Migration – the plan that made development aid conditional on cooperation in migration control. Niger is “an initial success story that we now want to replicate at regional level,” she said in a recent speech.
Angela Merkel became the first German chancellor to visit the country in October 2016. Her trip followed a wave of arrests under Law 36 in the Agadez region. Merkel promised money and “opportunities” for those who had previously made their living out of migration.
One of the main recipients of E.U. funding is the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which now occupies most of one street in Plateau. In a little over two years the IOM headcount has gone from 22 to more than 300 staff.
Giuseppe Loprete, the head of mission, says the crackdown in northern Niger is about more than Europe closing the door on African migrants. The new law was needed as networks connecting drug smuggling and militant groups were threatening the country, and the conditions in which migrants were forced to travel were criminal.
Loprete echoes Mogherini in saying that stopping “irregular migration” is about saving lives in the desert. The IOM has hired community officers to warn migrants of the dangers they face farther north.
“Libya is hell and people who go there healthy lose their minds,” Loprete says.
A side effect of the crackdown has been a sharp increase in business for IOM, whose main activity is a voluntary returns program. Some 7,000 African migrants were sent home from Niger last year, up from 1,400 in 2014. More than 2,000 returns in the first three months of 2018 suggest another record year.
Loprete says European politicians must see that more legal routes are the only answer to containing irregular migration, but he concludes, “Europe is not asking for the moon, just for managed migration.”
The person who does most of the asking is Raul Mateus Paula, the E.U.’s top diplomat in Niamey. This relatively unheralded country that connects West and North Africa is now the biggest per capita recipient of E.U. aid in the world. The European Development Fund awarded $731 million to Niger for the period 2014–20. A subsequent review boosted this by a further $108 million. Among the experiments this money bankrolls are the connection of remote border posts – where there was previously no electricity – to the internet under the German aid corporation, GIZ; a massive expansion of judges to hear smuggling and trafficking cases; and hundreds of flatbed trucks, off-road vehicles, motorcycles and satellite phones for Nigerien security forces.
This relatively unheralded country that connects West and North Africa is now the biggest per capita recipient of E.U. aid in the world.
Normally, when foreign aid is directed to countries with endemic corruption – Transparency International ranks Niger 112th out of 180 countries worldwide – it is channeled through nongovernmental organizations. Until 2014 the E.U. gave only one-third of its aid to Niger in direct budget support; in this cycle, 75 percent of its aid goes straight into government coffers. Paula calls the E.U. Niger’s “number one partner” and sees no divergence in their interests on security, development or migration.
But not everyone agrees that European and Nigerien interests align. Julien Brachet, an expert on the Sahel and Sahara, argues that the desire to stop Europe-bound migration as far upstream as possible has made Niger, and particularly Agadez, the “perfect target” for E.U. migration policies. These policies, he argues, have taken decades-old informal migration routes and made them clandestine and more dangerous. A fellow at the French National Research Institute for Development, Brachet accuses the E.U. of “manufacturing smugglers” with the policies it has drafted to control them.
Niger, which has the fastest-growing population in the world, is a fragile setting for grand policy experiments. Since independence from France in 1960 it has witnessed four coups, the last of which was in 2010. The regular overthrow of governments has seen political parties proliferate, while the same cast of politicians remains. The current president, Mahamadou Issoufou, has run in every presidential election since 1993. His latest vehicle, the Party for Democracy and Socialism, is one of more than 50 active parties. The group’s headquarters stands out from the landscape in Niamey thanks to giant streamers, in the party’s signature pink, draped over the building.
The biggest office in the pink house belongs to Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s interior minister and its rising political star. When European diplomats mention who they deal with in the Nigerien government, his name is invariably heard.
“We are in a moment with a lot of international attention,” Bazoum says. “We took measures to control migration and this has been appreciated especially by our European partners.”
Since the crackdown, the number of migrants passing checkpoints between Niamey and Agadez has dropped from 350 per day, he claims, to 160 a week.
“We took away many people’s livelihoods,” he says, “but we have to say that the economy was linked to banditry and connected to other criminal activities.”
“Since independence, we never had a government that served so many foreign interests,”
E.U. officials say privately that Bazoum has taken to issuing shopping lists, running to helicopters and vehicles, of goods he expects in return for continued cooperation.
By contrast, the World Food Programme, which supports the roughly one in ten of Niger’s population who face borderline malnutrition, has received only 34 percent of the funding it needs for 2018.
At least three E.U. states – France, Italy and Germany – have troops on the ground in Niger. Their roles range from military advisers to medics and trainers. French forces and drone bases are present as part of the overlapping Barkhane and G5 Sahel counterinsurgency operations which includes forces from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania. The U.S., meanwhile, has both troops and drone bases for its own regional fight against Islamic militants, the latest of which is being built outside Agadez at a cost of more than $100 million.
“Since independence, we never had a government that served so many foreign interests,” says Hamadou Tcherno Boulama, a civil society activist. His organization, Alternative Espaces Citoyens, often has an armed police presence outside its gates these days to prevent people gathering. Four of Niger’s main civil society leaders were jailed in late March after 35,000 people took to the streets in Niamey in the biggest demonstrations Niger has seen in a decade. Much of the public anger is directed against this year’s budget, which hiked taxes on staples such as rice and sugar.
Foreign aid accounts for 45 percent of Niger’s budget, so the austerity budget at a time of peak foreign interest has stoked local anger.
Boulama calls Bazoum “the minister of repression” and says Issoufou has grown fond of foreign travel and spends so little time in Niger that his nickname is “Rimbo” – Niger’s best-known international bus company.
“Issoufou uses international support related to migration and security issues to fortify his power,” Boulama says.
The E.U. and the International Monetary Fund have praised the government for this year’s budget, saying it will ease dependence on donors. The most that European diplomats will concede is that the Nigerien government is “bloated” with 43 ministers, each with an expensive retinue.
European leaders’ “focus on migration is 100 percent,” says Kirsi Henriksson, the outgoing head of EUCAP Sahel, one of those E.U. agencies that few Europeans have ever heard of. When it was conceived, its brief was to deliver a coordinated strategy to meet the jihadi threat in Mali, but its mandate changed recently to prioritize migration. Since then its international staff has trebled.
Henriksson, whose term ended in April, compares the security and development push to a train where everything must move at the same speed: “If the carriages become too far apart the train will crash,” she says.
As one of the few Europeans to have visited the border area between Libya and Niger, she is concerned that some European politicians have unrealistic expectations of what is achievable. The border post at Tummo is loosely controlled by ethnic Tubu militia from southern Libya and no Nigerien forces are present.
“Ungoverned spaces” confuse some E.U. leaders, she says, who want to know how much it will cost to bring the border under control. These kinds of questions ignore both the conditions and scale of the Sahara. On the wall of Henriksson’s office is a large map of the region. It shows the emerald green of West Africa, veined with the blue of its great rivers, fading slowly to pale yellow as you look north. If you drew a line along the map where the Saharan yellow displaces all other colors, it would run right through Agadez. North of that line is a sea of sand nearly four times the size of the Mediterranean.
Bashir Amma’s retirement from the smuggling business made him an Agadez celebrity after he plowed his past earnings into a local soccer team, where he makes a show of recruiting migrant players. Bashir once ran a ghetto, the connection houses where migrants would wait until a suitable ride north could be found. These days a handful of relatives are the only occupants of a warren of rooms leading off a courtyard amid the adobe walls of the old town.
He is the president of the only officially recognized association of ex-passeurs and has become the poster boy for the E.U.-funded effort to convert smugglers into legitimate business people. The scheme centers on giving away goods such as cheap motorcycles, refrigerators or livestock up to a value of $2,700 to an approved list of people who are judged to have quit the migration business.
Bashir is accustomed to European questioners and holds court on a red, black and gold sofa in a parlor decorated with framed verses from the Quran, plastic flowers and a clutch of E.U. lanyards hanging from a fuse box. Flanked by the crutches he has used to get around since a botched injection as a child left him with atrophied legs, he says his conscience led him to give up smuggling. But the more he talks, the more his disenchantment with his conversion seeps out.
Some of his colleagues have kept up their trade but are now plying different, more dangerous routes to avoid detection. “The law has turned the desert into a cemetery, for African passengers and for drivers as well,” Bashir says.
You either have to be foolhardy or rich to keep working, Bashir says, because the cost of bribing the police has increased since Law 36 was implemented. As he talks, the two phones on the table in front of him vibrate constantly. His public profile means everyone is looking to him to help them get European money.
“I’m the president but I don’t know what to tell them. Some are even accusing me of stealing the money for myself,” he says.
His anxious monologue is interrupted by the appearance of man in a brilliant white suit and sandals at the doorway. Bashir introduces him as “one of the most important passeurs in Agadez.”
The visitor dismisses the E.U. compensation scheme as “foolish” and “pocket money,” saying he earns more money in a weekend. The police are trying to stop the smugglers, he says, but they do not patrol more than 10 miles (15km) outside the city limits. When asked about army patrols north of Agadez, he replies, “the desert is a big place.”
After he leaves, Bashir hints darkly at continuing corruption in the security forces, saying some smugglers are freer to operate than others. The old way was effectively taxed through an open system of payments at checkpoints; it is unrealistic to expect this to disappear because of a change in the law.
“We know that the E.U. has given big money to the government of Niger, we’re seeing plenty of projects opening here,” he says. “But still, one year after the conversion program launched, we’re waiting to receive the money promised.”
But his biggest frustration is reserved for the slow pace of compensation efforts. “We know that the E.U. has given big money to the government of Niger, we’re seeing plenty of projects opening here,” he says. “But still, one year after the conversion program launched, we’re waiting to receive the money promised.”
Even the lucky few who make it onto the list for the Action Plan for Rapid Economic Impact in Agadez (PAIERA) are not getting what they really need, which is jobs, he says. The kits are goods to support a small business idea, not a promise of longer-term employment.
“National authorities don’t give a damn about us,” he says. “We asked them to free our jailed colleagues, to give us back the seized vehicles, but nothing came.”
There is a growing anti-E.U. sentiment in Agadez, Bashir warns, and the people are getting tired. “Almost every week planes land with leaders from Niamey or Europe. They come and they bring nothing,” he says.
Agadez is not a stranger to rebellions. The scheme to convert smugglers is run by the same government department tasked with patching up the wreckage left by the Tuareg rebellion, the latest surge of northern resentment at perceived southern neglect that ended in 2009. The scheme sought to compensate ex-combatants and to reduce tensions amid the mass return of pro-Gadhafi fighters and migrant workers that followed from Libya, in 2011 and 2012. Many of them were ethnic Tubu and Tuareg who brought vehicles and desert know-how with them.
The offices of the High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace in the capital have the air of a place where there has not been much to do lately. Two men doze on couches in the entrance hall. Inside, Jacques Herve is at his desk, the picture of a well-ironed French bureaucrat. He bristles at the accusation that the PAIERA program has failed.
“The media has often been negative about the conversion program, but they have not always had the right information,” he says. Herve is one of the legion of French functionaries rumored to be seconded to every nook of Niger’s government, and is well-versed in the complaints common in Agadez.
“During the preparatory phase, people did not see anything, so they were frustrated, but now they are starting to see concrete progress,” he says.
Herve says 108 small business kits have been given out while another 186 were due to be handed over. When a small number of four-person projects are added in, the total number of people who have been helped is 371. The pilot for the conversion scheme that Bashir and others are waiting on is worth just $800,000.
If the program was rolled out to all 5,118 ex-smugglers on the long list, it would cost $13 million in funding over the next three years, according to a letter sent to the E.U. Delegation in Niamey. There are other E.U.-funded cash-for-jobs schemes worth another $7 million in Agadez, but these are not related to the former passeur.
This leaves an apparent mismatch in funding between security, in effect enforcement, and development spending, or compensation. The E.U. Trust Fund for Africa, which European leaders have earmarked to address the “root causes” of migration, has allocated $272 million in Niger.
Money, Herve acknowledges, is not the problem. He says the principle has been to “do no harm” and avoid channeling funds to organized smuggling kingpins. He also says the task of compiling a roll call of all the workers in an informal economy in a region larger than France had been enormous. “The final list may not be perfect but at least it exists,” he says.
There is no precedent for demolishing an informal economy in one of the world’s poorest countries and replacing it with a formal model.
Herve’s struggles are part of the E.U.’s wider problem. The bloc has pushed for the mainstay of northern Niger’s economy to be criminalized but it remains wary of compensating the individuals and groups it has helped to brand as criminals. There is no precedent for demolishing an informal economy in one of the world’s poorest countries and replacing it with a formal model. Some 60 percent of Niger’s GDP comes from the informal sector, according to the World Bank.
As a senior government adviser put it, “When you slap a child you cannot ask it not to cry.”
According to an E.U. official who followed the program, “the law was imposed in a brutal way, without any prior consultation, in a process where the government of Niger was heavily pressured by the E.U., France and Germany, with a minimal consideration of the fact Nigerien security forces are involved in this traffic.”
An internal E.U. six-month progress report from February 2018, seen by Refugees Deeply, praised national authorities for the cautious rollout of the pilot phase. But it also detected “the political necessity for local institutions to act fast and massively to address needs of all the actors of the migration economy.”
Sitting at a desk weighed down with pink folders full of funding applications and compensation claims, Rhissa Feltou, the mayor of Agadez, complains that his city and region has “become a laboratory for Europe’s migration policies.”
The E.U.’s experiments are baffling to many of their intended subjects. Even the ex-drivers, touts and ghetto owners willing to embrace the European offer of economic alternatives have found themselves required to learn the jargon of E.U. funding applications.
Rhissa Feltou, the mayor of Agadez, complains that his city and region has “become a laboratory for Europe’s migration policies.”
In the backyard of Mahamane Awal’s house on the outskirts of Agadez, about 20 men sit cross-legged on mats in the space between a mud wall and some bad-tempered goats. The gathering is the light version of the biggest association of ex-smugglers. Unlike Bashir’s group it has not been recognized by regional authorities despite representing 237 people. The group, which calls itself ARAEM, has grown so large that when they hold a full meeting, Awal says, they gather at a disused ghetto.
“None of us here received any funding from PAIERA,” says Awal, who was a Saharan driver until a year ago and is now the secretary of ARAEM. “We knocked on all the doors to try to get some funds but nothing happened.” Only 50 of their members made the long list for PAIERA and none was selected for the pilot.
In exasperation, Awal called Alkassoum Mbayeira, a retired accountant who had worked with NGOs. Most of ARAEM’s members have little or no schooling and cannot read and write in French. Some do not speak Hausa, the dominant language, so the meeting switches between Hausa, French and Tamashek, the Tuareg language. Several of the men sitting on the floor are “exodants” – a French word used locally to denote economic migrants who fled poverty and conflict in northern Niger to work in Libya or Algeria.
The group listens as Awal presents the latest draft of an eight-page plan featuring carpentry, restoration, tailoring and sheep-farming ideas. Making it a reality would cost $160,000, they estimate.
“Some of us have been jailed, some vehicles are lying uselessly under the sun in the military base, but the reality is that we don’t know any other job than this.”
All those present listen and pledge to respect the new law but they are not happy. The oldest man in the group, a Tuareg with a calm and deep voice, speaks up, “Some of us have been jailed, some vehicles are lying uselessly under the sun in the military base, but the reality is that we don’t know any other job than this,” he says.
Then his tone turns bitter, “I feel like we have been rejected and the option to move to Libya, like we did in the past, is not there anymore.” Before he can finish, one of the frequent Agadez power cuts strikes, leaving everyone sitting in darkness.
Alessandra Morelli uses the fingers of her right hand to list the emergencies engulfing Niger. The country representative of the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) starts with her little finger to represent the 240,000 people displaced by the Boko Haram crisis in Niger’s southeast. Next is the Malian refugee crisis in the regions of Tillabery and Tahoua, a strip of land that stretches northeast of the capital, along the border with Mali, where 65,000 people have fled conflict into Niger. Her middle finger is the situation along the border with Algeria where migrants from all over West Africa are being pushed back or deported, often violently, into Niger. Her index finger stands for the thousands of refugees and migrants who have retreated back into Niger across the border from Libya. And her thumb represents the refugees the U.N. has evacuated from Libya’s capital Tripoli under a tenuous plan to process them in Niger ahead of resettlement to Europe.
“I can no more tell you which is more important than I can choose a finger I don’t need,” says Morelli, the survivor of a roadside bombing in Somalia.
Her depiction of a country beset by emergencies is at odds with the E.U. officials who talk of security and development benefits for Niger from its burgeoning international partnerships. UNHCR opened its office in Niger in 2012 and had been attempting to identify refugees and asylum cases among the much larger northward flow of economic migrants. The agency already has tens of thousands of refugees scattered across camps in the region, where many have already been in the queue for resettlement to the rich world for more than 15 years.
Her depiction of a country beset by emergencies is at odds with the E.U. officials who talk of security and development benefits for Niger from its burgeoning international partnerships.
A delicate negotiation with the government of Niger – which is aware that European money and plaudits flow from stopping migrants, not identifying more refugees – led to a fledgling project in Agadez, which in partnership with IOM was meant to identify a small number of test cases.
But the concentration of international resources in Agadez can also have unintended side effects and the UNHCR guest houses were overwhelmed soon after they opened their doors.
In December a trickle of young Sudanese men started to appear at the IOM transit center. When they made it clear they did not want passage home to Darfur, they were moved into the guest houses as soon as these opened in January. Hundreds more Sudanese quickly followed, the majority of them from Darfur but some from as far away as South Sudan. Most of them had spent half a lifetime in camps in Sudan or Chad and brought with them stories of hardship, abuse and torture in Libya, where they said they had either worked or been seeking passage to Europe.
By February the first of the men’s families started to arrive, some from Libya and others from camps in neighboring Chad or from Darfur itself. By the time the number of Sudanese passed 500, UNHCR and its partner – an Italian NGO, COOPI – saw their funds exhausted. The influx continued.
By early March more than 1,500 Sudanese had gathered in Agadez, many camped in front of the government’s office for refugees. The government of Niger wanted to expel them, said an E.U. security adviser. They were suspicious of possible links with Darfuri rebel groups who have been active in southern Libya. “They gave them a 10-day deadline to leave then revoked it only after a delicate negotiation,” the security adviser said.
Rumors that the Sudanese were demobilized fighters from the Justice and Equality Movement and Sudan Liberation Army-Minni Minawi spread in Agadez. In the comment section of local media outlet Air Info, anger has been rising. “Agadez is not a dumping ground,” wrote one person, while another said, “we’re tired of being Europe’s dustbin.”
Still only 21 years old, Yacob Ali is also tired. He has been on the run since he was 8 years old, first escaping the bombs of Sudanese government forces in al-Fasher, northern Darfur. He remembers battling for a tent in Zam Zam, one of the world’s biggest camps for displaced people. The eldest of six children, he left for Libya at 20, hoping to find a job. After being abused and exploited on a farm outside Murzuq, an oasis town in southern Libya, he decided “to cross the sea.”
Agadez is not a dumping ground,” wrote one person, while another said, “we’re tired of being Europe’s dustbin.
Once again there was no escape and “after hours on a dinghy,” Ali says, “a Libyan vessel with plainclothes armed men forced us back.”
For the next five months he was trapped in a warehouse in Tripoli, where he and hundreds of others were sold into forced labor. Eventually he managed to free himself and was told that Agadez “was a safe place.”
Any hopes Ali or other Sudanese may have harbored that Agadez with its presence of international agencies might offer a swifter and safer route to resettlement are vanishing.
“For refugees who are stuck in Libya, coming to Niger is the only way to safety and protection,” Morelli says, “but it’s difficult to offer them a real solution.”
Fears that the Sudanese may be deported en masse intensified in early May, when 132 of them were arrested and removed from the city by Nigerien authorities. They were transported to Madama, a remote military outpost in the northern desert, before being forcibly pushed over the border into Libya.
The accusation that Niger has become a dumping ground for unwanted Africans has become harder for the government to dismiss over the past six months as its neighbor Algeria has stepped up a campaign of pushbacks and deportations along the desert border. Arbitrary arrests and deportations of West Africans working without documents have long been a feature of Algeria’s economy, but the scale of current operations has surprised observers.
Omar Sanou’s time in Algeria ended abruptly. The Gambian, who worked in construction as a day laborer, was stopped on the street one evening by police. When he asked for the chance to go to his digs and collect his things he was told by officers he was just going to a registration center and would be released later. Another policeman told him he was African, so had “no right to make money out of Algeria.”
That is when he knew for sure he would be deported.
Without ever seeing a court or a lawyer, Sanou found himself with dozens of other migrants on a police bus driving east from the Algerian city of Tamanrasset. The men had been stripped of their belongings, food and water.
The bus stopped in a place in the desert with no signs and they were told the nearest shelter was 15 miles (25km) away. Although several of the men in his group died on the ensuing march, Sanou was lucky. Other groups have been left more than 30 miles from the border. Some men talk of drinking their own urine to survive, and reports of beatings and gunshot wounds are common. As many as 600 migrants have arrived in a single day at Assamaka border post, the only outpost of the Nigerien state in the vast Tamesna desert, where IOM recently opened an office. Survivors such as Sanou have found themselves at the IOM transit center in Agadez where there is food, shelter, healthcare and psychological support for those willing to abandon the road north and go home.
After nearly five years, Sanou now faces returning home to Gambia empty-handed. The money he earned during the early years of his odyssey was given to his little brother more than a year ago to pay his way north from Agadez. Now 35 and looking older than his age, he admits to feeling humiliated but refuses to despair. “A man’s downfall is not his end,” he says.
After nearly five years, Sanou faces returning home to Gambia empty-handed. Now 35 and looking older than his age, he admits to feeling humiliated but refuses to despair. “A man’s downfall is not his end.”
Algeria’s brutal campaign has hardly drawn comment from the E.U., and a Nigerien diplomat said U.S. and European anti-migrant rhetoric is being parroted by Algerian officials. At a recent gathering of Algerian military commanders, discussions centered on the need to “build a wall.”
The perception among senior figures in the Niger government that they have allowed themselves to become a soft touch for unwanted refugees and migrants has created acute tension elsewhere.
In March a small-scale effort to evacuate the most vulnerable refugees from Tripoli to Niamey before processing them for resettlement in Europe was suspended. The deal with UNHCR hinged on departures for Europe matching arrivals from Libya. When only 25 refugees were taken in by France, the government of Niger pulled the plug. It has been partially reactivated but refugee arrivals at 913 far outweigh departures for the E.U. at 107. Some reluctant E.U. governments have sent asylum teams to Niamey that are larger in number than the refugees they are prepared to resettle. Meanwhile, people who have suffered horrifically in Libya are left in limbo. They include a Somali mother now in Niamey whose legs are covered in the cigarette burns she withstood daily in Libya at the hands of torturers who said they would start on her two-year-old daughter if she could not take the pain.
The knock-on effects of the experiments in closing Niger as a migration corridor are not felt only by foreigners. Next to the rubbish dump in Agadez, a few hundred yards from the airstrip, is a no-man’s land where the city’s landless poor are allowed to pitch lean-to shelters. This is where Fatima al-Husseini, a gaunt 60-year-old, lives with her toddler granddaughter Malika. Her son Soumana Abdullahi was a fledgling passeur who took the job after failing to find any other work.
What had always been a risky job has become potentially more deadly as police and army patrols have forced smugglers off the old roads where there are wells and into the deep desert. Abdullahi’s friends and fellow drivers cannot be sure what happened to him but his car got separated from a three-vehicle convoy on a night drive and appears to have broken down. It took them hours to find the vehicle and its human cargo but Abdullahi had struck out for help into the desert and disappeared.
His newly widowed wife had to return to her family and could support only two of their three children, so Malika came to live with al-Husseini. Tears look incongruous on her tough and weatherworn face but she cries as she remembers that the family had been close to buying a small house before her son died.
All that remains of Mamadou Makka is his phone. The only traces on the scratched handset of the optimistic and determined young Guinean are a few songs he liked and some contacts. It is Ousman Ba’s most treasured possession. “I have been hungry and refused to sell it,” he says, sitting on the mud floor of a smuggler’s ghetto outside Agadez.
Makka and Ba became friends on the road north to the Sahara; they had never met in Conakry, the capital of their native Guinea. The younger man told Ba about his repeated attempts to get a visa to study in France. Makka raised and lost thousands of dollars through intermediaries in various scams before being forced to accept that getting to Europe legally was a dead end. Only then did he set out overland.
“It was not his fate to study at a university in France, it was his fate to die in the desert,” says Ba, who was with him when, on the last day of 2017, he died, aged 22.
“It was not his fate to study at a university in France, it was his fate to die in the desert”
The pair were among some 80 migrants on the back of a trio of vehicles roughly two days’ drive north of Agadez. The drivers became convinced they had been spotted by an army patrol and everything began to go wrong. Since the 2016 crackdown the routes have changed and distances doubled, according to active smugglers. Drivers have also begun to take amounts of up to $5,000 to pay off security patrols, but whether this works depends on who intercepts them. Some drivers have lost their vehicles and cash and been arrested. News that drivers are carrying cash has drawn bandits, some from as far afield as Chad. Faced with this gauntlet, some drivers unload their passengers and try to outrun the military.
In Makka and Ba’s case, they were told to climb down. With very little food or water, the group did not even know in which direction to walk. “In that desert, there are no trees. No houses, no water … just mountains of sand,” Ba says.
It took four days before an army patrol found them. In that time, six of the group died. There was no way to bury Makka, so he was covered with sand. Ba speaks with shame about the selfishness that comes with entering survival mode. “Not even your mother would give you her food and water,” he says.
When they were finally picked up by the Nigerien army, one of the officers demanded to know of Ba why he had put himself in such an appalling situation and said he could not understand why he hadn’t gotten a visa.
Half dead from heat stroke and dehydration, Ba answered him, “It is your fault that this happened. Because if you weren’t here, the driver would never abandon us.”
Four months on and Ba has refused the offer from IOM of an E.U.-funded plane ticket home. He is back in the ghetto playing checkers on a homemade board and waiting to try again. He used Makka’s phone to speak to the young man’s father in Conakry, who begged him to turn back. Ba told him, “Your son had a goal and I am still following that goal. Either I will reach it or I will die. God will decide.”