Niger: Curtailing migration has unintended consequences

Virginia Comolli
By Virginia Comolli

Senior Fellow for Conflict, Security and Development, The International Institute for Strategic Studies

Posted on Friday, 1 November 2019 10:03

Migrant Bouso Mammadou, 24, from Nigeria poses for a portrait at an immigration transit centre in the desert town of Agadez, Niger. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

Niger is at the receiving end of multiple security challenges coming from all fronts, particularly from conflict in Libya, Mali and Nigeria spreading into Nigerien territory.

As a result, in addition to contending with internal fragility – Niger sits at the bottom of the UN human development index and features weak institutions and semi-authoritarian governance – , Niger has increasingly found itself at the forefront of the jihadi threat in the Sahel and has become home to French and American military bases supporting regional counter-terrorism efforts.

In recent years, however, Niger’s role as a close ally for European and other Westerns countries has expanded into efforts to curb illegal migration.

With the intensification of the migration crisis in the mid-2010s and owing to its geographic position, Niger became a key transit country for Sub-Saharan Africans trying to reach North Africa and then attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe.

The trend itself is not new.

Niger has long been both a transit and starting point for circular migration to Maghreb countries and within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region.

In fact, smuggling routes across Niger had been used for centuries and smuggling is deeply embedded in the local political economy.

  • For instance, the business of transporting migrants had become an accepted economic activity for former Tuareg rebels-turned-smugglers in the north of the country.

The delays and failure to integrate the Tuareg within the armed forces following peace agreements with the government in the 1990s and 2000s had resulted in the government encouraging the Tuareg to use their vehicles and knowledge of the terrain to facilitate the movement of people.

Notwithstanding these long-established practices, more recent migratory fluxes have reached unprecedented levels.

  • At the height of the migration crisis (around 2015) the volume of migrant transit revolutionised the Nigerien city of Agadez, now synonym with migration hub, whose economy became almost exclusively reliant on smuggling proceeds and employed thousands of people.

Tellingly, a 2016 study by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimated that the transit of migrants had injected €100m in the local economy.

In response to these regional challenges and to the large stream of migrants attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean and which has so severely emboldened right-wing populist anti-migration parties across Europe, the EU has spent approximately €338m on training border forces in Niger, migration-related efforts in Libya, and joint tasks forces with the African Union and the United Nations since 2014.

This investment is part of a total €1bn worth of EU development cooperation assistance for Niger for the 2014-2020 period.

Despite the reduction in the number of migrants, a closer look on the ground reveals some serious shortcomings.

Unintended consequences

EU-sponsored initiatives to stem the flow of illegal migrants and target traffickers – including the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa of which Niger is a main beneficiary – and the implementation of the 2015 Law Against Illicit Smuggling of Migrants in 2016, begun disrupting smuggling networks.

  • As of 2019, less than 10,000 migrants transit through Niger each year.

This represents a sharp decrease from the 150,000 recorded in 2017, as proudly reported by President Mahamadou Issoufoui in May.

As a result, Europeans perceive the Nigerien government as a reliable partner.

Yet, opinions on the ground differ.

The president is accused of favouring EU, rather than Nigerien, interests in pursuing his migration agenda. Specifically, local citizens as well as a number of analysts see Issoufou’s effort to regulate migration as a way of securing EU financial support to develop the national economy and consolidate his power base at the expense of the local economy.

This approach has produced a number of side effects.

1) More unemployment

First, by mid-2016 many of those involved in smuggling networks, either directly or indirectly, became unemployed.

In other words, legitimate anti-smuggling operations and legislation criminalising the transport of people without official documents (effectively receding the right to freedom of movement enjoyed by ECOWAS nationals and angering former Tuareg rebels who had openly been involved in transporting migrants) produced the unintended consequence of leaving thousands of local Nigeriens in dire economic conditions and forcing them, especially the men, to leave Agadez to seek employment elsewhere.

Many women had worked as cooks in migrants ghettos and, as a result, had achieved a certain degree of financial independence.

The clampdown on migration remove their source of income and only small number of them had access to vocational training and other projects to boost their chances of achieving self-subsistence.

Similarly, critics, including the mayor of Agadez, argue that only a small proportion of those who have abandon the business of smuggling has received compensation under the European Commission’s Action Plan for Rapid Economic Impact in Agadez (PAIERA) to set up new businesses.

2) Increased banditry

A second by-product is the increase in banditry facilitated by the abundance of former smugglers, vehicles (previously used to smuggle migrants) and the availability of weapons.

Nigerien intelligence sources have also reported a rise in criminal activities such as robbery and drug trafficking. Additionally, a number of those arrested in the earlier days on anti-smuggling efforts have by now served their sentences and are back on the ground seeking jobs. In the absence of legal employment there is the risk they will turn to criminality or, as some evidence already indicates, join militias in southern Libya.

3) Rising xenophobia

Third, there have been reports of growing tensions between locals and West African migrants who seek permanent jobs in Agadez but who might be mistaken for illegal migrants trying to raise funds to be smuggled to Europe.

Interacting with potential transit migrants carries the risk of being arrested (as a result of the 2015 legislation) hence locals have become suspicious of foreigners.

4) More dangerous routes

Forth, smuggling routes have not completely disappeared: they have been diverted outside well-known and safer routes through Agadez and are now reliant on unmarked ones through the Sahara or through unstable Mali, arguably increasing the risks for the migrants.

It can also be argued that given the much less permissive environment towards migration, those who nevertheless continue to be involved in smuggling are likely to be hardened and unscrupulous criminals less likely to be dissuaded by new law enforcement measures.

The IOM has already launched rescue missions in Northern Niger, across the Sahara Desert, and is considering the use of drones.

Other organisations such as Doctors Without Borders are considering similar operations given the seriousness of the problem and the increased danger to which migrants are exposed along new routes.

Between, April 2016 and June 2019 the IOM rescued approximately 20,000 migrants from the desert in Niger.

These routes are so deadly that, at present, for each migrant dying crossing the Mediterranean Sea, two perish in the Sahara Desert (approximately 30,000 since 2014).

Reverse flows

The latest trend is reverse migration North-South which was first observed in early 2018.

This comes in three forms.

Firstly, increased EU anti-illegal migration operations off North Africa’s coast and deteriorating security in Libya are producing a reverse flow from Libya to Niger.

In 2019 there is the risk that further destabilisation in Tripoli would prompt thousands of the estimated 700,000-1 million migrants currently in Libya to seek refuge in Niger, according to IOM.

With the EU suspending rescue patrols in the Mediterranean and the responsibility for such operations therefore falling on Libyan coastguards, the prospect of being locked in one of Libya’s infamous detention centres is a further incentive for migrants to discard their plans to move northwards and instead look for safety in Niger, a country ill-equipped to host them.

Secondly, deteriorating conditions within Libyan detention centres where malnutrition, poor health and violence, are the norms as it is the risk of being sold to traffickers, have prompted evacuations of refugees and migrants to Niger through the Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM) put in place by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and hosted by Nigerien authorities.

A total of 1,297 vulnerable refugees were evacuated out of Libya in 2019 (as of June), including 711 taken by UNHCR to Niger, 295 to Italy, and 291 who have been resettled to Europe and Canada.

The UN agency has warned that in light of the growing number of migrants being taken to the detention centres there is mounting pressure to resettle migrants elsewhere (and eventually close the centres).

Additionally, there is the risk that the arrivals to Niger outpace the speed with which people are resettled putting pressure on ETM facilities as already reported.

Thirdly, Algeria has been, not without controversy, expelling Sub-Saharan Africans (sometimes including those holding valid visas or others who are officially recognised as refugees by UNHCR) who are taken to the border, to the so-called Point Zero, where they are forced to walk some 15 kilometres into the desert to reach the closest village and IOM’s transit centre in Niger.

Many have died en route.

International outcry has forced Algeria to re-think this approach and it has started building transit centres on its own territory.

Yet, the practice of deporting migrants to the Algeria-Niger border has not completely stopped.


From a European perspective the reduction in the number of illegal migrants reaching Europe’s southern shores can be seen as proof of success.

Yet, a closer examination highlights the fact that security, developmental and humanitarian problems in Niger and elsewhere along migratory routes have simply been shifted rather than solved.

Notwithstanding a decrease in migration flows into Europe on the Libya-Italy route, alternative routes, especially to Spain – the EU country that received the largest numbers in 2018 (65,000) – have been utilised; this is likely to continue and it is indeed a well-known practice of criminal networks to try to adapt to changing circumstances and avoid law enforcement by relocating to less controlled areas.

Furthermore, the risk of a second wave of migrants to Italy, as warned by Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj during a visit to Rome in May, is also concrete given the worsening civil war in Libya.

This would likely further embolden anti-immigration voices in the Italian government and elsewhere on the continent.

Reverse migration from Libya to Niger is likely to continue in the medium-term given that the conditions propelling it show no sign to abate.

This trend will place additional strain on already weak Nigerien infrastructure and limited basic resources. Importantly, this risks generating additional push factors that encourage locals to migrate.

Finally, there is the risk of fuelling local conflicts, specifically between militias and other armed groups some of which are directly opposed to migration control and benefit from smuggling whilst others are involved in curbing it and have received funds from European governments to do so.

Tubu militias along the tri-border area of Niger, Libya and Chad are a case in point as they include both pro- and anti-smuggling groups.

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