Each year, some 60,000 migrants take to the roads of Niger on their way to North Africa, whence many try to reach Europe. Mainly from Gambia, Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana, these migrants benefit from the freedom of movement accorded to citizens of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to reach the Libyan border legally. Unless they are found to be lacking legal identification documents, Niger cannot refuse to let them enter its territory.
…we find migrants lost or dead in the desert
Since the beginning of the war in Mali, in 2012, and due to tighter controls at Mali’s border with Algeria, the flow of migrants has risen to such an extent that Agadez, Niger’s largest northern town, has become almost an official departure point for convoys of people headed for Libya. Its economy – previously based on trade, crafts and tourism – has been rebuilt around the needs of these travellers.
“Nearly every young person who has a vehicle is involved in this activity,” explains Mohamed Anacko, president of the Conseil Régional d’Agadez and a former leader in the Touareg community. Whether involved in people smuggling or in providing ‘guest housing’ – alternatively described locally as ‘ghettoes’ – in which residents house large numbers of those seeking to leave the country, immigration has become the city’s main business activity.
This has created a genuine dilemma for the local and national government. “We cannot abandon the fight against the illegal smuggling of migrants based on the fact that the residents are against it and that it is unpopular,” says Hassoumi Massaoudou, Niger’s interior minister. Having failed to dismantle the guest housing networks with the help of the police force he is reduced to urging the citizens of Agadez to engage in other economic activities.
On 11 May, the parliament in Niamey passed a bill making the smuggling of human beings a criminal offence. Since the law came into force at the end of May, transporting migrants to enable them to cross outside ECOWAS borders is a criminal offence punishable by at least 10 years in prison. Although the authorities made several waves of arrests, no one has yet been found guilty in the courts.
“Everybody is implicated [in trafficking],” notes regional government official Anacko. The region’s population sees it as a profitable occupation, as do the security forces who, according to several witness statements, often shake down convoys. “Some come to Agadez just to get rich. Then, when their activities become too visible, they are sent back to Niamey,” says Anacko.
Special force needed
According to interior minister Massaoudou, who hopes to reduce the flow of migrants significantly, there is an urgent need to establish a force dedicated solely to the fight against the smugglers. “The police responsible for this are the same ones that patrol the streets or are responsible for theft,” he says. “But creating a special force implies a high cost […] and we already have much to do to fight terrorism and drug trafficking.” Niger’s authorities are calling on the European Union to participate in the training and formation of such a brigade.
At the moment, the checks that the government puts in place against illegal convoys end up having an adverse effect. “The smugglers go around them, taking more difficult routes. And that is how we find migrants lost or dead in the desert,” explains Anacko.
The government says that it must be vigilant in fighting illicit activities. Interior minister Massaoudou explains: “We don’t want a criminal economic system to take power in Agadez as it has taken power in northern Mali.”
Given the large size of the Agadez region, which covers nearly half of the country, and Niger’s porous borders with a destabilised Libya, the authorities’ struggle against the smugglers seems far from over.
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