Refugees and Migration

Accountability in the Sahara

The investigative agency Border Forensics on the conditions that have led to mass death and disappearance of migrants traveling cross-Saharan routes through Agadez.

On 30 June 2022, the bodies of ten people presumed to be migrating through Niger were found in informal graves near the city of Dirkou, more than 400 km from the border with Libya. On July 6, 44 migrants were rescued from that same area, after two days in the desert following a vehicle breakdown. A similar story occurred in April, when twenty-five men, women, and children were rescued from the desert after three days without food or water. While these are the instances that have made headlines, they are only three recent examples of the thousands of cases of death, disappearance, and rescues that have occurred during cross-Saharan journeys since 2015.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), over 5.000 people have perished and more than 2.000 have been rescued from the desert in Niger since 2015, when the Nigerien government, greatly incentivised by the European Union, passed the now-infamous 2015-036 law. The Law’s passage marks the beginning of a proliferation of border practices. Its field of action remains the cities, villages, transport stations, and major arteries leading to the city of Agadez, and it is part of a larger assemblage of securitization that aims to cover the territory of Niger, notably the Agadez region. The Join Investigation Team (JIT)—comprising Nigerien, French, and Spanish police officers aimed at fighting irregular migration and human trafficking—is the main instrument for its implementation.

Prior to the law’s implementation, 6,000 Nigeriens made a living from the legal and fully sanctioned transportation of migrants. Ostensibly overnight, they became labeled “smugglers” and “human traffickers,” criminal categories that violently redetermined their relationship to the economy and to the state. In the months that followed, many Nigeriens involved in the transportation and housing of migrants were heavily fined, arrested, and their vehicles confiscated leading to increased destitution and economic precarity amongst Nigeriens in Agadez, who in turn have had to seek more viable alternatives to driving migrants, including working in gold mines or leaving Niger altogether to find work in neighboring countries.

These abrupt and severe punishments have had a deadly ripple effect for migrants who rely on services based in Agadez: as many experienced drivers left the business, they were replaced by less experienced drivers who take alternative routes that avoid the possibility of apprehension with less knowledge of traversing the vast desert. The routes themselves are more dangerous, and the drivers are more likely to flee if faced with the possibility of apprehension by a myriad of security forces, stranding their passengers. Furthermore, the intensity of criminalisation has forced transport networks underground, creating a scenario where family members are left with little information when their loved ones do not arrive at their next destination.

With the support of Medico, the investigative agency Border Forensics has assembled a team of geospatial analysts, geographers, and researchers to investigate the conditions produced by Laws 2015-036, with special attention paid to how the law has manifested spatially at key migration hubs in the region of Agadez. A BF report to be published in March 2023 will outline the new methodologies and forms of visual analysis we have developed to push against widely accepted narratives that villainize “smugglers” as the sole culprit of border-crossing deaths. Our visualisations aim to make apparent how EU-backed Nigerien policies resulting from Law 2015-036 have led to increasingly dangerous conditions for migrants, with no accountability or justice for the policy’s victims.


The ready-made narrative of “unscrupulous smuggler” is part of a global trend of governments jettisoning accountability for human rights violations and border-crossing deaths that arise from the militarization and securitization of national borders. It is also a ready-made narrative that fails to attend to the cultural specificity and historical context of any one place, in this case a Euro-centric perspective that effaces layered histories of mobility and development across the Sahara. Much of this narrative has coalesced in the region of Agadez, where new legal frameworks marked by Law 2015-036 recategorized the social infrastructure and economy of moving people across the Sahara within the wider framework of security threats and criminal activity, akin to terrorist networks and contraband smuggling. As Julien Brachet has documented, there was a dramatic shift from the days of “agencies de courtage,” when travel agencies were established in Agadez with explicit permission from the government to dissuade those involved in providing cross-Saharan services to migrants from expanding their business into illegal activities.

Whilst the implementation of Law 2015-036 was abrupt, the trajectories of anti-mobility trends within Niger had begun to align with the European Union’s fortification efforts in the preceding years. These trends were marked by a number of large-scale catastrophes that stimulated a large-scale national response and an enormous injection of EU funds into Niger’s securitization efforts. For instance, in 2013 the deaths of ninety-two Nigeriens from the department of Kantché made headlines, with the victims comprising mostly women and children whose vehicle had broken down just south of the border with Algeria. The out-migration of women and children from the department due to economic precarity became known as the “Kantché phenomenon” and motivated the Nigerien government to take measures restricting the mobility of its citizens. Two years later, in April 2015, two shipwrecks in two weeks with a total of more than 1.100 passengers occurred off the Libyan coast, prompting widespread criticism from international and humanitarian organizations of the negligence of European leaders. That same month, a joint Foreign and Home Affair Council of the European Union issued a ten-point response of actions to be undertaken by the 28 Member States, explicitly listing increased initiatives in Niger amongst them.

Shortly thereafter in November 2015, the European and African heads of state met at the Valetta Summit on migration and launched the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, a €289.1 million investment in Africa’s capacity to curb migration, to prevent Africans from reaching the shores of the Mediterranean in Libya. However, migrants traveling to or across Niger are far from unidirectionally heading towards Europe. For most African migrants, the destination is within Africa itself. Specifically, of the total number of West African migrants, less than 10%-20% are en route to North Africa and Europe.

As such, Nigerien mechanisms of control along with EU border externalization policies and bordering practices have had a deeply disruptive impact on migration dynamics of cross-Saharan routes in west Africa, and this far beyond the target of migrants heading towards Europe. The imposition of EU’s border regime mentality has led to the violation of ECOWAS citizen’s rights to free movement amongst member states, and a reorganization of regional attitudes towards free mobility, by externalizing its own border into West Africa with enthusiastic cooperation from the Nigerien government who itself seeks to limit citizens’ mobility. Such measures have begun to embed themselves in civil society, as the population of Agadez has gradually moved from its legendary hospitality towards migrants to a logic of hostility. In June 2022, the President of the Regional Council of Agadez Mohamed Anacko was quoted as saying that Agadez “has had nothing but ingratitude and disrespect as a reward from those who are persecuted in their own countries.” Such right-wing extremist discourses prevalent in Europe have begun to arise in the area, fueled by a fear of perceived pressures on limited social services and exacerbated by Algeria recent practice of refoulements to the region, an influx of Libyan returnees, and the number of migrants caught in limbo in the city of Agadez.


Within this framework, the investigation conducted by Border Forensics has sought to document how Law 2015-036 has materialized along a segment of one of the many proliferating cross-Saharan routes in Agadez. We aim to support the many testimonies of migrants and drivers experiencing specific forms of danger. While there are countless narrative accounts of imprisonment, harrowing journeys, and lives lost in Agadez and beyond, there is a dearth of robust and comprehensive data that might serve as the base for producing evidence of the disastrous consequences of Law 2015-036. We have placed those partial data sets that do exist in conversation with geospatial data sets that we ourselves have produced in order to create a fuller picture of these consequences.

As the forthcoming report will detail, we do so by applying a fine-grained spatial analysis to document the impact of the myriad forms of border securitization on migrants’ routes through areas directly surrounding Séguédine, Madama, and Toummo at the border of Libya. We envision our approach as offering a counter-narrative to the tropes of the unscrupulous smuggler, diverting our inquiry away from any single individual and their motives and rather towards the specific spatial conditions produced by government policy. Toward this end, we appropriate the techniques of surveillant states such as remote sensing and the use of high-resolution satellite imagery and bend them towards a more just account of the cause of mass death and disappearance of migrants in the region: namely, Nigerien policy implemented via EU complicity and gratuitous support.

The methodologies we have developed include remote sensing techniques to document how irregular routes proliferate in correlation to the emergence of checkpoints, police stations, and police and military patrols. We have compared this data with a viewshed analysis, to understand the relationship between risk of apprehension and the distance that drivers must travel to avoid being easily detected. From here, we have documented the chances of survival if migrants find themselves stranded at such distances and forced to walk towards help, whether that be because of a vehicle breakdown or the fleeing of a driver avoiding arrest at the sign of security forces. We interpret “survival” in this scenario by analysing the rate of dehydration, measured by sweat loss, should someone have to walk from any point on these irregular routes towards sites of potential rescue or sources of water.

The manifestation of border securitization at each of these sites along this axis vary from French military bases to Tebu militia-manned checkpoints to the aggregation of Nigerien defense and security forces. Irregular routes that bypass such instantiations at each site appear and dissipate along uneven timelines, in parallel with key moments of securitization. The methodologies we have developed are a building block that can be expanded upon, tailored, and applied across a spectrum of bordering practices, making visible the direct impact of border securitization on the safety of migrants in their cross-Saharan journeys.

The text is provided by Border Forensics. A detailed report with comprehensive survey results will appear in April and will also be published by medico.


By focusing on the forgotten and distant landscapes of death, Border Forensics aims to counteract the invisible dying at Europe's borders.

Published: 21. March 2023

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