Displacement and migration

Final stop - desert

Migration in the Sahel: As the EU exerts pressure, more and more people are left stranded in Agadez, Niger.

By Kerem Schamberger

Sadio is in his early 30s. In Senegal he spent six years in the army. When his leg is injured during a rebellion, he wants to leave the military. But his superiors make it understood that either he stays or his life will be in danger. Sadio disappears and embarks on a long journey, from Senegal to Mali, on to Burkina Faso and from there to Niger. From the capital Niamey, he makes it to Agadez, the last stop before the route through the desert to Algeria or Libya - and so to the Mediterranean and Europe. Sadio puts himself in the hands of smugglers. He heads north in one of three pick-up trucks. It is almost 2,000 kilometres to Tripoli. After a few days, the drivers suddenly disappear. Why no one knows. In the middle of nowhere at 50 degrees Celsius during the day, 75 people are stranded with just 180 litres of water. After three days, there are disputes over water and what to do. The majority sets off on foot, including Sadio’s nephew. Sadio himself stays, awaiting some form of rescue. After another three days, military vehicles suddenly appear. Sadio is one of the few to survive. His nephew is still missing.

Sadio tells us all this in Agadez, the gateway to the desert and, in West Africa, the long-time centre of migration as well as its suppression. Ten years ago, around 120,000 people lived here. Now, there must be twice as many. There are those waiting for a new chance to head north; there are others who have come back or been transported back from there and are still too destitute, worn out and exhausted to plan their next steps; and there are those who want to return home but can’t. On the dusty streets, we meet refugees who have not eaten for days. Some carry seriously ill babies in their arms, with no prospect of medical treatment. All of them are scarred in one way or another. People show us their physical scars, on their heads, arms, backs. They come from knife wounds, blows, broken bones that have gone untreated and have not healed correctly. Each scar marks the failed attempts to get to the North, to Europe.

The EU arms and equips

On the same day that we hear stories of hopes dashed and violence suffered in West Africa, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives a speech at a special EU summit 4,000 kilometres to the north. It's about arming and equipping. “We will provide an integrated package of mobile and stationary infrastructure from cars to cameras, from watchtowers to electronic surveillance.” Because, says von der Leyen, “We will act to strengthen our external borders and prevent irregular migration.”

In recent years, the EU has systematically made Niger the central outpost of its border regime in West Africa. This externalisation policy is designed to stop people there who might otherwise make their way to Europe via Libya. The most important legal tool here is Law 036-2015 passed in 2015: it makes migration illegal and criminalises many forms of assistance. This has made migration more invisible and dangerous. Whilst before 2015 migrants used to reach the Libyan border under the protection of Nigerien military convoys, they now have to take more dangerous routes through the desert, relying on smuggling structures or their own daring.

Law 036-2015 was passed in Niger and it is government authorities that implement it. However, it is the EU that is dictating the conditions and massively promoting this form of cooperation. In fact, the EU and its Member States assume a considerable part of the Nigerien state budget. Since Law 036-2015 was passed to prevent migration to the north, more than one billion euros have flowed into the country as “development cooperation” - and most of it immediately seeps away into undeclared channels, as activists from medico’s two Nigerien partner organisations Alternative Espaces Citoyens (AEC) and Alarmphone Sahara (APS) criticise. “Why is the EU not actually interested in keeping tabs on what happens to its money?” asks investigative journalist Ibrahim Manzo Diallo from AEC.

Border regime and neo-colonialism

So-called development cooperation has long since become an instrument of blackmail. It is provided when the countries in question comply with EU interests. In West Africa, this usually means warding off migration. What is termed the conditionalisation of development cooperation is a form of neo-colonialism that attempts to control all migration areas far and wide in Africa. The latest highlight: FDP parliamentary group chairman Christian Dürr is suggesting that states in the Global South only receive money for climate protection (to use this to produce CO2-neutral fuel for Europe) if they take in people deported from Germany in return. At the same time, there are discussions in the EU on only upholding trade privileges such as lower access tariffs for the European market if the states take in deportees. It is precisely policies like these that are leading to an increasing rejection of the West in the region, with forces in Mali and Burkina Faso that see Russia as an alternative and an acceptable partner gaining strength.

The many measures have not completely eliminated migration in West Africa. So the EU wants to shut itself off even more. Von der Leyen’s announcement of rearmament plans are to be seen in this context. She is not alone. In late January, for instance, the Italian head of government and neo-fascist Giorgia Meloni was in Libya and promised the militias there - played down in the European media as “coast guards” - five new EU-funded speedboats to help intercept refugees at sea, ignoring the fact that these militias are also linked to the smugglers putting people on the boats in the first place.

Sadio’s second attempt to migrate from Senegal ends on the Mediterranean Sea. Although he almost died in the desert during his first attempt, in 2019 he tries again. This time he makes it to Sabratha, west of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast. He gets a place on a boat. But after travelling an hour on the Mediterranean, it is intercepted by the very Libyan militias acting on behalf of the EU and in particular Italy. Sadio and the others are taken to a prison camp. He is detained there for more than two weeks. A lucky accident allows him to escape.

The debate on Europe intensifies

Because migration has been pushed underground, it is hard to estimate how many thousands of people attempt it each year. The numbers of returnees give an indication. In 2022 alone, the Alarmphone Sahara recorded more than 25,000 people who had been deported from Algeria. They came from countries like Niger, Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Nigeria, Gambia, Cameroon and Sierra Leone. Return sounds like a voluntary choice. In fact, most of them were forced into trucks by Algerian security forces, driven to “point zero” on the Niger border and abandoned there, in the middle of the desert.

In Niger, however, criticism of Law 036-2015 is growing louder. This is also because it is harming the local economy. Transport companies are losing business due to the restrictions, traders are banned from selling food and other goods to migrants, and house owners are officially no longer allowed to rent out places to sleep along the routes. All this is considered aiding illegal migration under the law. Hassane Boukari, also an investigative journalist with AEC, reports that even important parts of the political elite are pushing for changes. But the law has remained untouched to date. Hassane is convinced that this is the result of heavy pressure from the EU, which is thus inadvertently destabilising the Nigerien government.

In Agadez we meet many people who, after everything they have gone through, simply want to return to their countries of origin. Crowded together, they stand in front of a small container office of the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM), hoping to be registered, a precondition for what the IOM cynically calls “voluntary return”. Registration is becoming increasingly difficult, though. The organisation is underfunded in Niger. Above all since the start of the Ukraine war, priorities and in turn funding have shifted. As a result, many people are living on the streets around the IOM offices and shelters, without access to food, without medical care, without prospects. And even with registration, support is not guaranteed. The structures are so overstretched that they cannot house and feed everyone. The IOM evidently does not want to talk about this, despite several requests there is no meeting.

And now climate-induced displacement

Much of what we see in Agadez seems dystopian. This is also because on top of the migrants, there are thousands of internally displaced persons. They are here because the climate disaster has become a reality in their fields. The harvests are too small, water is scarce. So they move to the cities in search of food and work. More than 2,000 people have already come to Agadez from the Kantché region in the south of Niger alone. They have put up makeshift tents out of sticks, plastic sheets and leftover cloth. They are not welcome. Exclusion and stigmatisation stop the children from going to school; almost no one has access to health care. In their poverty, they are competing with the tens of thousands of migrants from other countries who are stranded here.

Sadio has also been living in Agadez for several years. Because he is closely networked with the migrant communities in the underground shelters, he works as an informant for medico’s partner organisation Alarmphone Sahara. He learns who sets out when and where, who is stuck in the desert in distress and needs help. His information allows the Alarmphone Sahara activists to save lives. Sadio also earns a little extra money as a taekwondo instructor. Can he and does he want to stay in Agadez in the long term? He doesn't know yet.

Translation: Rajosvah Mamisoa

The transit country Niger has become a European and German migration policy hub. The activists from medico’s partner organisation Alternative Espaces Citoyens (AEC) are criticising the country’s role as an auxiliary police force to the EU, informing migrants about their rights and campaigning for freedom of movement. Alarmphone Sahara documents human rights violations and organises rescues.

Published: 22. March 2023

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