Double-edged sword of overturning Niger’s ban


The recent lifting of Niger’s people-smuggling ban has been welcomed by many in Agadez, a city on the edge of the Sahara – a once busy transit point for migrants heading towards North Africa and on to Europe.

“The law was repealed on a Friday, by Sunday, I saw 4×4 cars in Agadez getting ready to resume their trips,” Chehou Azizou told the BBC. He is the founder of Alarme Phone Sahara, an organisation that helps bring migrants stranded in the desert back to safety.

The law had been introduced in 2015 – with the backing of the European Union – during a period of high levels of migration to Europe.

At the time, the UN estimated at least 4,000 migrants travelled through Agadez every week without travel documents.

But people in the city have always felt unfairly targeted by it – as while migrants may have trekked all the way through Niger to reach Agadez it was only its residents who seemed to be prosecuted.

“This law always made us uncomfortable. When a migrant arrived in Agadez, as a local I couldn’t welcome them or take them in; if I drove them by bus to take them somewhere else I could be prosecuted,” local councillor Mohamed Agali Zodi told the BBC.

“People who cooked food for migrants were punished, bus drivers both within and outside the city were punished, people lodging migrants were punished.

“People in Agadez were very happy when the law was repealed.”

One of the law’s stated purposes was to ensure the safety of migrants and reduce the number of deaths in the desert. But locals in Agadez and migration specialists say it had unintended consequences.

“When the EU and the former government said the law was for the protection of migrants it made us laugh bitterly,” Mr Azizou said.

“Because by imposing rigorous controls on migration routes, migrants had to avoid the authorities and that led to many deaths and disappearances in the desert. Thousands of people have lost their lives because of this law.”

A poster against corruption from migrants pinned to a notice bored in the reception of the ministry of interior and decentralisation in Agadez, Niger - 23 January 2023

This anti-trafficking poster was pictured in Agadez last January

Berlin-based migration researcher and policy analyst Alia Fakhry agrees.

“Smugglers and migrants were taking secondary, longer and riskier itineraries through the desert to cross borders and avoid police patrols,” she told the BBC.

Niger is going through a period of intense change. Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown as president by his own military guards in July.

The junta that took over accused him of putting the interests of foreign powers, including France and the EU, ahead of Niger’s own. Since the coup, it has kicked out French troops and imposed policies it says are intended to restore the country’s sovereignty.

But the EU says the repeal of the anti-trafficking law in November could cause more deaths in the desert as it believes more people will opt to make the dangerous journey north.

Ms Fakhry says it is too early to assess what the impact will be. Before the introduction of the law in 2015, the military and traffickers used to work closely together.

“We could say that migrant smuggling up until 2015 was state-sanctioned. Or at least it was partly controlled by military actors and generated revenues for these people. So there is a possibility that the junta now wants to return to this pre-2015 situation.”

If they open up central corridors for migrant smugglers to bring people across borders and provide military escorts it could make part of the journey safer, Ms Fakhry says.

But it would be hard to ascribe the lifting of the ban with any possible migrant influx as multiple factors come into play.

“First of all, what’s the situation in their country of origin? Is there conflict? What is the economic situation, the political situation, the level of individual freedom? Do they feel like they have opportunities for themselves and their families? The answers to these questions play a great role in the decision to migrate,” the researcher says.

Also the migrants transiting through Niger do not necessarily go to Europe, with many choosing to settle in North African countries, she says.

“The fact that the law has now been revoked by the junta in Niger will not necessarily have a direct link on the decision-making process that migrants go through.”

Alagie Sanneh

Alagie Sanneh from The Gambia says no matter what the law is, the trip across the desert is dangerous – but that will not stop him

Alagie Sanneh, a Gambian national in Agadez, is undecided on what he thinks about the lifting of the law.

The 29-year-old already knows the horrors of the desert trip having made the journey once already in 2014 – before the smuggling ban had been imposed.

He is back in Agadez as after eventually crossing the Mediterranean and then making it to Austria, he was deported back to The Gambia.

“I know the roads of the desert, I walked for four to six days in the desert on my way to Libya. It’s very dangerous because some of the drivers carrying migrants drive fast. They don’t care about people’s lives. Some of the cars get into accidents, killing everyone in them.

“In this desert you can lose your life anytime.”

He is now in the city hoping to raise the estimated $600 (£470) he needs to make the trip to Tunisia.

Whether the law is in place or not, those like Mr Sanneh say they will continue to seek a better life.

“I want to get married one day and to have children. And I will make sure my children are proud of me, of what I’ve done for them. That’s why I left my country. Even though I was deported, I couldn’t stay there.”

He explains that he has no formal education and worked as a driver.

“Back home I spent two to three months, even a whole year, without work.

“It’s not easy, that’s why I’m trying to get to Europe. It’s painful. I don’t want my children to suffer like I did. I want to make my children’s life better.”

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