In high stakes experiment, EU migration policy moves front lines to Niger

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Armed soldiers of the Niger National Guard protect a convoy crossing the Sahara to Libya Oct. 8 in Agadez, Niger. The force patrols search for armed Islamists in this Sahel region, which is half the size of Texas.
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Agadez, Niger, has always been a crossroads town, travelers’ last stop before the vast emptiness of the Sahara. Its prosperity was built on the passage of merchandise and people – in recent years, migrants bound for Europe. But today, as divisive politics around migration continue to rise in Europe, governments there are making their broadest-ever bid to choke off the flow close to its source, in places like Agadez. “Africa’s security and development is our security and development. Migration is part of that,” says the European ambassador to Niger, Denisa-Elena Ionete. The European Union is spending $270 million on migration-related projects in Niger, including programs meant to boost economic alternatives to transporting migrants. In 2016, Niger implemented Law 36, which effectively criminalized the transport of foreigners north of Agadez, and arrested scores of men. There’s little doubt the new policies have helped cut the number of migrants headed north. But for those who do head into the desert, the journey is now more dangerous. And EU plans to offset the economic losses are slow to materialize, locals say. “I’ve had the whole of Europe come to visit me – ministers, members of parliament, auditors, you name it,” laughs the mayor, Rhissa Feltou. “All we’ve got to show for it is photographs.”

Why We Wrote This

Where do Europe’s borders really begin? To stem the flow of migrants, the EU is now implementing policies in Africa, recognizing that the two continents’ futures are closely intertwined. Part 7 of On the Move: The faces, places, and politics of migration.

Mahmane Elhadji, his arms dusted with flour to the elbow, does not look like an advertisement for the European Union. But as he supervises a team kneading dough and cutting it into rolls in his cramped backstreet bakery, Mr. Elhadji finds himself a flag carrier on the front line of Europe’s drive to stifle illegal migration from Africa.

Mr. Elhadji was once a “coaxer.” When disoriented migrants arrived at the bus station here in Agadez, a sweltering adobe-walled town in the southern reaches of the Sahara, his job was to steer them to the people-smuggler for whom he worked. Today, with help from a small EU grant, he runs “Eat Today, Eat Tomorrow,” the name he has chosen for his new business.

“It wasn’t much money and it took a long time to come,” Elhadji says. “But without it I would have gone back to coaxing.”

Why We Wrote This

Where do Europe’s borders really begin? To stem the flow of migrants, the EU is now implementing policies in Africa, recognizing that the two continents’ futures are closely intertwined. Part 7 of On the Move: The faces, places, and politics of migration.

As divisive political tensions around migrants rise in Europe, governments there are making their broadest-ever bid to choke off the flow close to its source. Elhadji’s story, and those of his neighbors who have gone back to smuggling, illustrate the progress and the pitfalls of the EU’s effort to tempt local people away from the migrant trade.

Elhadji’s cash came from a $270 million “Emergency Trust Fund” that the EU is spending on migration-related projects in Niger, including everything from migrant counseling to job training. The country has become “a centerpiece of EU policy” in northwest Africa, says the European ambassador to Niger, Denisa-Elena Ionete.

“Africa is 14 kilometers from our coast,” she points out. “Africa’s security and development is our security and development. Migration is a part of that.”

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Mahmane Elhadji, a former migrant "coaxer" from Niger (left), slices dough to make bread rolls at a backstreet bakery he runs called "Eat Today, Eat Tomorrow," a project funded in part by a small EU grant to provide jobs for former organizers of migrant routes to Europe, on Oct. 8, 2018 in Agadez, Niger.

Thinning traffic

Which shines the spotlight on Agadez, a historic crossroads town that is today a sprawling sun-baked outpost of scruffy shops, adobe compounds, and sand streets, the last stop before the vast emptiness of the Sahara desert.

Agadez’s prosperity has long been built on the passage of merchandise and people on the move. Once, the migrants were heading to oil-and-job-rich Algeria and Libya; hundreds of thousands of people passed through Agadez quite legally, lining the pockets of the town’s travel agents, drivers, and lodging-house owners.

After Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow by Western-backed forces in 2011, most travelers set their sights farther north. And at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, as more than a million people a year flooded into the continent, the EU turned to Niger for help.

In early 2016 the government suddenly implemented Law 36, which effectively criminalized the transport of foreigners north of Agadez. Overnight the police seized the white Toyota pickups that the migrants had traveled in (102 of them can be seen today, baking in the sun, behind the regional military headquarters), arrested scores of men involved in the migration business, and sentenced 90 of them to jail time, according to the local prosecutor.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
One hundred and two pickup trucks are parked behind regional military headquarters in Agadez, Niger on Oct. 9, 2018. The trucks were confiscated in 2016 from men transporting migrants and others across the Sahara Desert. Some still hold passengers' belongings.

“Europe has long been an important partner of ours,” explains Nigerien Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum in an interview. “Being helpful to the EU is somehow giving them something back”  in return for their longstanding aid.

There is little doubt that the new policy has helped cut the number of illegal migrants heading north very substantially. The International Organization for Migration counted 334,000 of them passing through Niger in 2016 and fewer than 50,000 so far this year. A foreign aid worker estimates that there are likely no more than 300 migrants at any one time hiding in houses in Agadez now, compared to at least 2,000 before the law came into effect.

“The law has had an impact,” says Harouna Aggalher, a field officer in Agadez for the International Rescue Committee, a New York based non-profit. “Smugglers are more afraid of getting caught.”

'The desert is vast'

That doesn’t mean that they have all got out of the business. Smugglers are taking new and rarely used routes, or simply trusting their GPS and satellite phones and heading into uncharted desert.

“They’ve changed their strategies and systems,” says Bashir Amma, a former smuggler. He now uses the sandy compound where he once housed migrants as the office of an association seeking more economic assistance for men, like him, who have abandoned the migration business.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Former migrant smuggler Bashir Amma, head of a group which he founded called “The Struggle Against Clandestine Migration,” which helps former smugglers apply for European Union aid to create new jobs, gives an interview on Oct. 6, 2018 in Niamey, Niger.

Col. Abdoulaye Garba Ango, spick-and-span at military headquarters in his newly pressed camouflage uniform, sends out regular long-range desert patrols to search for vehicles carrying migrants, as well as armed Islamists. But with just a handful of EU-funded Land Cruisers and some new communications gear, he finds it hard to keep an eye on a military region half the size of Texas.

“The desert is vast,” he sighs. “It’s natural that the smugglers should avoid us. We come across some, but others get past.”

How many, nobody knows. But pickups that abandon the established routes, marked by occasional concrete posts, are putting their migrant passengers in great danger, veterans of the migration business warn.

“They are taking a huge risk now,” says a smuggler calling himself Ibidangaz (not his real name), his face half hidden behind the Tuareg turban wrapped around his head.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
An African migrant smuggler, who gave the pseudonym Ibidangaz and says he still "plays hide-and-seek" with police, is photographed while giving an interview on Oct. 6, 2018 in Agadez, Niger.

Ibidangaz himself has stopped driving. But sitting outside his family compound on the very edge of town, where the desert sand drifts against the walls, he says he still “plays hide-and-seek” with the police to connect migrants with drivers. “Until you get that call from Libya saying they’ve arrived, there’s no guarantee at all that they are alive,” he says.

“People die by the hundreds in the desert,” says Ahmadou Bossi, commander of the Agadez National Guard contingent, whose patrols have come across three abandoned truckloads of migrants by chance this year.

That makes Johannes Claes, the local representative of Doctors of the World, a Belgian NGO that helps migrants, wonder about European policy. “If you see the problem as just one of stopping migrant flows, it is a success,” he says. “But if you are causing human suffering and migrants to die, you should consider whether your policy is working.”

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
A man receives medicine as a group of mostly Nigeriens arrive at dusk on Oct. 7, 2018 in Agadez, Niger after a journey by truck across the Sahara Desert from Algeria. They were forcibly repatriated by the Algerian police, and receive basic resettlement support such as buckets and ground sheets from the International Rescue Committee and UN's International Organization for Migration.

Cautionary tales

The drop in migrant numbers is partly due to Law 36, but only partly, says Mr. Bazoum, the Interior Minister. He attributes the fall also to Europe’s increasingly cold shoulder and to “the centers of suffering” in Libya, the militia-run prisons where many migrants end up as slaves or hostages. Even those who make it across the Sahara face brutal treatment in Libya, and that news seems to be deterring other would-be migrants.

Ikena, an athletic-looking 25-year-old from Nigeria who had dreams of playing soccer in Europe, knows all about that.

Today he is back in Agadez: dodging the police, broke, unsure what to do next, and “just praying for help.” But he is better off than he was two months ago: detained by gunmen as soon as he had been dropped off by his smuggler in southern Libya, he was stripped of his belongings and put in a prison, he says.

“Then they kicked me and beat me and flogged me and made a video of it, and sent it to my mother to make her pay,” he recalls. “She sold her land to send them the money so they let me go.”

Back in Agadez he met Moses, a Liberian who had been planning to travel through Libya to Italy. But now he has decided to turn around. “Ikena told me that Libya is no good and that I shouldn’t take the risk,” Moses says. “I’ve definitely changed my mind.”

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Migrant Ikena from Nigeria (right) tells of being imprisoned in Libya, during an interview on Oct. 7, 2018 in Agadez, Niger. Videos of his beatings were sent to his family to blackmail them for cash to secure his release. Ikena's saga convinced his friend Moses from Liberia (left) to give up on traveling to Italy through Libya.

Problems in the pipeline

Meanwhile, Law 36 “has caused this region a lot of damage,” says Mohamed Anako, president of the Agadez regional council, because it has collapsed the two pillars of the local economy – tourism and transport.

The EU is trying to offset this damage with a $9 million Rapid Economic Impact Action Plan for Agadez and tens of millions of dollars’ worth of other projects, such as a solar-powered electricity generating plant.

But they are mostly still in the pipeline. So far, says city mayor Rhissa Feltou, all the town has to show for the ambitious plans is a project employing 1,000 men and women to sweep the trash-filled sandy streets, a small road-building scheme, and a workshop training masons to repair the adobe buildings in Agadez, a UNESCO heritage site whose 16th century minaret is the tallest mudbrick building in the world.

“There’s a lot of talk about European funds, and I’ve had the whole of Europe come to visit me – ministers, members of parliament, auditors, you name it,” laughs Mr. Feltou, tipping his chair back against the wall of his compound. “All we’ve got to show for it is photographs. The EU is a long way from making up the losses we’ve suffered because of the law.”

Even the project aimed at “actors in the migration field,” as the EU puts it, the one that helped Elhadji set up as a baker, is surrounded by question marks.

Of 2,345 requests for a grant under the program, only 294 were approved before the EU money ran out. The grants were rarely enough by themselves to set up a business, and Elhadji, for example, had to wait a full year after he filed his request before he got his money.

Nor is it clear that the EU money really all went to former smugglers. It was local mayors who were asked to identify eligible candidates; many of them simply listed their friends and relatives, say people familiar with the program.

“We hear dissatisfaction,” acknowledges EU Ambassador Ionete, “but we stand by the project.”

Meanwhile, some disappointed former smugglers are going back to their old trade (and some never left it). “I stopped everything and stayed home for a year, looking after my camels and my livestock, but I got nothing” by way of compensation, says Ibidangaz. “I’ve got seven children; we have to eat. ...I make just enough for the cooking pot these days.”

High stakes

Ninety local men involved in the transport of migrants were jailed under Law 36, which sets penalties ranging from 5 to 10 years, the prosecutor says. None are in Agadez prison anymore, though, according to prison governor Capt. Yacouba Seyni.

All appear to have been given light sentences and then paroled early, in a gesture that local residents say may have something to do with the region’s predilection for rebellion: twice in the past 30 years the Tuaregs of northern Niger have risen up against the central government.

“Migration is a political issue,” points out Souleymane Mohamed, a lawyer working with the International Rescue Committee in Agadez. “When the law shut it down, there was an uproar that led the politicians to go easy.”

Mr. Anako, who was a leader of the 1990 rebellion, says he is worried that if the outside world does not create jobs for young men, increasing numbers will resort to the risky but lucrative smuggling trade.

They may not find many migrants to transport anymore, but they would be well placed to carry other cargo.

“If they lose hope they will go into trafficking, and not just of people but of guns,” Anako warns, echoing a fear Bazoum voices too. With armed Islamist groups fighting the governments of neighboring Mali to the west and Nigeria to the south, and Islamic State and al Qaeda fighters roaming Niger’s northern border with Libya, “an economic crisis here could feed a security crisis,” Anako predicts.

The EU ambassador to Niger, Ms. Ionete, says that the European authorities’ “purpose is to go to the core of the nexus between security and development and migration.” She appears to have her hands full.

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For migrants abused in Libya, Europe extends a thin lifeline

Critics say it is just a hypocritical exercise to salve Europe’s conscience. But for Alessandra Morelli, the local head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an unusual international effort to rescue refugees from Libya and give them new homes “brings people back to life.”

Mohammed (not his real name), a lanky, corkscrew-haired young man, is one of them. A pro soccer player, he fled his home in Somalia three days after Islamist gunmen threatened to kill him if he played another game for his government-supported team.

His yearlong journey on the migrant trail toward Europe wound through Yemen and Sudan, and ended in a Libyan detention camp, where he was beaten and tortured. But today he is safe here in Niamey, the capital of Niger, patiently answering questions about his family put to him by a young woman from the French refugee settlement agency. 

Mohammed is within touching distance of a new life in France. He is in a distinct minority: nearly 56,000 asylum seekers have registered with the UNHCR in Libya, but by the beginning of October it had been able to airlift only some 1,850 – those in greatest danger. More than 1,500 of them were sent to the Nigerien capital for processing. 

The Emergency Transit Mechanism, as the airlift program is called, is a fledgling system to get asylum seekers out of militia-run jails in Libya. It puts them in touch with European refugee agencies which cannot work in Libya because of the risks, but which can send teams to somewhere like Niger.

“This way, refugees can avoid making the terrible journeys across the Mediterranean” that often end in death, explains Pascal Brice, head of the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless People, which has sent five missions to Niamey.

Six European governments have sent officials to interview asylum seekers pre-vetted by the UNHCR; so far they have resettled 494 of them and approved another 397, and they have pledged to offer new homes to a total of 2,680, according to Ms. Morelli.

This is a drop in the ocean of asylum seekers, and the procedures are agonizingly slow; many of the refugees from Libya have been in Niamey for close to a year. But even when there are no doubts about a refugee’s right to asylum, and when he or she has been raped, enslaved, or tortured by Libyan captors, “migration is political,” Morelli points out. “Governments have to build agreements at home” to accept refugees, and in the current climate in Europe, few have so far shown the political will to join even this emergency effort.

Some EU politicians have proposed offshoring their countries’ asylum application process to African cities as a way to stem the flow of migrants onto European soil. But Morelli and everyone else involved in the Emergency Transit Mechanism are quick to insist that it is designed to meet a separate need.

“Keeping refugees out of sight and out of mind like that would be a nightmare,” says Mr. Brice. “We have to do what we can to avoid people trying to cross the sea, but what we are doing in Niamey is on top of our duties to those who do arrive in Europe, not instead of them.”

Nigerien Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum is equally emphatic. Setting up a European asylum center in Niamey “is an impertinent idea that makes no sense,” he says. “It would attract everyone in Africa to come here with his story of persecution and try to win the resettlement lottery. Our country will not be used that way.”

- Peter Ford, Global correspondent

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