By Camille Sonderegger
Niger, a landlocked country situated in the middle of the Sahara, which shares borders with 7 countries, has for decades been a staging point for migrants risking everything to make it to Libya, cross the Mediterranean, to eventually reach Europe. More specifically the city of Agadez, situated at the heart of Niger has for centuries been the gateway into the Sahara, representing a crucial hub for commercial trade and human migration between West and North Africa.
In 2015, as the so-called “refugee crisis” began to dominate media and politics around Europe, Agadez made global headlines as three quarter of the migrants, who reached the Italian coastline had made their journey through Niger. Using the narrative that migrants and refugees needed saving on their perilous journeys, the EU pushed for the introduction of a new anti-trafficking law, rendering the transport of humans across the desert through Niger, and specifically Agadez, illegal. The new law, “Law 2015-036” was implemented by the Nigerien government with no consultation of its people, tribal or regional leaders. In return, Niger was to receive a vast amount of development aid, rendering it the largest per capita recipient of EU funding worldwide and thus sending Europe’s most southern border into the heart of Africa.
Although the EU claims that this law has decreased the number of migrants and refugees passing through Agadez, migration in Niger has not stopped. Instead, it has pushed the transport of migrants underground, into a shadowy industry, making it even more dangerous for humans to embark on the life-threatening journey through the Sahara. The IOM now estimates that twice as many migrants die crossing the desert than crossing the Mediterranean. Furthermore, the implementation of the law has had far-reaching consequences for the local economy, as the transport of migrants formed the basis of the livelihoods of many Nigeriens. Although the EU had promised compensation for drivers previously involved in the transport industry, far from all have seen any compensation as not only drivers made a living from that industry but approximately everybody living in the Agadez area such as union members, the police etc.
By 2018, three years since the implementation of the new law, an estimated 100 million USD
have been lost in income for the local communities and only 3.1 million USD worth of compensation and vocational projects have been invested by the EU. And for now, some of these vocational projects have been put on hold indefinitely, due to gross mismanagement of funds. Instead, the EU has invested millions more in the security sector, training army and security personnel through EUCAP (the EU’s civilian security and defence mission), which was first sent to Niger to fight so-called radical extremism in the region in 2012 but since, has mainly focused on stopping migrants, refugees and smugglers from crossing into Libya. The loss of their main source of income has led many Nigeriens to turn to weapons, ammunition and drug smuggling instead, trying to avoid vast unemployment and poverty. Additionally, unemployment has led tribal elders to focus on calming their youth in order to prevent them from turning to religious extremism as Al-Qaeda affiliated groups have had a foothold in the region for a while as local discontent is on the rise.
This law also further exasperates tribal discontent towards the central government. Peace agreements after tribal rebellions against the central government had been reached at the end of the 80s partly as the transport routes from Niger towards Libya had been allocated to a specific tribe, the Tubu tribe. Hence, the Tubu tribe has been disproportionately affected by the transport ban, which has flared up its resentment towards the government and has led to occasional violence, which has not been avoided despite the 12’000 security forces the EU has apparently successfully trained since 2012.
As one local activist and NGO worker noted addressing European intervention and interference:
“Well, while your politicians steal our riches, we still live in the 17th century. And you still want us to stay here. Just try to think about that: dying without reacting. Even if you do not want to take up arms to fight...you can still escape misery. It is said that Niger is independent since 1960, but until today our presidents have been taking orders from Paris”.
With the long history of European colonialism and interference in Africa, no-one should believe the humanitarian narrative given by European countries to justify their interference instead of addressing the root causes of the problem, which lead to the migration in the first place.