Our website use cookies to improve and personalize your experience and to display advertisements (if any). Our website may also include cookies from third parties like Google Adsense, Google Analytics, and Youtube. By using the website, you consent to the use of cookies.

Despite fears in Europe, no migrant surge after Niger junta scrapped ban

AT the bus station in Agadez, a town in northern Niger that serves as a gateway to the Sahara, a dozen men – their faces masked by turbans and sunglasses – clambered onto the back of a battered pickup truck headed across the desert to Libya.

Several men with legs dangling over the side of the vehicle shouted “Italy, Italy!”, gripping short wooden poles that they hope will prevent them from falling off along the way.

“If I earn enough in Libya, I’ll stay there. If not, I’ll leave for Europe,” said Abdoulaye Diallo, a 40-year-old from Guinea, speaking at a nearby migrant compound in late April.

Niger’s military leaders in November scrapped a European Union-backed law that criminalised people who aided migrants. Since then, vehicles like this one headed to Libya have joined weekly convoys of Nigerien security forces headed northward, instead of taking circuitous routes through the desert to avoid detection.

Migrant flows have sharply risen since the law was overturned. Over 128,790 migrants were observed leaving Niger in March, 68% more than in March 2023, according to Reuters calculations based on the most recent data from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a UN agency.

And the price charged by people smugglers to cross the desert from Niger to Libya has fallen to around $170 per person from $500 when the law was in place, the IOM said in a report last month.

The reversal of the law triggered alarm in Europe. In the run-up to this week’s elections for the European Parliament, some far-right parties have predicted an influx of illegal migrants.

But nine migration experts and representatives of migration-focused organisations painted a more cautious picture, noting that data on migrants reaching Europe via the Mediterranean does not show an increase, although they say those numbers could increase in the future.

“When I hear politicians say that there is an immigration emergency or talk of an invasion: no, this is not the case,” said Flavio di Giacomo, the IOM spokesperson for the Mediterranean. The UN agency is not expecting migrant flows on this route from North Africa to rise dramatically in the coming months, he said.

READ:  'Diplomats brought Omicron from Europe'

“This is a humanitarian emergency. It’s not an emergency in terms of numbers.”

In fact, arrivals via the central Mediterranean are down 62% from January to April, the EU border agency Frontex said in a May report. This was partly due to poor weather that complicated the sea crossing, di Giacomo said.

The IOM also points to historical trends showing that 80% of African migrants tend to stay in Africa, part of a centuries-old tradition of free movement of economic migrants.

But two officials in the region, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said Libya and Tunisia have also intensified efforts to turn back or detain migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean, after receiving EU money to curb migration. The EU said last year it was investing 800 million euros across North Africa until 2024 to tackle the problem.

A spokesperson for the European Commission did not provide answers to questions sent by Reuters.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni this week credited the fall in crossings “above all” on the help from the two countries.

Those wishing to reach Europe via Libya must first navigate an array of security forces and predatory militia. An aid worker in Libya, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said the country was “a swamp” where many migrants got stuck trying to earn money or fell prey to criminal groups.

“It often takes months or years before they reach the Mediterranean,” said Azizou Chehou, an activist in Niger who runs an organisation that rescues migrants in the desert.

READ:  African fruits exports boom

Authorities in Tunisian and Libya did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment. Tunisia has in the past said it respects human rights but does not accept people entering the country illegally. Libyan authorities say they are working with neighbours and Italy to tackle migration.

Sybil Esth, a Sierra Leonean migrant, repatriated from Algeria six months ago, looks on while holding her child in Agadez, Niger, April 23, 2024. REUTERS

EASIER THROUGH NIGER

Over the past decade, the 27-nation EU bloc has been pushing to reduce irregular migration from the Middle East and Africa by tightening its borders and restricting asylum laws.

The EU has also sought to stem the flow by creating buffers in countries through which migrants travel. In Niger, that involved working with the government to ban the flow of migrants in return for budgetary support and other investment to improve legal economic opportunities locally.

The impact of the 2015 law on migration via Niger was dramatic. After it was introduced the following year and routes north of Agadez became heavily patrolled, observed outgoing migrant flows fell 79% between 2016 and 2017, according to U.N. data.

The number of migrants detected on the central Mediterranean route fell to 24,800 in 2018, more than 86% lower than a record 181,459 in 2016, when most had left from Libya, according to Frontex.

Some migrants still travelled through Niger, bypassing detection by driving deeper into the desert. Others found new routes by cramming into boats to the Canary Islands or flying legally across the Sahara to Tunisia.

After the Niger junta seized power in a July 2023 coup, it quickly overturned the deal struck with the EU.

The law had been deeply unpopular in northern Niger where people who hosted, fed and transported the migrants saw incomes dry up overnight. The junta also likely saw repealing the law as a way of burnishing its anti-Western rhetoric, three experts told Reuters.

Binta Maiga Moha, migration director in Niger’s interior ministry, said that the government repealed the law as it badly affected the economy in the Agadez region and only a fraction of the money disbursed by the EU went to Niger, with most going to the UN and aid agencies.

READ:  Growing eviction risk as rent freezes end in Europe

The law also led to more people dying as they took greater risks, she said.

Migration researcher Luca Raineri at Italy’s Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies said it’s hard to gauge how many more migrants are transiting through Niger because it was unclear how much migration evaded detection before the law-change.

Data from local NGOs, however, suggests a big spike in northward movement.

Ten to 20 vehicles – each carrying about 25 people – would leave for Libya and Algeria each week while the law was in place, but that has now jumped to closer to 100 vehicles, said Chehou.

More than 60% of migrants observed transiting Niger each month this year have been of Nigerien nationality, according to the IOM. It notes that most Nigeriens who migrate to Libya are seeking work there with no plan to travel further.

Partly due to Niger’s law change, the number of migrants recorded in Libya rose to 719,064 as of February 2024, the IOM said – the highest number since the agency started tracking displacement there.

The migrants are entering a country where “widescale” exploitation of migrants is a lucrative business and there is “overwhelming” evidence of systematic torture and sexual slavery, according to a U.N. report last year that described possible crimes against humanity.

By ISSIFOU DJIBO, ALESSANDRA PRENTICE and DAVID LEWIS

MORE FROM THIS SECTION