Guest post by Richard Vogt. Richard is in the final throes of his PhD, A Steady Diet of Images, which is engaged with some of the more contentious issues surrounding current European border policy. His research interests include violence to/of bodies, hypocrisies of power, political aesthetics and an undying attraction to cultural interruptions of all kinds. @richardvogt2019.

The border crossing into Benin from Niger. Source: WikiMedia

Since the mass deaths of migrants in the Tajoura detention centre bombing in June 2019, the externalisation of European border policy in Africa has focused on the violence within Libya. Further south, however, Niger has become a secondary transit country of concern for EU border practices and a hub that extends the containment policy of irregular migrants. In concert with the EU’s ‘migration management’ programs, the UNHCR has transferred at least 3,000 migrants from Libya to the Niger capital of Niamey in recent years. What is most concerning about these return and containment strategies is Niger’s position at the bottom of the United Nations (UN) human development index, as well as its ever-growing jihadi violence. 

Paying for a Sahel Border

In response to its position regarding increased numbers of migrants crossing into Europe through Libya, the EU targeted Niger as one of five countries to enforce migration containment at home. Its place as a central transit country for migration automatically made the central city of Agadez a key site for the Sahel route. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates Niger’s importance resulted in €100 million extra to the Agadez economy in 2015. This targeted response initially provoked Niger to pass controversial anti-smuggling laws at the behest of the EU. To the east, the EU’s broader Trust Fund for Africa intended on financing joint border patrols and promoting much vaunted opportunities within origin countries. 

The Agadez mayor and former rebel fighter, Rhissa Feltou, is critical of this EU-funded loss of opportunity for those in regional Niger. The in-country containment policies are exacerbating the need to migrate further north for economic survival. Nearly half of the 120,000 residents in Agadez profit from the migrant trade, howeverthe 2015 anti-smuggling legislation almost overnight converted the transit sites, according to Feltou, from ‘a retail economy system to a criminal system.’ According to Niger government documents, food vendors saw as much as a seven times drop in customers as drug trafficking and robbery increased. The surge in criminality has naturally led to a rise in violence and a decrease in social capital. As such, the numbers transiting through the region seeking safety elsewhere rose from 266,590 in 2018 to 540,000 in 2019.   

Shortly after the 2015 government clampdown, the mayor of Dirkou—a town situated north of Agadez en route to Libya—commented on how his community revenue had fallen over that past year from a weekly $6 million USD to $120,000 USD. Because this downturn affected many people involved in the everyday maintenance of the Sahel route, there is a genuine concern that increased EU coercion will further suppress this industry in the future. As a result, the region’s violence is certain to exacerbate as well. 

The Migrant Market

Over 100 migrant trucks leave Agadez before dawn, once a week on Monday. Yet,  in late 2016 the European Commission was hailing the success of regional border monitoring. In September of that year, the government made a public spectacle of arresting migrants and impounding the ubiquitous Hilux vans. The perimeter market region where migrants rested was also dismantled. Now, those taking the trip north live precariously throughout the city, dispersed among the urban violence.

Relying on IOM data, the Commission proudly announced that Sahara crossings fell from 70,000 in May 2016 to 1,500 by November. However, irregular migration persists. To avoid scrutiny, the smugglers in control avoided using their traditional departure point and infiltrated the suburban areas. Even in 2017, the EU was aware that the rerouting around Agadez due to the migrant contract with Niger ‘caused a significant increasein both the prices and the risks.’ This is largely irrelevant to the European Commission’s promoted message. The focus remains on Niger’s status as a ‘model’ country for migration control in the region, despite the widespread evidence.

As such, the EU claims of falling numbers are misleading. Migrant convoys avoid the gateway cities of Tumuand Madama. As with EU-constructed border walls and fences, the knowledge of government surveillance in the region merely reroutes the journeys of those desperate to cross. Potential migrants and their smuggling agents are told only hours in advance where to meet. Locals wait nearby at border sites, selling water and biscuits for the journey. With the help of IOM aid and monitoring, this part of northeast Niger has become the most peripheral and unofficial of the EU external border zone. 

Despite being less, the convoys into Libya are more dangerous than ever. As the fleets travel hundreds of kilometres around the traditional route north, they expose themselves to areas with a higher militia presence. Alongside landmines, visible evidence of dead bodies exist scattered across the desert. At the crucial part of the journey—the Libyan border region—France has funded Toubou militia to halt migrant smugglers. This unofficial line of defence is managed by an ex-Nigerien rebel. Other non-governmental organisations have long been critical of this EU complicity in the border violence and have begun their own search and rescue missions in the desert, trying to minimise the scores of migrant deaths occuring weekly.

Containment in an Increasingly Violent Region

In the past few years, Niger, along with Mali and Burkina Faso, have become spaces of terrorist violence and revenge. Although riddled with violent extremism for the entire decade, this has appreciably risen in the last past three years. Fatalities rose by 500%, 300%, and 7000%, respectively, with a five-fold increase of displaced persons in 2019. These figures expose the EU policy decisions concerning returned migrants, which were drafted to prevent migrant deaths in transit. The countries migrants are fleeing are not safe countries of return. 

The figures on fatal violence within the region in 2019 highlight the following collateral damage of this EU ‘success’ in stemming arrivals at European shores: an increase in terrorist activity and illegal markets. Naturally, the three year payment of nearly €1 billion to do Brussels’ bidding means far more to the Niger government than the value of any previous African compact. However, it does little for Nigerien citizens. The EU only focuses on the massive drop in deaths at sea. The EU’s praise of its humanitarian aid plays well to those willingly uninformed in Europe. For bureaucrats and politicians, the aid serves as evidence that outsourcing policies are an effective way of reducing migration. For compassionate conservatives, the provision of development aid supports the narrative of assisting migrants remain in their region, so that they do not risk their lives at sea. On the surface, this sounds impressive; however, beneath, the EU is ravaging Niger and migrant lives.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Vogt, R (2020). Niger: The other EU-financed migrant hub of Africa. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/05/niger-other-eu [date]