Migration Policy in Niger: Migration's main hub

Europe is pumping millions of euros into the most important transit country in Africa and is counting on migrants returning home voluntarily.

Angela Merkel visiting an IOM transit center in Niamey, Niger Foto: reuters

Since 2015, the Sahel state of Niger has increasingly attracted Europe's attention. This is because, every year up to 200,000 migrants cross the former French colony and try to reach North Africa overland and, later, Europe. Since other migratory routes, for example from Senegal to the Canary Islands or from Morocco to Spain, have become almost impassable in recent years as a result of strict checkpoints, it is estimated that Niger has become the main transit country on the African continent, a view also shared by the European Commission in February 2016.1

However, the number of Nigeriens that want to get to Europe remains low and stable in comparison with other countries. In 2015, only 574 applications for asylum were made in Europe.2 One reason for this is that the country, where 18.6 million people live, is currently at the bottom of the Human Development Index of the United Nations (UN). Many people are simply too poor to afford the journey to Europe, which often costs several thousand euros.

The town Agadez, which is around 20 hours away from the capital of Niamey by bus, has become the centre of African migration. Centuries ago the town was known as the ‚Pearl of the Sahara‘ and was an important centre for trade in the Sahel region. This is also reflected in UNESCO's decision to include the historic town centre on its list of world heritage sites in 2013. The population in 2012 was 118,240.

Today this number is actually expected to be much higher as Agadez has become the most important migration hub in Africa. The whole city lives from this migration, with young intermediaries bringing migrants and smugglers together. In turn, they help obtain housing and arrange transport towards the north. Then there are the dozens of men waiting for the money transfers from their families in their home countries outside countless bank branches, from which agencies such as Western Money Union profit. Anyone who wants to build something or needs workers for physically demanding work can find cheap day labourers. The police and gendarmerie are also benefitting because money they ate demanding money from migrants at every checkpoint, the amounts varying between €1.50 euros and €30. There are arguments if the migrants are lacking documents.

It was estimated that between 120,000 and almost 190.000 people have passed through the city in 2015. The figures for 2016 are expected to be higher. Given its central role in African migration, Agadez is increasingly attracting Europe's attention regarding the curbing the flow of refugees to the north.

In November 2014, the Agadez Transit Centre was set up. The project was funded by the Italian Ministry of the Interior and it was endorsed by the Niamey government. The service is provided by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). The centre is supposed to help those migrants who were already on their way North, in particular heading to Libya, but who, according to IOM, have voluntarily decided to return. The staff offer accommodation for people on the way back to their home countries and enough supplies for a few days. In addition, they assist in the organisation of bus tickets. Migrants also have the opportunity to call their families. The centre is equipped with showers, beds and cooking facilities and can accommodate up to 1000 people in emergencies. It typically looks after 400. During a visit in August 2015, however, there were only around 15 people on the premises.

In April 2016 the Migrant Information Office was also opened in Agadez as part of the IOM programme Migrant Resource and Response Mechanism (MRRM), which was financed by the European Union and the British agency DFID. It aims to inform migrants about opportunities regarding visas and asylum, as well as job opportunities in Europe via IOM statements. There was also the idea to bring those returning home together with other willing travellers. As a result of the 2015 law against human trafficking, migrants are, however, hiding as much as possible, remaining in their accommodation and the areas where they are living and trying to be invisible. In most cases, this is demanded by their smugglers.

Additionally, there are two further small information centres located in Dirkou near the Libyan border and in Arlit on the border with Algeria. The seven million euros of funding provided by the European Union runs until October 2019. Another information centre is situated in the capital, Niamey. The IOM, which runs them, stresses that residence in the facilities is voluntary. There is cooperation with other organisations, such as the Catholic Church.

Niamey is also home to the civilian Sahel mission of the European Union's EUCAP, which has been led by Finn Kirsti Henriksson since August 2016 and has an annual budget of 26.3 million euros at its disposal.3 Another office can now be found in Agadez. The mission, which has 165 on site staff members, was launched in 2012 and has a mandate until 2018. The mission was officially due to the unstable situation in many neighbouring countries. For example, several Islamist groups occupied the north of the neighbouring country, Mali, from April 2012, causing 200,000 people to flee. Today, over 60,000 Malian refugees are living in Niger. The collapse of Libya, where many West Africans including Nigerians, had gone to work, has also had a significant impact on the region. In November alone the IOM brought another 167 Nigeriens back to their home country.4

It is particularly unsafe in the South East of the country, around the city of Diffa, where almost 97,000 Nigerians are living. They fled from the terrorist group Boko Haram, who have also carried out attacks in Niger increasingly since January 2015. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is also active in Niger, with attacks as recently as October, when they attacked the Tazalit refugee camp, killing 22 people. Previously, AQMI was repeatedly responsible for kidnapping Europeans.

The EUCAP mission was set up because of precisely this instability. Its aim is to support the fight against terrorism and organised crime at a national and regional level. To achieve this they are providing, amongst other things, training for their policemen and soldiers. According to their own statistics, more than 7000 employees have received security training to date. Both generally speaking and in official releases the EUCAP is not against immigration, but it is against “illegal“ activities, such as the trafficking of drugs and humans, which are often involved.

In 2015 human trafficking was the most important buzzword in Niger, even though migration was not yet the dominant theme in Europe. In May, under the leadership of Mahamadou Issoufou, who in March this year won a second term during a highly criticised election, the government adopted the policy that human trafficking could be punishable up to 30 years in jail and a fine of up to EUR 45,000. The EU has put on massive pressure, according to Hassane Boukar from the journalist network „Alternative Spaces for the Citizens of Niger“. He believes that the government has also „come to this noteworthy decision without consulting the citizens of Niger“.5

At the same time there is also criticism of the fact that, first and foremost, the law pushes migrants into illegality. It is also possible for smugglers to charge higher prices. In any case, implementation is difficult. The majority of migrants arriving in Niger come from countries within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Migrants are able to reside for up to 90 days in any of the countries inside the ECOWAS, as ratified in the 1979 “Protocol on Free Movement of People, Residence and Establishment“. But these regulations are implemented differently from country to country; for instance sometimes personal identification is enough, but for others a so-called ECOWAS-Travel-Pass is required.

But the relatively new legislation against human trafficking is not the only result of pressure from the EU. There are many other plans which, at first sight, should improve infrastructure in Niger. In addition to the EUCAP-Mission and “information centres“, the European Development Fund should be sending 596 million euros to Niger between 2014 and 2020, which will be used to implement general infrastructure projects. No other single country is receiving such a large sum. Through funding from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa there are plans for a further EUR 30 million to be used for agricultural projects in Tahoua and Agadez, and an additional EUR 25 million for the improvement of government practises at local levels and improving the management of the migratory flow. The local partner is GIZ, the German Society for International Co-operation.

A further EUR three million are also earmarked for “improving border control“, with help from the Security Programme Diffa Niger (SEDINI). According to officials, these measures should prevent the growth of Boko Haram in Niger. Another reason to do this is the large amount of migrants coming from Nigeria.

Niger has already had a deportation agreement with Spain since 2008. In February 2016 it was among the 17 countries that were, according to the German government, hindering the deportation of migrants back to their country of origin.

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