Ni­ger Caught in Midd­le Of An­ti-Mi­grant Push


DIRKOU, Ni­ger — The hea­vi­ly ar­med tro­ops are po­si­tio­ned around oa­ses in Ni­ger’s vast nort­hern de­sert, whe­re tem­pe­ra­tu­res rou­ti­nely climb bey­ond 38 de­grees.

Whi­le both Al Qa­e­da and the Is­la­mic Sta­te ha­ve bran­ches ope­ra­ting in the area, the mis­si­on of the go­vern­ment forces he­re is not to com­bat ji­ha­dism.

Ins­tead, the­se Ni­ge­ri­en sol­diers are batt­ling hu­man smugg­lers, who trans­port mi­grants across the har­sh land­scape. The mi­grants ho­pe to reach neigh­bo­ring Li­bya, and from the­re, try to reach Eu­ro­pe.

So­me smugg­lers are ar­med, mi­li­tants are ri­fe and the ter­rain is unf­or­gi­ving.

But Ni­ger has dras­ti­cal­ly re­du­ced the num­ber of peop­le mo­ving north to Li­bya through its ter­ri­to­ry over the past two ye­ars.

The Eu­ro­pean Uni­on an­noun­ced last ye­ar it would pro­vi­de Ni­ger with about $1 bil­li­on in de­ve­lop­ment aid through 2020, with hund­reds of mil­li­ons of that ear­mar­ked for an­ti- mi­gra­ti­on pro­jects. Ger­ma­ny, Fran­ce and Ita­ly al­so pro­vi­de aid on their own. It is part of a Eu­ro­pean Uni­on stra­te­gy to keep mi­grants from its shores, in­clu­ding pay­ing bil­li­ons to Tur­key and mo­re than $100 mil­li­on to Su­dan.

Ita­ly has be­en ac­cu­sed of pay­ing off mi­li­ti­as in Li­bya to keep mi­grants at bay. And he­re in Ni­ger, so­me mi­li­ta­ry of­fi­ci­als an­gri­ly cont­end that Fran­ce fi­nan­ced a for­mer re­bel le­a­der who re­mains a th­re­at, prio­ri­ti­zing its de­si­re to stop mi­gra­ti­on over Ni­ger’s na­tio­nal se­cu­ri­ty in­te­rests.

Sin­ce pas­sing a law against traf­fi­cking in 2015, Ni­ger has di­rec­ted its mi­li­ta­ry to ar­rest and jail smugg­lers and con­fis­ca­te their ve­hi­cles.

At the peak in 2015, the­re we­re 5,000 to 7,000 mi­grants a week tra­ve­ling through Ni­ger to Li­bya. The cri­mi­na­liza­t­i­on of smugg­ling has re­du­ced tho­se num­bers to about 1,000 peop­le a week now, ac­cor­ding to the In­ter­na­tio­nal Or­ga­niza­t­i­on for Mi­gra­ti­on, or I.O.M.

At the sa­me time, mo­re mi­grants are lea­ving Li­bya, fle­eing the vio­lence tar­ge­ting sub- Sa­ha­ran Af­ri­cans the­re. For the last two ye­ars, mo­re Af­ri­can mi­grants ha­ve be­en lea­ving Li­bya to re­turn ho­me than en­te­ring the coun­try from Ni­ger.

One of Ni­ger’s big­gest bus com­pa­nies, Rim­bo, used to send four mi­grant-fil­led bu­ses each day from the coun­try’s ca­pi­tal in the south, Nia­mey, to the nort­hern ci­ty of Aga­dez, a jum­ping off po­int for the trip to the Li­by­an bor­der. Now, the com­pa­ny has si­gned a two-ye­ar contract with the I.O. M. to car­ry mi­grants the other way.

Ni­ger’s achie­ve­ment in the ef­fort has al­so co­me at a cost, in­clu­ding for tho­se mi­grants still de­ter­mi­ned to ma­ke it to Li­bya, who ta­ke mo­re risks than ever be­fo­re. When smugg­lers learn the mi­li­ta­ry is in the area, they aban­don mi­grants in the de­sert to es­cape ar­rest.

This has led to do­zens of de­aths by de­hy­dra­ti­on over the past two ye­ars, promp­t­ing Ni­ger’s ci­vil pro­tec­tion agen­cy and the I.O. M. to launch weekly res­cue pa­trols.

The agen­cy’s he­ad, Adam Ka­mas­si, said his team usual­ly res­cu­es 20 to 50 peop­le every time it

E.U. mo­ney slows hu­man smugg­ling, but at a pri­ce.

goes out. On tho­se trips, it ne­ar­ly al­ways finds th­ree or four bo­dies.

The go­vern­ment’s clo­sure of mi­grant rou­tes has cau­sed an in­crea­se in un­em­ploy­ment and an up­tick in ac­tivi­ties li­ke drug smugg­ling and rob­be­ry.

“I know of about 20 peop­le who ha­ve be­co­me ban­dits for lack of work,” said Ma­ha­ma­dou Is­souf, who has dri­ven mi­grants from Aga­dez to sou­thern Li­bya sin­ce 2005, but who no lon­ger has work.

A mi­li­ta­ry in­tel­li­gence do­cu­ment no­ted that sin­ce the crack­down, towns along the mi­grant rou­te are ha­ving a hard time pay­ing for es­sen­ti­al ser­vices li­ke schools and he­alth cli­nics, which had re­li­ed on mo­ney from mi­gra­ti­on and the in­dus­tries fee­ding it.

For Has­san Mo­ham­med, 31, a for­mer mi­grant smugg­ler, the crack­down has left him id­le.

“The­re’s no pro­ject for any of us he­re,” he said. “The­re’s not­hing go­ing on. I on­ly sleep and wa­ke up.”

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