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.”