The young men of Agadez in central Niger have been many things: armed rebels in the Touareg rebellion (2007-9), soldiers in Gaddafi’s army, uranium miners, desert tour guides and, most recently, migrant smugglers and informal gold miners. But last September, the Nigerien government began to enforce a law, passed at the behest of the European Union, that criminalizes the transport and housing of migrants. In March, it closed the region’s largest informal gold mine, leaving hundreds of young men in Agadez suddenly out of a job. Since September more than 100 drivers and ‘ghetto’ owners who once housed migrants have been arrested and over 100 vehicles confiscated.
Locals, along with activists in neighbouring countries, complain that the new law violates a 1979 agreement guaranteeing freedom of movement for citizens of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). ‘ECOWAS ends at Agadez,’ one former driver told me. Issouf Hadan, a local radio journalist, said that people see the law as a ‘kind of neocolonialism’, ‘put in place because the EU wanted it’. Hamadou Tcherno, an NGO worker, called it ‘the externalization of Schengen borders. It’s a question of using aid as blackmail: they will help the countries that collaborate more.’
Many of Agadez’s elected officials are former leaders of the Touareg rebellion. ‘All these youth, they listen to us, it’s like an army that’s not called an army,’ Mohamed Anacko, the president of the Regional Council, told me. ‘We said to them, this is not the time to react violently. They are even the ones who tell us when there is Islamist activity in the area. But if [the EU] doesn’t create something immediately, they may go down other roads.’ It doesn't help that they perceive the EU as largely working through the government in Niamey, against whom the Touaregs and the Toubous in the north have fought two wars in the last twenty-five years.
For the most part, the EU is putting in place ‘traditional development programmes’ focusing on governance, healthcare and agricultural projects. ‘They are not specifically targeting the actors directly concerned: the drivers, the ghetto owners,’ Anacko said. ‘Chauffeurs are unlikely to become farmers,’ Hadan said.
The people of Agadez have been involved in the legal transport of migrants across the Sahara for hundreds of years. But to European policy makers they are ‘human traffickers’. ‘These young people are perhaps not big traffickers, but they feed the chain of torture, of ill treatment,’ according to Raul Mateus Paula, the head of the EU delegation in Niger. ‘They are contributing, and they need to realise that they are contributing to sending people to their deaths.’
Whichever characterisation is more accurate, the fact remains that thousands of young men – many of whom know how to use weapons and navigate the desert – are now unemployed. ‘For now we are patient,’ one of them told me, ‘but eventually when we run out of patience, we will have to start working illegally. We are even thinking about becoming migrants ourselves.’
They used to drive in convoys along the national road. Those who still operate, like other outlaws, take the unmonitored roads. Azaoua Mahaman works with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Agadez. ‘The new routes are those taken by drug traffickers and arms traders and AQIM and other jihadists,’ he told me. ‘We fear them getting mixed up with one another – a migrant in distress who has lost all his money, if someone suggests something to him, he may do something else.’ Some drivers have begun to rent jeeps in Taoua and other towns to the south, avoiding Agadez entirely. Others take routes further east, towards the Chadian border, an area that is heavily mined.
As the risks for the traffickers increase, so do the risks for migrants. The pick-up trucks leave at night in twos or threes, taking less busy roads where there is little chance that help will come if something goes wrong. ‘If you break down now, that’s it, you will die,’ one driver told me. Distress calls to IOM’s migrant hotline have spiked. And the migration business continues: 36,703 migrants have arrived on Italian shores so far this year, up from 25,353 in the same period in 2016.
The EU perspective is understandable: the stories coming out of Libya of beatings, torture, slave labour, systematised kidnapping and detention are chilling, and many young transporters appear unconcerned by their complicity: ‘If they can’t pay you, you sell them to someone else,’ one of them said matter-of-factly. But the ‘traffickers’ of Agadez aren’t the people who drive the migrants to dream of Europe, who make legal migration all but impossible, who draft memos advising governments to end the Mare Nostrum search programme in the Mediterranean because it creates ‘a pull factor’, ensuring that more migrants will die. And they aren’t the ones putting in place a deal with Libya to patrol its shores and revamp its detention centres, condemning even more migrants to kidnapping, torture and death.
Laura Dean reported from Agadez with a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.
Jérôme Tubiana will write about a Liberian migrant’s abortive journey through Agadez in a forthcoming issue of the LRB.