In 2014, when migration into Europe via the Mediterranean reached unprecedented levels, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) opened a transit centre in the Saharan city of Agadez, the main smuggling hub in northern Niger. It can hold a thousand people: ambitious West Africans who haven’t managed to reach Europe and now need help to get home to Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, the Gambia or Liberia. More than five thousand people were repatriated through the IOM centre in 2016: three times more than in 2015. It is a demoralising place. The residents are haunted by an acute sense of failure. Many have spent a lot of money, often borrowed from relatives, in the hope of reaching Europe, and now have to go home and explain themselves. A worker there told me that most of them made it to Libya, but gave up before they reached the shores of the Mediterranean. Migrants are often attacked by coupeurs de route – highwaymen – in the foothills of the Air mountains just beyond Agadez. Vehicles also get lost in the desert, break down, run out of fuel. Thirst is a constant danger. People who were unlucky on the road through the desert, he believed, were unlikely to try again.
Ezekiel ‘Shadow’ Giah, a 38-year-old Liberian, wound up at the centre in March. After working for three years in construction in Nigeria, he decided to try to get to Europe. Last September, not long after Niger had begun enforcing a ban on migrant convoys, he took a long-distance bus to Agadez. At the bus station he was approached by a local ‘coaxer’, the term used for intermediaries on the smuggling routes through West Africa. ‘Are you travelling to Libya? We can take you before tomorrow!’ The man took Shadow on his motorbike to a Ghanaian man, ‘who encouraged me to go, and told me his brother in Libya would help me to reach Europe’. Shadow paid the man 100,000 CFA francs (£130), well short of the going rate (around £400), and handed over his watch and phone to clinch the deal. That night he joined a group of twenty migrants, mostly from Senegal, Gambia and Nigeria, in the back of a pick-up, part of a convoy of 21 vehicles.
The convoy avoided the checkpoint at the edge of Agadez but stopped at four others on the way to the Libyan border, nearly seven hundred miles away. At each, the passengers were asked to pay a bribe of five or ten thousand CFA francs to the guards. Shadow was short of money by the third checkpoint and had to surrender his swanky shoes, worth about £50. He was left with a pair of flip-flops. In Madama, site of the final checkpoint before the Libyan border, he sold a pair of jeans and four T-shirts that were supposed to see him through his first days in Europe. At another checkpoint on the Libyan side of the border, guarded by local Tubu militiamen, each migrant was asked to pay ten Libyan dinars (£5.60). The driver loaned Shadow the money.
In Sebha, some three hundred miles inside Libya, the pick-up pulled into a private compound. The women were separated from Shadow’s group; he speculated that they were sold into prostitution. The men were locked in a room already full of would-be migrants, who told the newcomers that this was a gidambashi, or ‘credit house’, where people who couldn’t pay for the next leg of the trip were stuck until their relatives or friends could transfer the money. In the anarchy that has succeeded Gaddafi’s regime, even migrants who have already paid the full amount are likely to be held in a gidambashi, while freelance operators milk their families for money.
About fifty men were held captive in the room. Every morning, their feet were beaten with rubber batons. (He showed me the soles of his own feet.) The house was run by three Ghanaian migrants: Kofi, the gang boss; his associate ‘Rasta’, who was in charge of the beatings; and a third man. The prisoners were fed one piece of bread a day. ‘I don’t want you to fill my toilet,’ Kofi said. The guards were ‘armed with AKs and pistols, and sometimes shot in the air to scare us’, Shadow said. The price was 1500 US dollars for each captive’s release. It took Shadow five months to remember an uncle’s number. On his new mobile phone, he showed me a ransom photo that the guards had taken and posted on Facebook. He is stripped to the waist, bony, unrecognisable. The image was sent to his uncle via WhatsApp with the message ‘He owes us $1500, or he’ll die and we’ll throw the body in the desert.’ The next day, his uncle transferred money to Kofi’s wife in Ghana.
After that, he recalled, ‘they stopped beating me and let me watch TV in the salon, and I saw a broadcast on people dying in the river.’ Smugglers often tell migrants that the Mediterranean is just a river. ‘Do you want to go to Europe?’ Kofi asked. Shadow didn’t: he’d had enough. The uncle was instructed to transfer more money. First, the ‘ghetto fee’ of 200 dinars (£115) – ‘You stayed in my house and used my water,’ Kofi said – then $300 to cover the trip back to Agadez. His return was more comfortable than the journey to Libya. He found a seat in a new car with no mileage on the clock, one of many brand new vehicles that are smuggled out of Libya every week to be sold in Niger. There were only two other passengers. In Agadez, he was told to make his way to the IOM centre. He had been there for two weeks when we met. As we were speaking, an IOM worker came in and told him he was on his way home. He filled his small backpack, rolled up a thin sleeping mat, and boarded the bus that would deposit him at another way-station in Liberia.