No migrant influx in Europe despite fears after Niger’s junta lifted ban

AGADEZ (Reuters) – At the Agadez bus station, a northern Niger town that is a gateway to Sahara, a dozen masked men climbed onto a battered truck to cross the desert into Libya.

“Italy! Italy!” shouted several men whose legs were hanging over the side. They gripped short wooden poles, hoping to prevent themselves from falling.

If I can earn enough money in Libya, I will stay. “If I don’t earn enough in Libya, I will leave for Europe”, said Abdoulaye Diallo (40), a Guinean, at a nearby migrants compound late April.

In November, Niger’s leaders scrapped a law backed by the European Union that criminalised those who assisted migrants. Since then, vehicles such as this one heading to Libya, have been joining weekly convoys led by Nigerien security forces, headed north, instead of taking circuitous paths through the desert in order to avoid detection.

Since the repeal of the law, migrant flows have risen sharply. Reuters calculated that over 128,790 migrants left Niger in march, which is 68% more than March 2023. This was based on data provided by the International Organisation for Migration, a UN agency.

The IOM reported in its report published last month that the price people smugglers charge to cross from Niger into Libya is now around $170, down from $500 under the previous law.

The reversed law caused alarm in Europe. Some far-right parties predicted an illegal immigration wave in the lead-up to the European Parliament elections this week.

Nine migration experts and representatives from migration-focused organizations painted a more cautionary picture. They noted that the data on migrants arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean did not show an increased number, but they said these numbers could increase going forward.

Flavio Di Giacomo is the IOM spokesperson in the Mediterranean. “When I hear politicians talk about an immigration emergency, or an invasion, no, that is not what is happening,” he said. He said that the UN agency does not expect the number of migrants on this route coming from North Africa will increase dramatically in the next few months.

This is a human emergency. This is not a humanitarian emergency.

Frontex, the EU’s border agency, said in its May report that arrivals through the central Mediterranean were down by 62% between January and April. Di Giacomo explained that this was partially due to bad weather which complicated the sea crossing.

IOM points out that historical trends show that 80 percent of African migrants tends to remain in Africa. This is part of the centuries-old tradition for free movement of economic migrants.

Two officials from the region who did not want to be identified because they are not authorized to speak in public, claimed that Libya and Tunisia had also increased their efforts to detain or turn back migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean after receiving EU funds to curb migration. Last year, the EU announced that it would invest 800 million euros in North Africa to combat the problem until 2024.

A spokesperson for European Commission refused to answer questions from Reuters.

The Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni credited this week the decline in crossings to the help of the two countries.

To reach Europe through Libya, one must navigate a variety of security forces as well as predatory militias. A Libyan aid worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject, described the country as “a swamp”, where migrants were stuck in the country trying to make money or became prey to criminal gangs.

Azizou Chehou is a Niger activist who runs a rescue organisation for migrants in the desert.

Reuters requests for comments were not answered by the authorities in Tunisia and Libya. Tunisia said in the past that it respected human rights, but did not accept illegal immigrants. Libyan authorities have said they are working closely with Italy and their neighbours to combat migration.

EASIER TRAVEL THROUGH THE NIGER

The EU has been working to reduce illegal migration from the Middle East, Africa and Asia by tightening their borders and limiting asylum laws.

In addition, the EU has sought to stop the flow of migrants by creating buffer zones in countries where they travel. In Niger, this meant working with the government in exchange for budgetary assistance and other investments to improve local economic opportunities.

The 2015 law had a dramatic impact on migration through Niger. The U.N. reported that after the law was passed in 2016, and routes north from Agadez were heavily patrolled and heavily manned, outgoing migration flows dropped 79% between 2016 to 2017.

Frontex reports that the number of migrants found on the central Mediterranean route in 2018 was 24,800, a figure more than 86% less than in 2016, when 181,459 migrants were detected. The majority had come from Libya.

Some migrants continue to travel through Niger and avoid detection by driving further into the desert. Some migrants found new routes, cramming themselves into boats bound for the Canary Islands and flying across the Sahara legally to Tunisia.

The Niger junta quickly rescinded the agreement reached with the EU after it seized power through a coup in July 2023.

The law was deeply unpopular with people in the northern Niger, where those who fed, housed and transported migrants had their incomes disappear overnight. Three experts told Reuters that the junta likely also saw repealing of the law as a means to burnish its anti-Western propaganda.

Binta Maiga Moha is the director of migration in Niger’s interior ministry. She said the government repealed this law because it had a negative impact on the economy in Agadez. Only a fraction (of the EU money) went to Niger. The majority was given to UN agencies and aid organizations.

She said that the law led to more deaths as people took on greater risks.

Luca Raineri, a migration researcher at Italy’s Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, said that it’s difficult to estimate how many migrants transit through Niger since it’s unclear how much immigration escaped detection before the change in law.

However, data from local NGOs suggests that there has been a significant increase in the number of people moving north.

Chehou said that ten to twenty vehicles carrying 25 to 30 people each would depart for Libya and Algeria every week when the law was still in effect. But now, this number has risen to more than 100 vehicles.

According to IOM, more than 60% of migrants transiting Niger every month in this year were Nigeriens. The IOM notes that the majority of Nigeriens who migrate into Libya to find work are not planning to travel any further.

IOM reported that the IOM recorded 719,064 migrants in Libya as of February 20, 2024. This is the highest number the agency has ever tracked since it began tracking the displacement.

According to a U.N. Report last year, the migrants enter a country in which “widescale” exploitation is a lucrative industry and “overwhelming evidence” of torture and sexual slavery is present.

Related Articles