The vast majority of African migrants move from one African country to another. Rare are those who leave the continent. This might not be what many people in Europe think, but this is what official data and social scientists’ research show.
Migrating through the Sahel, to or across the Sahara and northern Africa, is not a recent phenomenon. However, for years, European media and governments have been focused on the minority of people who, having crossed the desert, went on to cross the Mediterranean Sea. In an attempt to stop this “flow” of sub-Saharan migrants heading for Europe irregularly, and to address the so-called root causes of migration, the EU and its member states have implemented migration policies directly within Africa, and especially in the Sahel. Keen to strengthen their own security sectors and boost development cooperation, several Sahelian governments actively cooperate with this effort.
No matter that there are probably no identifiable root causes, such as poverty, livelihood insecurity, absence of institutions, lack of public services, violence, conflicts over resources, demographic growth or climate change, to mention only the most commonly highlighted. No matter that there are probably as many combinations of factors as there are migrants, including personal, cultural, relational, biographical factors, which cannot be influenced, but which should not be negligible if we consider the very large number of people facing poverty, etc., and the very small number of people trying their luck to get to Europe. No matter that these migrations are marginal considering the total population of the two continents, and all the other forms of their mobility. The EU has spent billions of euros to stop them. Nobody knows with what effect on the irregular migration towards Europe, but what we know for sure is that travel through the Sahel and the Sahara is now made extremely expensive and unnecessarily risky by increased levels of checks and control.
The Sahel and the Sahara have been transformed into a vast “frontier zone” where migrants can be subjected to random checks, sent back to their home countries, or even arrested: anywhere and at any time. Even if most of the people who receive such treatment have no intention of travelling beyond the African continent. Even if the migration through the Sahel is legal for migrants coming from an ECOWAS country (i.e. most of the west-African countries), due to free movement protocols. And even more for people travelling through their own country.
In Niger, which has emerged as Europe’s most active partner in the Sahel, restrictive laws and harsh penalties apply not only to people who have actually crossed an international border irregularly, but also to many people who reside in Niger legally. That includes Nigeriens who act as drivers and guides for travellers. Until recently, like in all the Sahelian countries, migration was not considered a problem in Niger. Things changed when the EU put pressure on Niger’s government to “break the business model of (people) smugglers”, especially in the northern part of the country, where the town of Agadez is considered by European experts to be a continental hub for irregular migrants on their way to Libya and then Europe via the central Mediterranean route.
Through the civil programme EUCAP Sahel Niger and the New Migration Partnership Framework, the EU assists the Nigerien national and local authorities and their security forces in developing policies, techniques and procedures “to better control and fight illegal migration,” and in enforcing Niger’s 2015 law on migrant trafficking and smuggling. It defines a smuggler as “any person who, intentionally and in order to gain, either direct or indirect, financial or material benefit, facilitates the illegal entry or exit of a foreign national to or from Niger.” On the ground, this law is used to indiscriminately target people who are not involved in any kind of trafficking and, sometimes, not even in smuggling.
In the Agadez region, anybody who organizes passenger transport—such as drivers or guides with off-road pick-up trucks that can take around 30 passengers—can now potentially be accused of participating in “illicit migrant trafficking” and can be arrested and sentenced. Transporting – or simply housing – foreign nationals (whether they are in an irregular situation or not) in northern Niger means risking fines of up to CFA 30 million (€ 45, 760) and prison sentences of up of 30 years. And you don’t have to be “caught in the act” to be arrested or sentenced. People driving the kinds of trucks described above are automatically considered “smugglers.” They can be arrested several hundred kilometres from any border, on the simple basis of (assumed) intent. This means that even those drivers who are not involved in people smuggling or any illegal activities are changing their itineraries to avoid checkpoints. The problem is that by taking more off-beat, less travelled routes, drivers not only reduce their chances of being arrested—but also of being rescued in the case of breakdowns or attacks. They also avoid pressure from their peers to treat their clients decently, thereby increasing the dangers of Saharan travel for all.
All these measures run contrary to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Both stipulate “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own.” It also disregards the principle of the presumption of innocence, on which all major legal systems are based.
And finally, the more controls are strengthened, the more illegality becomes professionalized and insecurity becomes more widespread, justifying more controls according to a logic and a legitimization that is half humanitarian, half security, in an vicious circle.