The city of Agadez, Niger.

The desert town of Agadez, Niger is a final stop before the treacherous journey across the Sahara to Libya. Refugees huddle on the backs of overcrowded trucks, hoping to reach their destination safely. Interception by Niger’s military or raiding separatist groups is common and compounds the risks of venturing across 1200 kilometers of desert. Yet for these people, the journey is a vital pathway to safe haven. Since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan ports are uncontrolled, and boats leave for Italy and Greece on a daily basis.

Despite the dangers, the narrative of hope in the information age is a compelling one; the safety and greater prosperity of Europe compels migrants to take on the risks of crossing continents. The modern era’s unparalleled access to information has not only provided more details on the perils that migrants and refugees face, but also of the benefits of reaching Europe. Migrants stay well aware of the evolving news cycle around the EU’s response to the refugee crisis, with images of Germans with open arms bearing plush toys presenting a future worth risking death. Young Africans also see the Facebook photos of friends who have succeeded in reaching a new home and are spurred on by the images of success rather than the lost voices of those who perished or were turned back. Moreover, the proliferation of mobile phones allows people smugglers to be no more than a phone call away as traditional barriers to information and accessing transit become lower and lower.

Upon arrival in Europe however; there is a bias for many African asylum seekers to be labelled as economic migrants and thus less deserving of refuge. In an interview with the HPR, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council think tank’s Africa Centre, Bronwyn Bruton, highlighted how “at this point we have such a thick black line that we draw between humanitarian or political refugees and economic migrants. A lot of the time, if you can’t feed your child and you’re watching a child starve that is a humanitarian crisis…we’re very bad at realizing how vital economic migration is, and that it is actually a human right according to the UN.” As international focus centres on the refugee crisis out of Syria and neighbouring nations, it is increasingly difficult to evaluate which asylum seekers’ claims should be prioritised over others. Bronwyn emphasises that “it requires a change in mindset and unfortunately…it’s a resource problem” in the finite number of refugees able to be accepted by developed nations.  

The International Organization for Migration’s Chief of Mission in Niger, Giuseppe Loprete, told the HPR how “economic migrants deserve more opportunities in their countries and in the region or migratory flows will continue or even increase. More opportunities for them should be created in their countries, especially in less developed areas. Local development projects, trainings, access to job opportunities, credit, access to education and legal ways to migrate should be explored and supported by the international community.” Creating these opportunities is far removed from the politically charged wars to which the United States and its allies have dedicated trillions of dollars and requires generous and long term aid with greater focus upon the plight of African refugees and economic migrants.

In addition to refugee intake, the wars and oppressive regimes of various parts of the African continent are almost forgotten as U.S. foreign policy fixates on the Middle-East. Compassion and media interest is focused on one area of conflict, but others have been forgotten. Conflicts with Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad are ongoing after the social media furore of 2014 faded away. Civil war in Sudan, Islamist insurgencies in Somalia, human rights abuses by the totalitarian government of Eritrea and numerous other conflicts occur in seeming perpetuity. The media cycle washes sporadically over these issues as the majority of news lines up with U.S. foreign policy’s interests in areas outside the continent.

The African refugee crisis is manifest in the Niger town of Agadez, where an increasing wave of migration has birthed a growing people smuggling industry. Resting on the edge of the Sahara, Agadez has for centuries been a trading hub on the route to North Africa. In recent history it was a key tourist destination, driving the community’s livelihood before kidnappings and violence in the area by Islamic fundamentalists and ethnic Tuaregs collapsed the industry. Today, it is a final stop where migrants contract drivers to transport them to Libya and from there hope to pay for passage on boats to Europe. Too often, the smugglers’ vehicles are overcrowded and individuals fall and are lost in the sands, while breakdown and attack by separatist groups or thieves poses serious risks in the isolation and anonymity of the desert. The death toll of those lost in the Sahara is estimated to be at least that of the more publicized deaths in Mediterranean waters.  

Loprete explained how “the closure of other corridors and the weak controls at the Libyan border have resulted in bigger flows transiting Niger. Smuggling networks are consolidated throughout the Sahel and the poor living conditions, poverty, and lack of opportunities for youth continue to be the main drivers for migration in this part of the world…100,000 to 120,000 migrants are expected to transit through Niger in 2015.”

Local entrepreneurs, many of whom used to work in tourism, have turned from driving Westerners on desert safaris to transporting waves of desperate refugees across the Sahara. Exponentially increasing demand for their services has allowed people smugglers to charge higher and higher prices. Meanwhile, local authorities protect themselves from scrutiny through by claiming to be working on stamping out the trade while demanding exacting bribes from voyagers. Loprete recounted that there has been “a massive influx of money into the local economy of Agadez, mainly due to the increasing profits generated by migrants in transit … it seems evident that this industry is even generating investments such as new houses for accommodating migrants or purchasing of vehicles for transporting migrants … other areas of Niger remain extremely poor and are not benefiting from this transit.” These profits allow wide-scoping police corruption to occur as bribes are demanded at various points of the transit. Without oversight, recently strengthened government policy outlawing people smuggling is little more than empty rhetoric.

Moreover, Loprete believes that “this industry will be sustainable [as long as] the influx from West Africa will continue” and is “getting more organized by the day.” However, he rejects the notion that people smuggling is the only option for Agadez residents’ to support themselves: “Agadez is a region full of natural resources … there are alternatives to find opportunities for regular jobs and livelihoods.” But with the demand for people smuggling projected only to grow, it remains unlikely that such other alternatives will be taken over the smuggling trade.

In light of the refugee crises across Africa, alongside the humanitarian need for economic migration, it seems that the only option global actors have left African migrants with is to rely on black market forces to purchase their own safety. Insufficient focus is put on African wars and insurgencies, with more and more refugees pushed towards Europe. In the scope of the global wave of refugees, economic migrants are severely disadvantaged without sufficient domestic measures in place to stem their emigration. As long as attention remains fixed on fighting wars in the Middle East, the prospects for African refugees and migrants are bleak.


Image Credit:Dan Lundberg/Flickr

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