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What Happened When the EU Moved Its Fight to Stop Migration to Niger

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The bus station at Agadez was sleepy; the hot season was coming, and by dawn a film of dust had settled on the city. But the weather conditions did not explain why there were no travelers. At the ticket office, two clerks were lying on a mattress. One told me, “We haven’t had any passengers for a long time. People going north keep a low profile.” His colleague slept on.

Tourist agencies call Agadez, the largest city in northern Niger, the “gateway to the desert,” though it no longer deserves the name. The central bus station was once the heart of the city, the starting point for convoys heading out of the country. Every Monday, up to 200 vehicles would set off into the desert, carrying livestock and migrants from West Africa, and sometimes from the center and east of the continent, heading mostly for Libya and, with luck, Europe. The convoys had an army escort as far as the Libyan border. To the migrants, they represented hope; to the people of Agadez, they were a source of income. Mahaman Sanoussi, a local activist, said, “They provided a living for the whole city. Migration was legal, and the transporters were respectable. They paid their taxes, like other entrepreneurs. But law 2015-36 changed all that.”

This law “on the illegal trafficking of migrants,” passed on May 26, 2015, made a once respectable business illegal overnight, and led to many young people being imprisoned. In 2015 the EU built an invisible wall to stop migrants from the south; it was the year of the European Agenda on Migration and the Valetta summit in Malta, when the 28 member states sought to externalize their fight against immigration with the help of some African states. The EU offered these impoverished “partners” more than 2 billion euros to hold back migrants. An EU Emergency Trust Fund “for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa” (EUTF for Africa) financed many projects within the framework of what the European Commission called “tailor-made cooperation” with Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia, Mali, and Niger.

Niger, bordering Algeria and Libya, plays a key role in the EU’s strategy. After the Franco-British coalition brought down Muammar Gaddhafi’s Libyan regime in 2011, Agadez became a major staging post on the way to Europe; in 2016 nearly 400,000 migrants are estimated to have passed through to reach North Africa, and often the Mediterranean. In 2015 the EU made Agadez a key target of its measures to curb migration.

Niger, the world’s poorest country according to the UN Development Program, faces many threats on its borders: Boko Haram to the southeast, Malian armed groups to the northwest, Tubu militias to the north. Mahamadou Issoufou’s government, an ally of France, needs money and military support. Over three years, the EUTF has given it 266.2 million euros, more than any other country. The official discourse is about development aid and the fight against human trafficking, but fails to hide a more prosaic goal: to stop, by force if necessary, the flow of migrants to Europe.

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Thanks !

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