“As one European ambassador said, “Niger is now the southern border of Europe.”
(…) “In the case of the E.U. the answer is clear. Three-quarters of all African migrants arriving by boat in Italy in recent years transited Niger. As one European ambassador said, “Niger is now the southern border of Europe.”
Federica Mogherini, the closest the 28-member E.U. has to a foreign minister, chose Niger for her first trip to Africa in 2015. The visit was seen as a reward for the Niger government’s passage of Law 36 in May that year that effectively made it illegal for foreign nationals to travel north of Agadez.
“We share an interest in managing migration in the best possible way, for both Europe and Africa,” Mogherini said at the time.
Since then, she has referred to Niger as the “model” for how other transit countries should manage migration and the best performer of the five African nations who signed up to the E.U. Partnership Framework on Migration – the plan that made development aid conditional on cooperation in migration control. Niger is “an initial success story that we now want to replicate at regional level,” she said in a recent speech.
Angela Merkel became the first German chancellor to visit the country in October 2016. Her trip followed a wave of arrests under Law 36 in the Agadez region. Merkel promised money and “opportunities” for those who had previously made their living out of migration.
One of the main recipients of E.U. funding is the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which now occupies most of one street in Plateau. In a little over two years the IOM headcount has gone from 22 to more than 300 staff.
Giuseppe Loprete, the head of mission, says the crackdown in northern Niger is about more than Europe closing the door on African migrants. The new law was needed as networks connecting drug smuggling and militant groups were threatening the country, and the conditions in which migrants were forced to travel were criminal.
Loprete echoes Mogherini in saying that stopping “irregular migration” is about saving lives in the desert. The IOM has hired community officers to warn migrants of the dangers they face farther north.
“Libya is hell and people who go there healthy lose their minds,” Loprete says.
A side effect of the crackdown has been a sharp increase in business for IOM, whose main activity is a voluntary returns program. Some 7,000 African migrants were sent home from Niger last year, up from 1,400 in 2014. More than 2,000 returns in the first three months of 2018 suggest another record year.
Loprete says European politicians must see that more legal routes are the only answer to containing irregular migration, but he concludes, “Europe is not asking for the moon, just for managed migration.”
The person who does most of the asking is Raul Mateus Paula, the E.U.’s top diplomat in Niamey. This relatively unheralded country that connects West and North Africa is now the biggest per capita recipient of E.U. aid in the world. The European Development Fund awarded $731 million to Niger for the period 2014–20. A subsequent review boosted this by a further $108 million. Among the experiments this money bankrolls are the connection of remote border posts – where there was previously no electricity – to the internet under the German aid corporation, GIZ; a massive expansion of judges to hear smuggling and trafficking cases; and hundreds of flatbed trucks, off-road vehicles, motorcycles and satellite phones for Nigerien security forces.
This relatively unheralded country that connects West and North Africa is now the biggest per capita recipient of E.U. aid in the world.
Normally, when foreign aid is directed to countries with endemic corruption – Transparency International ranks Niger 112th out of 180 countries worldwide – it is channeled through nongovernmental organizations. Until 2014 the E.U. gave only one-third of its aid to Niger in direct budget support; in this cycle, 75 percent of its aid goes straight into government coffers. Paula calls the E.U. Niger’s “number one partner” and sees no divergence in their interests on security, development or migration.
But not everyone agrees that European and Nigerien interests align. Julien Brachet, an expert on the Sahel and Sahara, argues that the desire to stop Europe-bound migration as far upstream as possible has made Niger, and particularly Agadez, the “perfect target” for E.U. migration policies. These policies, he argues, have taken decades-old informal migration routes and made them clandestine and more dangerous. A fellow at the French National Research Institute for Development, Brachet accuses the E.U. of “manufacturing smugglers” with the policies it has drafted to control them.
Niger, which has the fastest-growing population in the world, is a fragile setting for grand policy experiments. Since independence from France in 1960 it has witnessed four coups, the last of which was in 2010. The regular overthrow of governments has seen political parties proliferate, while the same cast of politicians remains. The current president, Mahamadou Issoufou, has run in every presidential election since 1993. His latest vehicle, the Party for Democracy and Socialism, is one of more than 50 active parties. The group’s headquarters stands out from the landscape in Niamey thanks to giant streamers, in the party’s signature pink, draped over the building.
The biggest office in the pink house belongs to Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s interior minister and its rising political star. When European diplomats mention who they deal with in the Nigerien government, his name is invariably heard.
“We are in a moment with a lot of international attention,” Bazoum says. “We took measures to control migration and this has been appreciated especially by our European partners.”
Since the crackdown, the number of migrants passing checkpoints between Niamey and Agadez has dropped from 350 per day, he claims, to 160 a week.
“We took away many people’s livelihoods,” he says, “but we have to say that the economy was linked to banditry and connected to other criminal activities.”” (…)
Map Illustration by Ali Figueroa, ibidem