In Niger and the Sahel region in west-central Africa, the trade in goods and people has been big business for centuries. In the last few years, people smuggling was an officially recognized profession. In some cases, smugglers even paid taxes. But in the last year, that business has been experiencing a downturn as a series of laws, passed originally in 2015, have begun to bite, causing the former smugglers to look elsewhere for an income.
“The market is dead,” one market trader, Issa Abdou in Agadez, told the news agency AFP. In the last few years, Abdou has made a living out of selling plastic jerry cans to the hundreds of thousands of people who have transited through towns like Agadez, in the hope of reaching Europe. The jerry cans could be filled with water or fuel, a necessity for surviving the long journey across the Sahara Desert to Libya and beyond.
In his best times, Abdou told AFP he was selling up to 100 jerry cans a day, each one costing about 6 euros.
A carrot and stick approach
Over the last year though, the Niger government has been tightening controls on smuggling and human trafficking and all the trades associated with this business. AFP estimates that the number of migrants passing through Niger has “fallen from 100,000-150,000 per year pre-2016 to 5,000-10,000 nowadays.” The knock-on effect on business is easy to work out.
Businesses offering food, blankets, water and accommodation had been thriving, despite a 2015 law which made migrant trafficking a crime, “punishable by up to 30 years in prison,” writes AFP.
In a carrot and stick approach, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou has laid on more patrols through the desert, to try and dissuade migrants from continuing their journey.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UNHCR have also been working with the Niger government, encouraging more and more migrants, stuck for months and years in the deteriorating situation in Libya, to return to their home countries via Niger. According to the IOM, 40,000 migrants have already taken this route back home.
The changes have taken a while to filter through. The 2015 law pushed the businesses out of Niger’s capital Niamey and to towns like Agadez explained Jan-Philipp Scholz, Deutsche Welle’s former West Africa correspondent and author of a book: “Human trafficking, migration business and modern slavery.”
In May, Scholz described for InfoMigrants how, in transit hubs like Agadez in Niger or Gao in Mali, so-called “coaxers [touts] await the migrants at the bus terminals and lure them into having coffee and organizing their next smuggler.” Many of the migrants “are alone at this point,” adds Scholz and so it is easy for them “to end up with the wrong people who will turn them over to traffickers.”
Scholz continued: “Smugglers promise to bring the migrants to the Mediterranean coast within a few days. But instead, they transport them to the next private person, hand them over to human traffickers and pocket a commission. So they play a double game and the traffickers are in business with the smugglers.”
“In the last few years, the network of people smugglers and traffickers has become really professional,” Scholz told Deutsche Welle.
Prior to 2019, every Monday, explains AFP, “a convoy of between 300 and 400 smaller vehicles and 70 to 115 large trucks would roll out of Agadez.” The news agency interviews a former smuggler, Idrissa Salifou, who admits: “At one time I could personally oversee the departure of 13 small vehicles, each carrying from 10 to 31 people and I’d pick up more than three million CFA francs [around 4500 euros].”
Bachir Amma, who heads an association of former migrant smugglers, tells AFP that each individual would pay the smugglers between 300-380 euros per week for housing, food and transport to Libya. At one time Agadez would be full of queues of migrants at the banks, waiting to withdraw money which their families had wired them.
‘New, dangerous routes’
AFP quotes one security source who claims that “reckless migrants” have been forced to look for “new, more dangerous routes,” to enter Libya.
“Everyone is afraid,” explains former smuggler Salifou. “If you are caught with a migrant, you’re screwed. You are sent straight to [Niger’s capital] Niamey.”
Local journalist Ibrahim Manzo Diallo confirmed to AFP that the whole migratory chain in Agadez has been broken. “It’s disastrous here in Agadez,” Diallo said. “From the sellers of jerry cans to small restaurants, from the middlemen to the smugglers, […] people have nothing.”
Promise of help building new businesses
Part of the EU strategy was to offer those business people who have lost one form of income a way to build a new, more legitimate, business. There was a promise of 1.5 million CFA francs (about 2,000 euros) to “former suppliers.” But so far, claims the former head of the migrant smuggling association Amma, “only 521 of a total of 6,565 people have received this aid.”
Salifou is thinking about going into the restaurant business, he told AFP. Abdou is hoping to return to work his fields, the livelihood he pursued before he got into selling jerry cans. Many, however, are worried that the promised money will not materialize.
The local authorities are also not too happy. Before, they used to receive 100’s of millions of CFAs of tax and administrative charges from all this business. Now, money coming from the smugglers and associated businesses has dried up.
“There are no more migrants passing through here,” Abdou told AFP French plaintively. “Europe is laughing and we, we are crying.”