Many African migrants remain undeterred in their endeavor to reach Europe despite the global pandemic situation due to the novel coronavirus and increased security measures. In Niger, it’s business-as-usual for migrants.
The numbers of migrants arriving in Europe may have slowed down amid the corona crisis, but many migrants are still trying to evade lockdown measures in Niger. One of the world's poorest countries, Niger has long become one of the key transit countries in Africa for migrants hoping to reach the EU.
However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pass through Niger undetected. A local official told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency that security forces "have further intensified their surveillance to enforce border closing measures aimed at fighting the coronavirus."
Despite a low coronavirus case number, Niger has decreed a state of emergency due to the spread of COVID-19, closing its borders with Libya and other neighboring countries as well as isolating the capital Niamey from the rest of the country.
This has resulted in tight controls in place in Niamey to enforce lockdown rules as well as an increase of security patrols in the desert; resulting in more than 300 people being detained since the beginning of April, during their attempts to move on to Libya and eventually reach Europe.
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A former people smuggler confirmed that it had become much more difficult for migrants to succeed in their endeavor of passing through Niger: "Before we could cross little by little but because of the anti-coronavirus measures, the road is really blocked," Idrissa Salifou told AFP. "Soldiers comb the entire length of the border day and night. And on the other side, the Libyans have become very vigilant."
Nonetheless, migrants are still heading to border communities along the border of Niger and Libya, congregating in places such as Madama and Dirkou. Boubakar Jerome, the mayor of Dirkou, told AFP that migrants continue to flock there in hopes of entering Libya.
"They manage to skirt the checkpoints. The unlucky ones are picked up by military patrols."
No fear of coronavirus
Despite the controls, migrants in the region remain undeterred, still trying to cross the desert nation in hopes of eventually reaching Europe via Libya.
Alassane Mamane, a retired civil servant living in Agadez, told AFP that "Gambians, Senegalese, Malians, they are all determined to head [to Europe]. One migrant said to me: 'I would rather die from coronavirus than live in misery."
Bachir Amma, who heads an association of former people smugglers, echoed the same sentiments, saying that the migrants simply don't appear to care about the coronavirus.
"In Agadez, some 'ghettos' (migrant safe houses) have reopened, and the migrants there look for any chance to bound into the desert," he told AFP. However, security forces eventually intercept an average of about 50 migrants a week trying to cross the border.
IOM working at full capacity
Migrants who are detained or rescued in the desert are currently placed in quarantine for 14 days at temporary sites in the north of the Niger, where the International Office of Migration (IOM) has welcomed a total of 1,600 migrants stranded in the desert since borders were closed at the end of March.
About half those migrants are held in quarantine at a site in Assamaka, on Niger’s border with Algeria There are several children and pregnant women among them as well as injured migrants, the UN agency said.
Last week, IOM launched an appeal to donors for supplementary aid to the tune of $10 million to meet the needs of migrants stuck in the Nigerien desert. The funds are intended to finance additional facilities and reinforced prevention measures in six transit centers which are all currently running at their respective maximum capacity.
Crime and punishment
In an attempt to clamp down on human trafficking, the Nigerien government adopted a law in 2015 making people smuggling a crime punishable with sentences of up to 30 years in prison.
At the start of 2019, President Mahamadou Issoufou credited the anti-migrant plan with causing the number of migrants passing through Niger to drop sharply from 100,000 to 150,000 a year before 2016 to 5,000 and 10,000 migrants per year today.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said during a visit to Niger the same year that the arrival numbers of irregular migrants on Italian shores had subsequently dropped by 80%. Meanwhile, neighboring countries, in particular Algeria, have taken to carrying out pushbacks, forcing migrants crossing the border back into Niger, preventing them from getting closer to Europe. Many perish in the desert heat, left without food or water.
However, according to a former smuggler, the rate of fewer migrants reaching Europe should not be attributed to increased desert patrols and other security measures in Niger and elsewhere, nor is it linked to potentially rising deaths in the desert.
Former trafficker Bachir Amma told AFP that the game changer had been the decision to cut the Nigerien capital Niamey off from the rest of the country. People are effectively banned from entering or leaving the city without permission, keeping traffic in and out of the southwestern city located close to the borders with Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria under tight control.
Many migrants used to travel through Niamey before heading further on to Agadez and other desert gateways: "With Niamey cut off, more and more migrants changed their itinerary: they now travel through Nigeria whose borders are more porous," said the former smuggler.
For those migrants who remain in Niger, reaching Europe remains a dream - one that is becoming increasingly more dangerous and elusive.