The desert near Agadez is hot, dusty and full of people. Thousands of migrants are stuck here. Photos from Niger show men, women, children and babies waiting for help, medical care and their onward journey. Your actual destination is thousands of kilometers further north: the Libyan Mediterranean coast, the starting point for the crossing to Europe.
But for most migrants, the journey ends in Niger. They are stuck – because an agreement between the European Union and the African country prevents them from continuing their journey.
For many years, migrants were able to cross Niger. It was considered the gateway for people from all over Africa on their way to Libya. The government of Niger, one of the ten poorest countries in the world, left the native smugglers unmolested. They made money transporting people north – a lucrative business. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), around 120,000 migrants were smuggled through the country in 2015. The desert city of Agadez acted as the central transshipment point.
Migrants used to die in the Mediterranean – now in the desert
But in 2016 everything changed. The European Union concluded a so-called “Migration Compact” with Niger. The deal: The Central African country is closing its borders, with a lot of money flowing from Berlin, Paris and Brussels to Niger. The EU and above all Chancellor Angela Merkel celebrated the new migration partnership as a humanitarian success that could end dying in the Mediterranean. If migrants don’t make it to the Libyan coast, so the idea, they can’t drown either.
But did it work? According to the UN Refugee Agency, the number of people fleeing the dangerous route across the Mediterranean has fallen from more than one million in 2015 to around 120,000 in 2019. In 2016, more than 5,000 people died or went missing at sea. Last year, according to the UNHCR, there were “only” 1,800.
A look at the statistics also shows that more and more people are being killed before they even reach the Mediterranean coast. They die of thirst, starve to death or are murdered by smugglers or terrorists while trying to cross the vast Sahara. At least 1750 people perished on the migration routes to the Mediterranean coast in 2018 and 2019, the refugee agency UNHCR complains in a report entitled: “On this trip, nobody cares whether you live or die”.
Refugees in the Sahara: Those who do not die are tied up, burned, and tortured with electric shocks
“It is extremely difficult to collect data and facts about the dead on these routes because they are controlled by smugglers and human traffickers and the crimes take place in secret, under the radar of the authorities and official statistics,” the report said. Survivors report terrible mistreatment, burns with hot oil, melted plastic, or heated metal objects, as well as electrocution and restraint in excruciating positions.
The shocking conclusion of the report: With at least 72 deaths per month, the Sahara route is one of the deadliest routes in the world for refugees and migrants. And the IOM even assumes that more migrants are now losing their lives in the desert than in the sea.
Smugglers brought migrants relatively safely through the desert
The European refugee agreement with Niger has also contributed to this development, says Jochen Oltmer in an interview with FOCUS Online. “People are still making their way to Europe. But now you have to take new and more dangerous routes, ”said the migration researcher from the University of Osnabrück. Because state security forces patrol the traditional transit routes of the smugglers, migrants have to penetrate deeper and deeper into the Sahara in order to make it to the Libyan border.
The paradox: In the past, people were able to cross the desert relatively safely thanks to the organized tug industry in Agadez, say migration researchers. But the refugee agreement changed everything. Those who transport people today face fines in Niger. A whole industry of smugglers, hauliers and travel agencies was stopped by the agreement. Since then, the migrants have been left on their own – and often do not survive the arduous journey through the desert. “The human suffering was not remedied, but simply moved south,” says Oltmer.
Borders cannot stop people
The migration expert also has doubts about the effectiveness of the deal with Niger. One could not stop the stream of people with border guards. “The population in Niger has a tradition of migration that has grown over millennia and doesn’t care about borders,” says Oltmer. Figures from the IOM confirm this. Last year, more than half a million people still crossed Niger.
Such a European advance would also rob nomads such as the Touareg, who have built up a very successful desert tourism industry in the region, of their livelihood. “People are immobilized, their work is criminalized,” says Oltmer.
Niger is not the first African country with which the EU has entered into a “strategic partnership”. Corresponding refugee agreements also exist with Mali and Ethiopia. None of this is new, says Oltmer. “Europe has a long tradition of negation politics. It practically operates apron security. “
For the migration researcher, it is only logical that the European Union is collaborating with Niger. “Libya is actually the last hole in the European security system. Because one has difficulties here in finding a reliable partner, Niger was chosen. “
In the Sahara, more and more people are dying trying to reach Europe. The fact that one of the deadliest escape routes in the world now runs through the desert also has to do with the deals made by European governments with African countries. What makes the situation even worse: The dying in the Sahara goes completely unnoticed by the public – also because after the fire in Moria all attention is focused on the situation in Greek refugee camps.
This could also improve the humanitarian situation for African migrants. For example, migrants who are particularly in need of protection are already being flown out directly to Europe or brought to a safe host country via transit centers operated by UNHCR – but only to a very limited extent.
So far, only migrants who are politically persecuted or tortured in their home country have been considered for such resettlement. “The criteria for such a safe relocation should be expanded,” recommends Jochen Oltmer. This could save many people the dangerous escape through the Sahara and the Mediterranean.
Simply sending money will not solve the problem
The migration researcher believes that simply sending money to countries of origin is the wrong approach to curbing global refugee movements. The classic development aid approach, according to which the causes of flight would disappear with increasing prosperity, is outdated. “Poverty hinders and prevents migration,” says Oltmer. “The higher the prosperity in a country, the more mobility options the people who live there have.” Only peace policy, not development aid, can help prevent people from dying in the sea or in the desert.