“People are stuck here” (nd-aktuell.de)

Agadez is the gateway to the Sahara.  In transit centers like this, refugees should be prevented from making their way to Europe.

Agadez is the gateway to the Sahara.  In transit centers like this, refugees should be prevented from making their way to Europe.

Agadez is the gateway to the Sahara. In transit centers like this, refugees should be prevented from making their way to Europe.

Photo: Imago/Ute Grabowsky

Niger has been Europe’s border guard since 2015. In July, the EU intensified its cooperation with the West African country through a so-called anti-smuggling partnership. The Sahel state should prevent migrants from reaching the escape route via the Sahara and Libya to the Mediterranean. They live in Agadez, a major hub. How is the situation on site?

The EU has relocated its borders not only to the Mediterranean coast, but also to the middle of Niger. Agadez is around 1,000 kilometers from the Libyan border. The United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM) started building “transit centers” for migrants here in 2010, paid for by EU countries. From here, people who have been pushed back from Libya or Algeria are to be brought back to their countries of origin. But the centers are overcrowded, many migrants (Original: People on the Move) live on the streets, women prostitute themselves, children beg, people have nowhere to wash themselves or their clothes. Local politicians believe the city’s population has doubled or even tripled as a result of the People on the Move. People are stuck here. Many wait more than six months to return to their country of origin.

So people want to go back?

You have no choice. When they are deported from Algeria or Libya, they have no money, no documents, no clothes. All they can do is return to their families. Many are ashamed of returning empty-handed to their families after years of absence. Recently there was a protest action by a Senegalese community whose return trip was postponed four times. They threatened to set off on foot for Senegal and began marching. At the end of September, 130 of them were taken to Senegal by plane. 40 more are still waiting.

In 2015, Niger enacted Law 036. It makes migration and its support (e.g. transport or accommodation of migrants) illegal. Violations are punished with imprisonment of up to 10 years and fines of up to the equivalent of 3000 euros. Does that have an impact on your work?

Yes, instead of following the official routes, there are now different escape routes through the Sahara. They are more dangerous and expensive. In addition, the vehicles no longer travel in convoys as they used to, but individually. When a car breaks down in the desert, there is hardly any help. Because even telephoning with a satellite phone is considered a criminal offence. We are only called and can organize rescue operations if another car happens to drive by and reports this in a village.

Since 2014, the UN has registered 2,000 deaths in the Sahara. Experts reckon with far higher numbers, most of the dead are not found. What do you do when you find people in need?

Our motto is “right to go, right to stay”. When we drive to a rescue operation, we do not change the direction of the car, but drive people in the same direction to the next safe place.

How many bets do you have?

That depends on the calls we receive. We schedule patrols about four times a year. But when we receive emergency calls, we do special operations, depending on our capacities. We do not have our own desert-equipped car and have few financial and human resources.

Do you experience repression?

Yes. Officially, Law 036 aims to combat human trafficking. But that’s a vague concept. If someone wants to contact their family abroad and I give them my phone, I’m a criminal. If I shelter anyone, I’m a criminal. If I feed a hungry man, I’m a criminal. All NGOs fall under this law. Our work is restricted, one of our employees has been in prison since last February.

For what?

He helped a migrant. Because he is also a migrant himself, he had the opportunity to get into the IOM centres. He visited migrants in their accommodation and passed on information from his conversations to us. He was only to be released on bail. When we got the money together, they wanted more, we couldn’t find it. Now he is charged with people smuggling and membership of a terrorist organization.

Is there civil resistance to this cooperation between the EU and Niger?

Yes. We have filed an official complaint against the Nigerien government regarding Law 036. Together with organizations from Mali, Nigeria and Italy we collected testimonies from people whose rights were violated on their way. Most of the cases involved physical abuse, rape by uniformed officers, extortion and the destruction of documents. The government now has one month to respond. At the end of September we informed about this at events in Strasburg and Rome. We are only a small network and depend on the support of European organizations and media.


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