Niger, Europe’s new Southern border

Alessandro Penso

Niger, second only to the Central African Republic as the poorest country in the world, is at the heart of Africa’s Sahel region. Nigerians have always crossed the Sahara, which connects West and North Africa, and so Niger has been a country of the “passeur,” or “ferrymen,” who transport people through its territory. It also now hosts some 300,000 refugees and displaced people from neighboring countries who have fled repeated terror attacks.
Since the end of the Gadhafi era, Niger has seen an increase in the number of migrants trying to reach Europe. An estimated 90 percent of those headed for Libya and Europe from West Africa pass through Niger. The country has become Europe’s de facto southern border.
But things are changing. Law 36 has made it illegal for migrants to travel from the central city of Agadez toward the country’s northern border, in a move that also makes the work of the “ferrymen” illegal. This has cut a large slice out of the country’s economy, but has driven the EU to make Niger the bloc’s highest recipient of funds per capita.
The war on people trafficking has already borne fruit. In 2016, the International Organization for Migration counted 333,891 people departing through the Niger border, mainly toward Libya. In 2017, the number plummeted to 17,634, and 2018 estimates are around 10,000.
The EU plan is to turn Niger into an example for transit countries, by transforming it into a place of temporary relocation for certain migrants who were in Libya. The program sees the intervention of UNHCR in some Libyan jails, where the agency identifies and then evacuates vulnerable refugees, mostly from Somalia and Eritrea, to Niger, and then to Europe. But the program is struggling to take off: Only around 175 refugees have been resettled on the continent.

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