Europe wants to slow migration from Niger, but could wind up destabilizing an entire region in the process.
AGADEZ, Niger—For centuries, the city of Agadez served as a gateway between sub-Saharan and North Africa. While the camel caravans have been replaced by trucks and Toyota 4x4s, the city’s local communities still rely on the transport of merchandise and contraband to get by. Agadez is also the largest city in Niger’s restive north, the birthplace of ethnic-Tuareg rebellions against the Nigerien state, and a place where jihadist gunmen use the lawless, open desert to move between hotspots in this part of Africa.
Beginning in late 2013, thousands of people from throughout West Africa began arriving in Agadez every week, seeking an escape from poverty and a lack of opportunity back home. From there, it was onto Libya, where many hoped to find work or continue onward to Europe. At the height of the migrant-smuggling boom from 2014 to 2016, dozens of pick-up trucks, packed with anywhere from 22 to 30 people, would set off from the city into the desert every week. Nigerien authorities had little reason to intervene: Migrants headed out of Agadez paid an “exit tax” to government officials that went directly into the municipal treasury. (Many of the migrant convoys were even accompanied by a military escort.)
What did all this add up to? In 2016, the United Nations Migration Agency detected over 333,000 migrants, including Nigeriens themselves, passing through northern Niger and onto Libya and Algeria. With each migrant paying smugglers between $100 and $500 and purchasing food and lodging on their journey through the Sahara, even the most conservative estimates suggested a smuggling economy in the tens of millions of dollars.
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