Welcome to Agadez, The Human Smuggling Highway Through Hell

Young men crowd onto the back of an old Mercedes truck leaving Agadez for the far north of Niger where thousands are prospecting for gold in precarious conditions. A historical smuggling hub through which as many as 13,000 migrants passed each month in 2016, Agadez has been the site of a recent crackdown on human smugglers after the EU struck a $635 million deal with Nigerian authorities to keep a lid on migration. (Photo: Nichole Sobecki)​

Until a little more than a year ago, Agadez was the epicenter of massive waves of migration from Africa that began in 2011, when the fall of Libya’s dictatorship opened a clear path through weak and failing states to Europe’s southern border. In 2016, a record 181,000 people arrived on Italy’s Mediterranean coast. Most of them were sub-Saharan Africans fleeing poverty, war, and oppression. More than half of them likely traveled through Agadez on their way.

Comprising a dense warren of mud-brick compounds that bear the same shade of cocoa brown as the surrounding Sahara, Agadez has been a place of exchange for more than 600 years. Like Timbuktu in neighboring Mali, it was a center of Islamic learning in the Middle Ages and an important transit point for caravan traders. But whereas the cargo of old was gold, salt, and slaves, now it is weapons, narcotics, and migrants. The trade touches almost everyone in the city, whether they are directly involved or living off the service industries that have developed around it. Grocers, hoteliers, the police — all of them are to some extent dependent on this illicit flow of people and goods. Before the crackdown began, the Nigerien army openly escorted the smugglers’ convoys into the desert in exchange for a share of the profits. Sometimes hundreds of Toyota Hiluxes loaded down with young men made the crossing in a single day.

In its heyday as a smugglers’ paradise, from 2013 to 2016, Agadez was crawling with profiteers who had money to burn. They would flock to the bars and nightclubs, Tuaregs and Toubous in flowing traditional jalabias mixing with Nigeriens of other ethnicities in high-tops and skinny jeans, dancing and draining $4 cans of Heineken until the call to prayer echoed through the city at dawn. But when I visited in May, the city no longer felt like a freewheeling frontier boomtown. Market stalls sat empty in the 110-degree heat while drivers lounged all day in their yellow three-wheeled taxis without scoring a fare. The nightclub at the Hotel de la Paix, a garish modern fortress rumored to have been financed by Muammar al-Qaddafi, still opened each night around midnight, the purr of a diesel generator audible over the rollicking pulse of Tuareg music.

The collapse of Agadez’s economy was just one of the unintended consequences of Europe’s bid to halt the flood of unwanted migrants and refugees toward its shores. In 2015, as the European Union was struggling to cope with what would amount to a record 1.3 million asylum-seekers that year — a 122 percent increase from 2014 — EU officials held a series of emergency talks with African leaders. In November of that year, they announced a $1.9 billion EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa designed to combat the root causes of migration, including poverty and conflict. The EU also struck bilateral agreements with several African countries that migrants depart from and travel through on their way to Europe, aiming to strengthen border controls and disrupt smuggling networks. It designated Niger a priority country as part of a partnership framework agreement it made with the government in 2016, paving the way for a pledge of $633 million in exchange for stopping the flow of migrants through its borders.

In addition to funding development projects designed to wean the economy off trafficking, the EU, along with some of its member states, delivered training and equipment to Niger’s security forces to help them clamp down on smugglers. Soon the same army that once escorted smugglers to Libya was putting them behind bars to be sentenced under a new anti-trafficking law passed with the encouragement of European governments.

Surrounded on all sides by conflict and instability — the country shares borders with Nigeria, Mali, and Libya, all of which harbor significant terrorist threats — Niger has positioned itself as a key counterterrorism partner for Western nations, including the United States and France, both of which have military bases in the country. As a result, it has received hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance from those nations. The migration crisis has presented Niger with a similar opportunity to line its coffers, and it has happily adopted Europe’s view of human smugglers as a threat to regional stability.

The actual impact of Europe’s intervention in Niger is less clear. Since the crackdown began, smugglers have mostly stopped passing through established outposts and way stations, including those where the International Organization for Migration (IOM) monitors the flow of migrants. This raises the possibility that the organization is underestimating the number of migrants still passing through Niger, perhaps by a significant margin. That possibility seems even more likely in light of the data on migrants who actually make it across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.  As of Sept. 5, IOM reported that nearly 100,000 migrants had arrived in Italy this year from North Africa, more than half of them originally from West Africa, meaning that it’s likely they passed through Niger on their way. An estimated 400,000 additional migrants are currently stranded in Libya, caged in squalid detention facilities and prevented from making the dangerous sea voyage by militias in the pay of European nations.

What is clear is that Niger’s EU-funded crackdown has heightened the risks for smugglers, as well as for migrants. One of those who paid a price for defying the authorities was Garba Hamani, a coxeur, or connection man, who was arrested last year as he loaded 49 migrants into trucks. They were eventually released and taken to the IOM transit center, but Hamani spent nine months and 20 days behind bars. He said the jail in Agadez was filled with people connected to the migrant trade — smugglers, drivers, and coxeurs like him. But the smuggling business hasn’t stopped; it’s just been driven deeper underground. “You cannot stop this thing. If the government stops people here, they will just go another way,” he said.

The new routes are both longer and more dangerous, according to nearly a dozen drivers the author interviewed in Agadez. Some pass through mountainous regions outside the city before crossing vast stretches of desert. Some hug the border with Chad. One area where many of the new routes converge is in a desolate region some 20 miles outside of Dao Timmi, an old military installation in the far north of the country. Here, the trucks slow to a crawl and pass single file through a minefield that dates back to an uprising by ethnic Toubous in the 1990s. Used for years by weapons and drug smugglers because authorities stayed away, the route is now commonly taken by migrants. “They made it a crime, so now it follows the criminal routes,” Hamani said.

No one knows how many migrants have died in the desert. Trucks get lost, break down, or are attacked by bandits all the time. Often, nobody finds out until another driver happens upon the human remains. “We know that many people are dying in the Mediterranean. But many are dying in the desert as well, and we have not many statistics,” Paula said.

Yaya Ndonky Soumané, 24 has been in Agadez for 2 months. He is from Casamance, Senegal and now waits for his family to send him money to pay for a truck to take him the 1,000 kilometers to the Libyan border. Yaya lives in a 3 by 2 meter room. The armed conflict between the rebels seeking independence and the army has caused his family to lose their farming lands and with them the means to make a living. He is hoping to reach Italy and get a job that will allow him to support his family.​ (Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam)

In addition to being more dangerous, the new routes are also more expensive. Where it once cost around $300 to travel to the next staging post in Libya from Agadez, it now costs more than double that amount. As a result, many more migrants are finding themselves stuck in the squalid compounds known as “ghettos” that smugglers have set up in secret locations throughout the city. Increasingly raided by the authorities, who arrest the smugglers and turn the migrants over to IOM, the ghettos are getting smaller, and they are constantly being moved so they won’t be discovered.

New routes pose new risks for those who attempt to ply them. But just as dangerous is the climate of fear that has settled over the Sahara in the wake of the crackdown. When faced with the choice between ensuring their own freedom and saving their human cargo, many drivers choose freedom. Sometimes that means leaving migrants behind in the middle of the desert and speeding off to avoid a military patrol. According to Azaoua Mahaman, an IOM official based in Agadez, more and more migrants are being abandoned in this way. Since the beginning of the year, he said in May, IOM had worked with Nigerien authorities to facilitate nearly a dozen rescue operations. “The main reason we see abandoned migrants is because of the patrols,” he told me. “[The smugglers] are afraid of going to prison, so they drop the migrants and flee.”

One migrant was there when soldiers lit up a vehicle carrying two dozen passengers: In April, a slender 21-year-old Nigerian named Yinka was traveling through the desert in the back of a Hilux when suddenly gunshots rang out. Bullets shredded the tires beneath her and punched through the side of the vehicle. One hit her friend in the stomach, and she doubled over. Auntie Biola, as the six other women traveling together from Nigeria’s Oyo state called her, bled to death as Nigerien soldiers looked on.

KaderKader has been a driver for as long as he can remember. Nine-months-ago he was bringing a truck full of migrants to Libya when they came across a military checkpoint. He fled into the desert, leaving the migrants and his vehicle, which was confiscated by the military. (Photo: Nichole Sobecki)​

The driver fled the scene, and the migrants were all taken into custody. But first, the soldiers, who Yinka said were wearing uniforms, beat them all and raped the six surviving women. She said they were beaten and raped again when they arrived at the police station in Madama, one of the last settlements before the Libyan frontier. Because the other survivors of this ordeal had all been repatriated to Nigeria. While Yinka’s story could not be independently verified, her account was consistent with testimony from other migrants at the center and with reports by rights groups on abuses, including rapes, committed by the Nigerien military as recently as 2007. Niger’s military and its ministries of defense and interior did not respond to written requests for comment; Paula, the EU ambassador, told me that he was not aware of any reports of abuse. “The traffickers,” he said, “are the real criminals.”

Most Nigeriens would disagree. Smugglers — known as passeurs, or “ferrymen” — are widely regarded as providing a vital service. (Migrants who send home remittances are seen as heroes in this part of the world.) Still, passeurs are often involved in other forms of criminal activity — weapons and drugs, for instance — and now many of them are out of work. The crackdown hasn’t stopped the flow of migrants, but it has diverted much of the human traffic away from Agadez and pushed most of the profits toward smugglers with the highest appetite for risk. For those who are still making the trip, the EU has laid out a feast. For everyone else, it’s famine.

“Today, [illegal migration] generates more money than before,” Rhissa Feltou, the mayor of Agadez, told me. But the profits go to “small mafia groups” instead of to a broad cross-section of society as they did before. The new policy, while necessary in his view, means that Agadez will suffer because its residents have historically been dependent on smuggling.

Eighteen months ago, Mohamed was moving more than 300 migrants a week through his ghetto for a profit of about $10,000 to $13,000. But then the crackdown happened, and he was forced to take his business underground. (Photo: Nichole Sobecki)​

The EU has pledged to fund job trainings and other development projects to help former smugglers transition to new careers. But the crackdown commenced more than a year ago, and former drivers, coxeurs, and ghetto owners all said in May that they had yet to receive any assistance. (The EU said the programs were on track and that the job trainings would begin soon.)

“We are very angry with the EU because they promised to help us. We even declared that we stopped the job,” said Mohamed, a lean, weather-beaten man in his early 40s who used to run a lucrative migrant ghetto out of his home. “But the promises have not been met. They have destroyed the life of Agadez.”

Source: Highway Through Hell -By Ty McCormick | Foreign Policy

Ty McCormick (@TyMcCormick) is Foreign Policy’s Africa editor.
Nichole Sobecki (@nicholesobecki) is a photographer based in Nairobi.
This article is Part 2 of a multi-part special investigation series featured in Foreign Policy. Reporting for this series was made possible in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


Recommended…
My Smuggler, My Survivor -By Photographer Nicole Sobecki | Foreign Policy
The Desperate Journey of a Trafficked Girl -By Ben Taub | The New Yorker
Welcome to Agadez, Smuggling capital of Africa -By Lucas Destrijcker | Politico
Why Niger Is West Africa’s People-Smuggling Hub -By Conor Gaffey | Newsweek
UN: Niger Smugglers Take Migrants on Deadlier Saharan Routes -By Kieran Guilbert | Reuters

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