Welcome to Agadez, smuggling capital of the Sahara
24 oktober 2016

POLITICO – From the city in central Niger, hundreds of thousands attempt to cross the Sahara and reach Europe. But more die in the desert crossing than do in the Mediterranean.

Once, caravans brought gold and salt to this small mud-brick desert town. Today, it has become a major trading post for arms, drugs and, above all, humans. After the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, long-locked smuggling routes between Niger and Libya suddenly reopened, and the small desert town of roughly 120,000 inhabitants became the de facto smuggling capital of the sub-Saharan region.

Once a week, on Mondays, an exodus takes place. Hundreds of trucks and pickups head toward the horizon. They follow the weekly military convoy, traveling in columns for safety. The risk of breaking down, getting lost in the maelstrom or encountering bandits is high.

Most of the travelers have harrowing journeys behind them — and worse to come. But crossing the Sahara instills the greatest fear. “The Mediterranean? That’s the terminus, a piece of cake,” says a 21-year-old Ivorian man preparing to set out from Agadez.

“The Mediterranean? That’s the terminus, a piece of cake”

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 170,000 migrants have passed through the town this year. More than 6,000 newcomers arrive every week, staying several days before moving on. Sometimes they are stuck for several weeks or months if they lack the means to continue the journey. Nine out of 10 are men; one in 10 are minors — the majority of them unaccompanied.

Many are kidnapped by traffickers or bandits and subjected to physical or sexual abuse. “The majority disappears without someone knowing,” IOM-representative Giuseppe Loprete tells me when I visit his office in Niamey, the Nigerien capital. According to RMMS’ research on the “forgotten fatalities” of the Sahara, the number of people who perish before reaching the Libyan shores is even higher than the number of deaths at sea. Sickness, starvation and car accidents are the main causes of death in the desert. In Sudan, Libya and Egypt, RMMS estimates that at least 1,700 migrants and refugees have died. Along the route in Niger, no one has kept count.

* * *

I arrive in Agadez after a 20-hour bone-shaking bus ride from Niamey. My fellow passengers come from Benin, Ivory Coast, Senegal, the Gambia, Mali and Nigeria. Known as les aventuriers — the adventurers — they are mostly young men, economic migrants on their way to Europe.

As I check in at one of the few hotels in town, the adventurers search the streets for a trustworthy smuggler. The luckiest ones among them find shelter in so-called ghettos, hidden compounds where they wait for the next part of their journey to start. There are dozens of these across town — nobody knows exactly how many.

Agadez was once home to a flourishing tourism industry. But as armed groups and terrorists set up operations in the poorly secured northern territories of Mali and Niger, the sightseers disappeared. Members of nomadic tribes, who had long acted as tour guides in the Ténéré desert, scrambled to find new work opportunities, all but non-existent in this desolate area. And as the flow of migrants picked up, many turned to smuggling.

I had been wandering the ochre-colored alleys of Agadez for a few days when I met a 27-year-old Libyan smuggler — I’ll call him Tareq — who seemed as curious to get to know me as I was to meet him.

He welcomed me into his ghetto in one of the slums outside the city center. The rich Nigerien owner was out of town, so it was “no problem,” he assured me.

About 20 people lay criss-cross on the ground of the courtyard, sleeping or sipping tea next to Tareq’s white Toyota Hilux pickup — “the most reliable car to make the crossing,” he tells me. Every week, as many as 30 people cram into the back, along with three big jerry cans of fuel. Tareq allows passengers one bottle of water and a small backpack for their belongings. Once squeezed into position, they hold on to wooden sticks attached to the car frame, their only grip for the bouncy road.

A one-way ticket to the border costs about €250 per passenger, bribes for policemen and checkpoints along the route not included.

A one-way ticket to the border costs about €250 per passenger, bribes for policemen and checkpoints along the route not included.

Tareq claims he earns about €1,000 per weekly round trip. The rest goes to fuel, and the many people he works with — the owner of the ghetto and the people who bring migrants to him.

Most of the migrants I meet in Tareq’s compound are uneducated farmers from Mali and the Ivory Coast. They don’t know much about what life in Europe looks like, but they are confident they will soon earn enough money to send home to their families.

A 32-year-old Senegalese named Ibrahim stands out — he is not traveling for solely economic reasons. He used to work as a nurse for the Red Cross in humanitarian crises in Liberia and the Central African Republic, but he decided to quit after a few years when the work became too stressful. “For me, succeeding means to be able to travel legally between Senegal and Europe,” he says. “This would mean that my children can later enjoy the freedom of movement I never knew.”

After a third cup of tea at Tareq’s compound, I ask the young Libyan how he became a smuggler in this shanty town. His story surprises me. He studied political science and international relations in Ukraine, and then returned to Libya in the hope of helping to rebuild his country after the Arab Spring. His dreams were smashed when the civil war broke out. He found himself completely isolated in the southern tip of the country and under the control of his clan.

“Because of the crisis, there is not much left for me to do [other than] to drive people through the desert,” he tells me. “Once I have saved enough money, I’ll head back to Europe.”

* * *

The European Union has invested millions in Niger through different funds over the past few years, and in 2015 the Nigerien government banned human smuggling under pressure from European donors.

Ranked at the very bottom of the U.N.’s development index, Niger is vulnerable to falling into the hands of jihadists or rebel movements. Boko Haram territory lies just beyond its southern frontier with Nigeria. The Islamic State lies to the north in Libya. And Al Qaeda operates out of nearby Algeria and Mali.

Improving national security is, of course, crucial, said a European diplomat in Niamey. Tightening border security and fighting human smuggling in Niger would also reduce the number of boats arriving on the shores of “Fortress Europe” — a continent increasingly divided by the issue of migration. Because the EU can’t strike a workable agreement with Libya, Niger is next in line.

And yet, in Agadez, it appears that not much has changed since the government enforced new laws to crack down on smugglers.

Because the EU can’t strike a workable agreement with Libya, Niger is next in line

The new restrictions are not seen as an obstacle, just an extra cost. “We all pay the desired bribes,” one smuggler says. “From the policeman in the street to the mayor at his desk, everyone profits from the migration industry and prefers to keep it this way.”

On one of my last days in Agadez, the dusty streets are packed with white Toyota pick-ups, some already filled with passengers, others nervously snaking through the streets to pick up the last necessary supplies for the trip. A few migrants roam the market, buying turbans and sunglasses — indispensable against sand storms and the scorching sun.

And then, just ahead of the big departure, the police raid several ghettos, arresting migrants and smugglers. Most trips are cancelled; some cars leave secretly under the cover of darkness.

The next morning, I receive a phone call from an indignant Tareq. His car has been confiscated, but he has been able to escape. “It’s happening more often,” he complains. “No problem, I will pull some strings and get it back in a few days.”

I ask him whether perhaps he’d consider looking for another way to earn a living, but he laughs. “No, we only need to increase the expenses for the authorities.”

Lucas Destrijcker is a Belgian freelance journalist. Funding for this reporting was provided by Postcode Lottery Fund and the Start Fund for Young Journalists of the Fund BJP.