Seeking alternatives for Niger's people smugglers
AGADEZ, Niger – Bashir grew up in this maze-like outpost perched on the edge of the Sahara, and his knowledge of city and desert made him a successful human smuggler taking people over the searing border to Libya for years.
“People seek me out,” he says. “I’m the guarantor of their safety because they’ve come to me.”
Before 2012, when strongman Muammar Gaddafi still ruled Libya, he said his clients were focused mainly on going to Niger’s northern neighbour to work – not travelling onward.
“Libya was just fine. People could make even more money in Libya than in Italy,” Bashir said, recalling that many of his customers would phone him a few years later, once they had saved enough earnings, to arrange the return journey home.
Now, it is widespread insecurity in Libya that has increased the risks for his clients – and triggered a clampdown on the business that earned him a living for 17 years.
In 2015, largely in response to pressure from EU governments, Niger passed a law cracking down on operators helping those travellers, mainly from West and Central Africa, cross into Libya.
In return, the EU has offered more than €2 billion in aid to help the region – also including other priority African countries – on issues ranging from security to economic development.
Faced with the new law, which punishes people who facilitate the illegal crossing into Libya, Bashir traded in his illicit occupation last October for a new life. Now he helps smugglers like himself to prepare for a career change.
He and colleagues have helped hundreds of them to put together proposals seeking promised EU funds which are earmarked for financing business ventures and skills training for those in the smuggling trade. The initiative funds projects of up to US$2,700 for individuals, or US$7,200 for up to four individuals working as a group.
“We’re a bit hopeful because the Niger government came to us. They brought us in, and have discussed this directly with us. We’ve told them all our problems,” he said.
For centuries a hub in an international trade in gold and salt, and later a site for desert tourism, Agadez has more recently become a centre for smuggling and trafficking in guns, drugs and – above all – desperate refugees and migrants.
But the crackdown on human smuggling comes at a cost for the whole country, which ranks 187th out of 188 spots on the UNDP Human Development Index. With a vast swathe of territory to control and a desperately poor population, it has a difficult job both playing gatekeeper and finding an economic alternative for a boom industry.
"We’ve lost our work. We’ve lost our lives – because this was our life. This is what put bread on the table.”
Bashir warns that smugglers need a real solution to abandon the economy that has provided them with a lifeline. “We don’t know how to do anything else,” he said. “Can’t you see? We’ve lost our work. We’ve lost our lives – because this was our life. This is what put bread on the table.”
In Niger, where 46 per cent of people survive on less than US$2 a day, a driver who transports people to Libya can make US$4,000, even US$5,000 per trip. But now, to stay on the side of the law, many who have lived off the economy are being forced to find new ways to survive.
But not everyone. Though it has been forced underground by the law, signs of the smuggling business are easy to see in Agadez. The city bustles on days before convoys of trucks head into the desert as smugglers stock up on fuel and provisions. Money changers, wire transfer services, mobile phone dealers – selling satellite phones for coverage in the remote desert – dot city streets.
The bus station in town teems with passengers arriving in the evening with scheduled appointments with their smuggler agents. And, in Agadez’s more dangerous quarters, behind the low mud walls of some well-guarded compounds, the migrants and refugees wait for their time to travel – sometimes trapped inside under lock and key for days.
Aklou Sidi Sidi, the first vice president of Agadez’s regional council, said that during boom times up to 700 vehicles, with up to 30 people packed into each, would ride into the desert each week, generating revenues for the main transport agent, the driver – and others.
“But I haven’t even mentioned the owners of the hidden compounds, I haven’t mentioned the motorcycle taxis, or the people who exchange currency, or the money wire transfer services,” he added.
“There are those who sell kits for the migrants. All of these people live by this activity. And today this activity has stopped because it has become illegal. So there absolutely must be a replacement solution.”
Sidi Sidi acknowledges the international assistance, but says it falls short. He claims EU aid offered for job retraining and kick-start businesses can cover only about 200 people while, he says, more than 6,000 people are involved in the human smuggling trade in the city.