The bus station at Agadez was sleepy; the hot season was coming, and by dawn a film of dust had settled on the city. But the weather conditions did not explain why there were no travelers. At the ticket office, two clerks were lying on a mattress. One told me, “We haven’t had any passengers for a long time. People going north keep a low profile.” His colleague slept on.

Tourist agencies call Agadez, the largest city in northern Niger, the “gateway to the desert,” though it no longer deserves the name. The central bus station was once the heart of the city, the starting point for convoys heading out of the country. Every Monday, up to 200 vehicles would set off into the desert, carrying livestock and migrants from West Africa, and sometimes from the center and east of the continent, heading mostly for Libya and, with luck, Europe. The convoys had an army escort as far as the Libyan border. To the migrants, they represented hope; to the people of Agadez, they were a source of income. Mahaman Sanoussi, a local activist, said, “They provided a living for the whole city. Migration was legal, and the transporters were respectable. They paid their taxes, like other entrepreneurs. But law 2015-36 changed all that.”

This law “on the illegal trafficking of migrants,” passed on May 26, 2015, made a once-respectable business illegal overnight, and led to many young people being imprisoned. In 2015 the EU built an invisible wall to stop migrants from the south; it was the year of the European Agenda on Migration and the Valetta summit in Malta, when the 28 member states sought to externalize their fight against immigration with the help of some African states. The EU offered these impoverished “partners” more than 2 billion euros to hold back migrants. An EU Emergency Trust Fund “for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa” (EUTF for Africa) financed many projects within the framework of what the European Commission called “tailor-made cooperation” with Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia, Mali, and Niger.

Niger, bordering Algeria and Libya, plays a key role in the EU’s strategy. After the Franco-British coalition brought down Moammar Gadhafi’s Libyan regime in 2011, Agadez became a major staging post on the way to Europe; in 2016 nearly 400,000 migrants are estimated to have passed through to reach North Africa, and often the Mediterranean. In 2015, the EU made Agadez a key target of its measures to curb migration.

Niger, the world’s poorest country according to the UN Development Program, faces many threats on its borders: Boko Haram to the southeast, Malian armed groups to the northwest, Tubu militias to the north. Mahamadou Issoufou’s government, an ally of France, needs money and military support. Over three years, the EUTF has given it 266.2 million euros, more than it’s given any other country. The official discourse is about development aid and the fight against human trafficking, but fails to hide a more prosaic goal: to stop, by force if necessary, the flow of migrants to Europe.

Tracking ‘criminal networks’

Part of the money was to be used for rebuilding the state and controlling its borders: strengthening Niger’s security forces through the creation of an elite unit to combat migration and a joint investigation team to track “criminal networks linked to irregular migration.” The civilian EU Capacity Building Mission in Niger (EUCAP Sahel Niger), launched in 2012, was brought in to help and set up a branch in Agadez. Since 2015, its migration unit has organized training for the security forces and distributed equipment. Officially, the police officers seconded from all over Europe do not intervene on the ground, and are there only to gather information and pass on technical know-how.

Law 2015-36 was adopted almost simultaneously with the drafting of the European Agenda on Migration. No one in the Niger government denies that the law was inspired, if not imposed, by Europe—it was partly drawn up by French civil servants. “There was pressure, it’s true,” said Brig. Gen. Mahamadou Abou Tarka, head of the High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace (HACP), an organization attached to Niger’s presidency and responsible for putting the law into force. “But we had been considering it for a while. From 2012, the explosion in migration flows was a major concern. We tolerated it at first, especially as it allowed our people to earn a living. But it led to a lot of trafficking. When the EU said, ‘We’ll give you money,’ we jumped at the chance.” There’s a local saying: ”When you’re at the bottom of a well, you’re glad of anything that comes from above, even a snake.”

Now, anyone allowing migrants to enter or leave Niger illicitly, for financial or material gain, can be sent to prison for five to 10 years and fined up to 5 million CFA francs ($8,600). The penalty for helping migrants during their time in Niger by providing housing, food, or clothing is two to five years in prison. Since 2016, nearly 300 people smugglers have been arrested, and more than 300 vehicles immobilized.

Supporters of the law point out that it targets smugglers, not their clients. But to migrants, who have often left everything behind in the hope of reaching Libya, Algeria, and then Europe, it feels like a punishment. North of a line from Agadez to Dirkou, several hundred miles from Niger’s borders with Algeria and Libya, anyone who cannot prove they are Nigerien is considered a possible clandestine immigrant and may be sent back south, sometimes after a short time in prison. After a mission to Niger in 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants reported that “in reality, the implementation of the law has resulted in a de facto ban on all travel north of Agadez.… the lack of clarity of the law and its implementation as a repressive—instead of protective—measure has resulted in the criminalization of all migration…and has pushed migrants into hiding, which renders them more vulnerable to abuse and human rights violations.”

Mainly ‘small’ people smugglers

The EU claims the policy has been a success. At what price? According to EUCAP Sahel Niger, arrivals in Italy have fallen by 85 percent over the last three years. The number of migrants stopping over in Agadez has fallen from 350 a day in 2016 to fewer than 100 in 2018. The number passing through Seguedine, in the desert between Dirkou and the Libyan border, fell from 290,000 in 2016 to 33,000 in 2017. Yet, as is often the case during a prohibition, migration has not ceased: Those involved simply take care to be discreet.

This makes any estimate of numbers uncertain. According to a researcher based in Niger who monitors the evolution of migration routes closely (and asked for anonymity), “It’s mainly the ‘small’ people smugglers who’ve been affected; the ‘big’ ones, who have contacts in the political world and can afford to bribe the security forces, are still operating.” In a country where corruption is rife, a few tens of thousands of CFA francs is enough to buy the patrols’ silence.

What was once visible has become invisible, and therefore can no longer be controlled: Migration routes have been changed to avoid checkpoints, and are more dangerous; the “ghettos,” big houses in Agadez where migrants are lodged and fed, are now clandestine and feel like prisons that their occupants cannot leave without risking detection; people smugglers’ fees have tripled; and drivers may abandon migrants, even children, in the desert if chased by police. The standard of living for residents of the region has fallen. Studies have shown that more than half of all households in Agadez were making a living from migration; nearly 6,000 people—smugglers, coxers (from “coaxers,” or middle men), ghetto owners, drivers—depended on it directly for their jobs, and thousands more—cooks, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and their families—indirectly.

Mohamed Abdul Kader, 48, was born in Agadez, but spent some years in Libya. In his neighborhood, close to the old center of Agadez, he is known as “Boss.” He began putting up migrants in the 1990s, when the business was new. The routes to Mauritania and Morocco via Mali had been closed by the Tuareg rebellion, and the Niger route was the logical alternative: Agadez stands at the intersection of several trade routes, and had always been a staging post for salt, slaves, or livestock.

‘A relationship of trust’

Boss recalled, “In 2002 I set up a travel agency. We had an office at the bus station. The migrants arrived by bus, and went on to Dirkou in dumper trucks. From there, they headed for Libya in 44s.” Over the years, client numbers grew. Boss expanded his network; contacts phoned him from Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia, Senegal, and Burkina Faso. He took care of everything from the moment the migrants arrived until they left: papers, housing, food. “It was an ordinary transport business. We had to establish a relationship of trust with the clients and with their ‘sponsors’ at home, who had contacted us. We had to do things properly, and make sure our clients arrived safe and sound if we wanted to get more.” He is conscious that the image of people smugglers has changed.

It all ran like clockwork. When migrants arrived at the city’s entry barrier, they paid an informal tax to the police. At the bus station, the agencies took charge of them, and took them to their ghetto. As they left the city, they paid another tax that was passed on to the municipality. At 1,100 CFA francs ($1.90) a head, the municipality was getting between 3 million and 7 million CFA francs ($5,000–12,000) a week, which paid for many projects.

Rules and prices were the same everywhere. The journey to Libya cost 150,000 CFA francs ($260). That was a lot for Africans; to the Nigeriens it was a fortune. “I made a lot of money,” said Boss. “When business was good, I had 15 people working for me. We were sending 400, 450 migrants to Libya and earning 5 million CFA francs ($8,600) a week.” Every Monday—convoy day—the banks and money transfer agencies were full.

When each convoy set off, the agencies submitted a waybill to the police, listing the names and nationalities of the passengers. The government even encouraged former Tuareg and Tubu rebels (who had taken up arms in the 1990s) to go into the business and turn their backs on war for good. Mohamed Anako, one of the leaders of the first Tuareg rebellion (1991–95), now leader of the Agadez regional council, came up with the idea when he was in charge of the HACP: “They had vehicles, they had no jobs, they knew the roads.… So we encouraged them to go into this business. We helped them to clear their vehicles through customs and register. It was all legal, and they told us what was going on in the desert, too.”

The doors to Europe opened

The problems started after the fall of Gadhafi in 2011. He had acted as a coastguard for Europe, and in his time it was almost impossible to reach Europe by sea from Libya. But migrants could stay in Libya as long as they wanted. There was no shortage of work, and it was well paid. Boss recalled, “When Gadhafi fell, the doors to Europe opened. It was like a magnet. More and more migrants arrived.” The number passing through Agadez is estimated to have quadrupled between 2013 and 2016, when the local police counted nearly 70 ghettos.

Now Boss faced competition. Many Nigeriens living in Libya fled the war and chaos, and moved into the migrant transport business. They didn’t all follow the established rules. According to one social mediator, they were “shameless bandits,” who did not hesitate to extort money from migrants in the middle of the desert, abandon them at the slightest sign of trouble, or sell them to militias (who would extort more money) on arrival in Libya. It was these crimes, along with trafficking in drugs, tobacco, and weapons, that drove the authorities to cooperate with the EU.

Boss’s ghetto emptied, as did the house on the outskirts of Agadez operated by Mohamed, another people smuggler. The walls of its courtyard still bear traces of former clients: names, telephone numbers. “I’ve got nothing left,” he said. “Both my trucks have been seized. I spent six months in jail. I’ve got no income.” What had happened to the money he earned during the years of plenty? “It’s all gone. We had to live.”

The frustration is all the greater because the law was introduced without warning. No one in Agadez knew it was coming, even local councillors. Another smuggler recalled, “It was a Monday. All the trucks carrying migrants were stopped as they were leaving Agadez. We thought it was because of a security problem in the desert, but no. The drivers were jailed and the vehicles were immobilized. They only told us about the law afterward.” Mohamed Anako claimed he was not against the ban, but wished the authorities had taken account of the socioeconomic realities, and helped local people prepare for it: “There should have been a transition period to allow us to find other ways to make a living. The projects financed by the EU may bear fruit, but in how many years? The problem is that people need jobs today, and there aren’t any.”

Slow to build the economy

In the 1980s Agadez welcomed thousands of European and US tourists, who came to see the Tenere desert, the sand dunes of Bilma, and the Air mountains. But tourism dried up in 2007 with the second Tuareg rebellion and the French foreign ministry’s listing the city as a red zone, where travel is “strongly discouraged.” The mining of uranium and other minerals is in decline.

Niger, a migration crossroads

Through the EUTF, the EU has funded a social reintegration program with a budget of $9 million (5 percent of the total) for those formerly in the migration service business. This is the “Plan of action for rapid economic impact in Agadez,” known as PAIERA, but the name is a poor fit. Each “former provider” whose application is validated receives 1.5 million CFA francs ($2,600) in aid. It’s a slow process: Barely 400 applications out of 5,000 have been approved, and nearly 1,500 have been rejected, notably those filed by ghetto and vehicle owners, whom the EU regards as privileged or even criminals. It’s true that for years their incomes were huge compared to the average standard of living in Niger, and senior EUCAP Sahel Niger officials point out that they were basically human traffickers, exploiting their fellow human beings.

But the reality for the local population is very different, even if there are some criminals among the former people smugglers. Our anonymous researcher pointed out that while they did make a lot of money, it was because of the deteriorating economic and political situation in the Sahel, not through shameless exploitation of migrants: “Their fees were reasonable before the law was introduced. The reason they made so much money was the scale of the migration and the number of clients they had.”

Bachir Amma, a former smuggler, now chairs the Committee of Former Migration Service Providers, which he founded in 2016 to mediate between them, the funders, and authorities. Sitting in his office—a box at the Agadez soccer stadium, home to the team he manages—Amma admitted the system had been abused: “Some of the applicants weren’t even former service providers. But they did have connections, they came from the right families. So they were able to take advantage.” The EU has disrupted the local economy and caused frustration. “We were tricked. They promised us money quickly, but three years later, they’ve only funded 371 projects… That’s not enough to reintegrate us into society, it’s just an emergency aid payment. They’re offering 1.5 million CFA francs to people who used to earn 5 million a week. It’s ridiculous. How do you expect them to accept that?”

Now a hub for migrants heading south

What will become of the unemployed, especially the young? There has already been a resurgence of banditry. Gangs block roads and abduct migrants for ransom; some former people smugglers are moving into drug trafficking, while others sell their services to the many armed groups in the border area between Niger, Chad, and Libya. In 2016 a Tubu rebellion that started in the Kawar and Manga regions, east of Agadez, demanded the restitution of vehicles immobilized under the new law.

Yet Agadez’s relationship with migrants isn’t over. Where it was once a hub for migrants going north, it is now becoming a staging post for those traveling south. In 2016 the International Organization for Migration established a reception center for migrants expelled from Algeria and Libya in the northern outskirts of Agadez. In 2017 the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees built a camp 7.5 miles south of the city to house nearly 2,000 Sudanese asylum seekers who had fled ill treatment in Libya. Their sudden arrival caused tension in Agadez. Former coxer Mohamed el-Hadi said, “They do a lot for migrants, but nothing for people like me who have lost our jobs. How can that be right?”

Once welcomed with open arms, migrants have become a source of division, greed, and anxiety. The law discourages them from traveling to Libya, but also prevents them from settling in the Agadez area, as the locals fear being accused of trafficking. In Libya, the EU has contracted out border surveillance to militias; in Niger, former smugglers are now making a living by tracking the migrants they used to help.