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In Niger and Mali among migrants returning back from Libya 0

Niamey, Bamako – As of several months ago, in Niger as in Mali, two of the principal stops of the itinerary of the migrants of the Sub-Saharan Africa towards Europe, the routes and stories of the people journeying are changing. In fact, following the arrival of the initial financing of the EU Trust Fund for Africa, created at the Euro-African meeting at Valletta in November 2015, these countries’ migratory policies are adapting to the requests of the European Union to stop or at lease contain the flow of the “Central Mediterranean”, subjecting a good part of the aid for development to signed agreements for repatriation and the externalization of the community frontiers south of the sands of the Sahara.

Unlike years ago, in the “legendary” stations of the Sonef and Rimbo companies of Niamey, the migrants are hidden from curious eyes: dormitories closed with gates, maximum stay of one or two weeks, nervous guards. In order to meet “foreigners” it is necessary to follow the international departures towards Bamako, Dakar or Abidjan, and no longer the national ones in the direction of Agadez or Arlit, another migratory stop in the north of Niger. “Here no one thinks anymore to reach Italy. We have no more money. No one has the money to go to Europe! And so many have decided to return home, but do not know how to do so.” Alfred is a young civil engineer originally from Gambia, a country from where, after years looking for work, he left in order to seek his fortune.

After having been expelled from Libya at the border with Niger, he arrived in the city three days ago and sleeps in the Rimbo station. “At the dormitory we are about fifty men and women. Above all, people from Gambia, Mali, Senegal, Liberia and Nigeria. We heard on the radio that the German government is giving lots of money to the countries of the region in order to help the migrants, but we do not see it. We have yet to see one euro since we have been here! We can only count on ourselves in order to return home.”

Welcome to hell

Alfred walks all day under the harsh sun of Niamey accompanied by a conational in search of help, aid and work that does not even exist for Nigerians. We encounter them in the center walking around with a lost look and stomach cramps between an open air garbage dump and a busy vegetable market, close to the city’s Cathedral. In front of a steaming plate of rise, meat and fried potatoes, Alfred finds his smile for a moment.

“I am very happy to be able to recount my story.” Unlike the “classic” testimonies of migrants, the hell this man describes was not so much on the road towards Libya, but the return. “Going was easier, coming back instead was horrible. The Nigerian government is the worst of all. Since I left Gambia, on the road towards Libya, I have never seen a situation like this.” What Alfred strains to say is that, after having been arrested on a boat which had just left from a Libyan beach for Lampedusa and expelled at the frontier with Niger, since entering the country, the Nigerian police have extorted all that he had, about 1500 euro.

“We were a group of 100 -150 people, the Libyans delivered us to the Nigerian frontier authorities. In Libya someone told me of an organization at Agadez which helps migrants return home. However, when the Nigerian military brought us to the city, they did not allow us to go to the IOM. They kept us in the police station of the first district, in the center. They did not give us food or water, we had to cry to have water. They told us that there was no international organization that assisted migrants and that we had to pay for the ticket to return to Niamey ourselves.” On the road to Niamey, which is a thousand kilometers from Agadez, Alfred’s bus stops at about thirty checkpoints where, systematically, the migrants must pay to continue.

An exhausting journey that has caused Mary, Alfred’s wife, an eye infection. The idea to leave was hers. It took a lot for her to convince him to take the “back way” and leave their two small children in Gambia. “They are named Jackie and Patience … they must have patience and await our return,” says the woman with a weak voice. “I could not stay anymore in that dormitory.” All around the mud and sheet metal rooms in the periphery of Niamey rest the broken dreams of many Sub-Saharan migrants, rejected and robbed along the road to Europe like Alfred and Mary, who now find themselves blocked on the road to return home.

Business as usual

Hassan Boucar Regional expert and local man of the association Alternative Espace Citoyenne (AEC), is convinced of the actual exploitation of the migratory issue by local managers who think only to enrich themselves. “Europe does not have answers that go beyond repression and asks the African countries to follow the same route. The European Union has all the means to repress, our countries instead do not the means to block the exit and entrance ways of migrants. In any event, whatever will be the result of such politics, for us one cannot block the right to migrate favoring projects and programs of so called ‘development’.” When alluding to the repression desired by Europe and activated by Niger, above all Hassan Boucar refers to the current situation of Agadez “which violates the right of people to circulate.”

In fact, since September, the application of Law 036/2015, a decree of May 2015 against the trafficking of humans hailed by Europe as a step ahead in the fight against irregular migration, is changing the face of Agadez, a city until today called “the door of the desert” by Sub-Saharans. At more than 1000 kilometers from the capital Niamey, this crucial stop of the Sub-Saharan migratory flux towards Europe, is undergoing a closure due to the criminalization of the passeur and militarization of the region.

Besides the socio-economic impact that risks weakening an already critical situation, according to local authorities and associations like AEC, the journey of the migrants has undergone radical changes. “The uncertainty of a safe passage, like before, brings many to renounce continuing the journey. Today, in the perception of the migrants at Agadez, a barrier exists.” Azaoua Mahaman, a Nigerian originally of Agadez who works for IOM, the International Organization for Migration, cites the numbers furnished by the transit centers of the IOM situated in the periphery of the city: “an average of about 30 new migrants received every day, with a net increase of voluntary returns taken over by the IOM: 1721 in 2015, 5089 in 2016 and already 373 in the first three months of 2017. The principal countries of repatriation are Senegal, Mali, Cameron, Gambia, Guinea Conakry and Guinea Bissau.”

Returnees and the transit of Agadez

The head of the mission of IOM in Niger, Giuseppe Lo Prete, is aware of the change taking place in the region. “The risks increase, the costs increase. The passage costs much more now because the Nigerian police are confiscating the vehicles. Obviously, at the end, it is always the migrants who pay. If they are brought back to Agadez, like thousands of people, the migrants are not reimbursed like with a travel agency; therefore, there are many more migrants that remain blocked in Agadez.”

To deal with the emergency and facilitate the return of migrants to their countries, the Trust Fund has financed the IOM-Niger with a total of 22 million euro for the reception and repatriation of migrants, in particular, with a transit center in Agadez,that can welcome up to 1000 people. “We are negotiating a project with the Trust Fund for 100 million euro for Niger and 13 other countries of origin for migrants, including Libya.” In the conference room of the new headquarters of the IOM in Niamey, Lo Prete uses the statistics of the IOM to describe the current situation: “In 2016, more than 300,000 people have gone towards Algeria and the majority towards Libya.

In 2016, 100,000 people came home. There is a continuous flow in both directions. In January 2017, for the first time, according to our data collected in our transit points, there were more people returning than people that left; 8000 people came back, 6000 left. But this does not mean that the people transiting from Niger towards Algeria and Libya are decreasing.

“This is because when a passage closes for migrants another ten open. And the Sahara certainly does not lack unbeaten paths.” The official version of the IOM, satisfied by the decrease of the “migratory candidates” and the consequential increase in “voluntary” (an attribute heavily discussed in the regional debate) returns and repatriations, is contested by the associations of civil societies in Mali and Niger.

Hassan Boucar specifies the position of the AEC on this matter as follows: “In the last months the data presented by the IOM demonstrates that, despite the sensible decrease in the passage of migrants in the city of Agadez, arrivals from Libya have not decreased”. Citing the return of the “old” route through Gao, previously abandoned due to the war in the north of Mali, and the creation of new stops in the vast desert of the Aïr (in the Agadez region) and the Ténéré (Bilma and Dirkou area), Hassan Boucar sustains that today in order to avoid the checkpoints in Agadez, migrants hide in peripheral “mobile ghettos” and by foot reach the ‘passeurs’ and their vehicles up to 40-50 km outside the city.

Sahara cimitery

The use of the less beaten paths, some of which cross through poorly indicated mine zones, and the difficult access to stop-overs where to rest and find water, which are always more controlled by the Nigerian army searching for migrants, increases the risks and the cost of the journey towards Europe.

It is difficult to find statistics on the number of people who have lost their lives in the Sahara in these years, more so if you search for recent data. Far away from the Mediterranean, these are silent deaths which do not make the news, swallowed by the desert sand that “kills more than the sea.” According to an inquest, commissioned by the AEC to Ibrahim Diallo, an independent journalist of Agadez, however, from the application of the Law 036/2015, at least three big accidents with dozens of victims occurred in the north of Niger.

The fact that the ghettos of Agadez have become “mobile” increases the difficulty to encounter the migrants in places such as refuges, bars, clubs and restaurants outside of the IOM center of Agadez. This constitutes an additional obstacle for the local and international NGOs involved in the assistance of traveling migrants. “Since September we have difficulties maintaining the humanitarian corridors” is revealed by an operator of Doctors of the World-Niger. Even in the station of the new transport company Al Izza in Agadez, whose yellow-black logo appears everywhere in the city, there are few migrants who sleep the night; almost everyone is waiting for a bus to return to Niamey, and from there, try to return home.

——

“Bamako, Gao, Niamey, Agadez”…“Agadez, Niamey, Gao, Bamako”. Like a mantra, Andy loudly recounts the stops of his journey. Hubs of the principal migratory way which connects Sub-Sahara Africa to the door of Europe, the so called “Central Mediterranean Route.” Points on a map creased from the stories of one of the many reception centers for migrants born in the last years in the capital of Mali. The itinerary retraced by Andy, a twenty-five year old Liberian who has forgotten how long ago he left, is confused as that of many migrants.”

From Bamako we went up to Gao in the north. Here, after waiting weeks, they put us on trucks telling us that we were heading to Tamanrasset, in Algeria. But after a long trip in the desert, we understood that they were instead taking us towards Agadez, in Niger.“ Sense of direction and spatial succession drown in the sea of sand of the Great Sahara. On the map attached to the wall, his finger goes back and forth among Liberia, Mali, Niger, Libya and Algeria, his mind elsewhere.

“Two armed bandits with faces covered by turbans attacked our convoy, they sequestered us and imprisoned us in the desert. They had obviously been informed of our arrival by the passeur (as human traffickers are called here, ed). They were the ones who sold us. Those like me, who did not have money or relatives to call to pay a ransom, were put to work as slaves and slowly left to die. One day they took us to the desert and abandoned us. After seeing many lifeless bodies lying around me, I got up and walked for three days and three nights in the desert without water until I arrived at Gao. There I begged and found the money for a bus that brought me back here to Bamako.” All that Andy wishes now, as many young men who like him have “failed the adventure,” is to return home. Stripped of all goods, wasted, tired and let down, Andy realizes that his return will be seen by his family and the entire village as a grave dishonor, but he has no choice.

It’s Sunday morning in the capital of Mali. We meet John, a Liberian migrant friend of Andy, at the bus station of Sogoniko, a forced stop for the migrants passing through Bamako. Everyday dozens of buses depart for the major cities of Western Africa. Among hot vendors, women who cook without rest, fumes and dust, we stop under the shade of an umbrella. In the shelter formed around the “toubabou” (“whites” in Bambara, the principal language of Mali) someone asks for a cigarette, a boy offers a lighter, another asks if any tea is left. We are not the only foreigners. Within the group a little boy appears, seemingly timid.

In English, he asks if he can sit on the bench and recount his story, the only luggage left after his long journey. After having shared everything about his journey in front of us all – “since no one understands English” – John, as African tradition dictates, invites us to visit the place where he sleeps in a reception center managed by the local association ARACEM, not far from the other station, belonging to the Sonef transport company. A dozen boys and girls enter and exit from the rooms surrounding a courtyard illuminated by the intense light of the early afternoon. Some wash sneakers of the latest fashion, others soccer shoes, that will take them to tread the green fields of Europe. Above a door the writing “migrants in transit or returning.”

“The new agreements between the European Union and the Sahelian countries will cause the death of another thousands of persons. The African managers have smelled the possibility to get rich and they will not stop before anything.” This is confirmed by Ousman Diarra, president of the Malian Association of Deportees (AME), an ex migrant expelled like all the components of AME. The existence of a local association, that fights for the rights of migrants for over twenty years, clearly demonstrates the dedication to this theme by part of the Malian public opinion.

In the discourse of Diarra, the financial aid taken from the European Development Fund and channeled into the Trust Fund decided at Valletta in November 2015 will not bring any real benefits to the region. “The Trust Fund, like all the European funds for development poured into Africa and Mali, is not interested in the true socio-economic roots of the problem. In fact, a large part of the money will be used to reinforce the closing of the frontiers, to provide biometric passports and to control travelers according to a merely securitarian approach. As long as there is underdevelopment in Africa, the people will continue to leave.”

By Andrea de Georgio

This investigation report – Diverted Aid – has been coordinated by Ludovica Jona and funded by the European Journalism Centre (EJC) through its “Innovation in Development Reporting Grant“.

Credit picture: Sara Prestianni

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