Europe’s invisible new border

The EU has quietly outsourced migration control to countries in North Africa and the Sahel. [Scott S. Brown/Shutterstock]

This report is part of the project of Alianza por la Solidaridad and Oriol Puig entitled “The Sahara, a desert in movement: beyond the Southern Border and the Mediterranean Sea”. It was financed by the DevReporter Grant, promoted by per a la Justicia Global with European funds.

Sahel countries are acting as new EU walls, with more border controls and increased deportations to curb migration flows. Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, in particular, take over Europe’s dirty work, often violating ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) regional protocol on free movement. 

The outsourcing of European services to African countries leads to diversion of routes, increased dangerousness of the road, informal trafficking and human rights violations.

“A European minister was recently asked why he had visited Niger and he replied by assuring that ‘Niger is our neighbour’, symbolically speaking. Therefore, it is clear”.

The head of mission of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Martin Wyss, admits the externalisation of European borders in the Sahel. The EU ambassador in the country, Denise-Elena Ionete, rejects the concept but acknowledges the growing importance of Niger in the migration issue.

Niger is the gendarmerie of irregular migration to Europe. Since 2015, it has taken on the European policies of containment.

This is the result of the EU’s obsession with curbing flows into its territory, despite the fact that mobilities within Africa are greater – 90% – than those directed towards Europe, according to the UN.

The preservation of economic interests in the region, the expansion of security trade and Europe’s ‘atavistic refusal to form mixed societies’, in the words of the Malian intellectual Aminata Traoré, move the EU’s restriction strategy in the area.

This is a control mechanism based on strengthening borders, encouraging deportations and expulsions and using cooperation funds to prevent the influx of people.

Arbitrary and massive expulsions

Alex greets one of his compatriots from Cameroon just as he arrives at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) transit centre in Agadez. He is one of more than 40,000 people expelled by Algeria to the Nigerian border since 2014.

In his case, he was on his way to work in a quarry in Algiers when police suddenly stopped him without warning. They requisitioned everything he carried, including his mobile phone, and brought him aboard a bus to an unknown destination.

After several days of physical mistreatment and humiliation, the security forces abandoned him in the middle of the Sahara desert, together with dozens of sub-Saharan citizens. From there they walked about 15 kilometres to Nigerian land, where the IOM awaited them.

In his case, he never wanted to reach Europe. He had been married to an Algerian woman for eight years and was comfortable and well-settled in the country, despite the daily racism he dealt with.

“My wife was waiting for me at home, but to this day she doesn’t know where I am. I insisted on talking to her, but they wouldn’t let me. She’s two months pregnant and I just want to tell her that I’m alive,” he says, heartbrokenly.

IOM in question

Like him, many others were deported to Niger under the readmission agreement signed by Algiers and Niamey in 2014 which, although it only concerns Nigerian citizens, is being applied to all sub-Saharan persons.

For social organisations, such as Alternative Espaces Citoyens, expulsion is a flagrant violation of international law and basic human rights, since it is a matter of mass and forced deportations, not communicated in advance and, moreover, in precarious and inhumane conditions.

IOM assists victims on the Nigerian side of the border and invites them to participate in its “voluntary return” programme, which for much of civil society and experts is “cynical” when it follows a forced expulsion, according to Burkinabe researcher Idrissa Zidnaba.

The international body advocates working only in “voluntary” contexts, but avoids public criticism of Algeria’s actions, as it is “a delicate issue between two sovereign countries”, according to Wyss.

The IOM, an inter-state agency financed by international powers and linked to the UN, denies its participation in deportation convoys, but assumes the transport from the border to the countries of origin, by plane or road.

Niger has various transit centres where it works with the UNHCR to identify potential asylum and/or refugee seekers, acting with the ‘hotspot’ vision proposed by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, initially rejected by the Government of Niger, but now deployed.

The facilities, which evacuate and protect migrants, are a key actor in containment policies and expand throughout the Sahel. For some activists and experts, this organization executes a double function, on the one hand, “caresses and on the other strikes”, according to anthropologist and missionary Mauro Armanino.

For Bamako University researcher Bréma Dicko, “it is the executor of European policies”, a kind of “deportation agency” under the umbrella of the UN.

In Mali, for example, the role of the agency is different than in Niger, where all the agency’s machinery has settled without major difficulties, as the importance of the Malian diaspora and their remittances have prevented further implementation.

However, both states are major recipients of official European aid from the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, the main instrument to try to “attack the root causes of migration,” he says. Civil society denounces the conditionality and the diversion of funds from eradicating poverty towards security, and the inefficiency of the same aid due to the mistaken syllogism between migration and development.

In this sense, “development has been shown to intensify mobility” and not the other way around, says Harouna Mounkaila, director of the migration research group at Niamey University.

Ineffectiveness, dangers and clandestinity

In Niger, the law 2015/036, approved by the government at the request of the EU, has criminalised human trafficking and smuggling and has led to “great repression”, especially for the northern part of the country, according to the head of the agency responsible for implementing it, Gogé Maimouna Gazibo.

Persecution against migration support has dismantled networks, imprisoned up to 200 people, confiscated dozens of vehicles and dealt a severe blow to Agadez’s local economy, according to local authorities.

The EU had promised subsidies to provide alternatives to those responsible for the migration business, but these have not yet arrived, are insufficient and ineffective.

“They ask us to wait, telling us that the funding will come, but they only give us 1.5 million Central African Francs to start an activity, when we used to earn that in a day. It’s very little”, says Bachir, a former trafficker participating in the EU’s conversion programme.

Discontent with unfulfilled promises grows and patience runs out. “The abrupt blockade of trade without attending to the needs of our population has led to the deployment of alternative routes that maintain traffic in a more informal way”, according to the deputy mayor of Agadez, Ahmed Koussa.

“The persecution of the state causes people to take more complicated, risky and costly routes”, says Francisco Otero, head of Médecins Sans Frontières.

“There are armed bandits with no water points on the secondary routes, and a small breakdown can be fatal,” says Ahmed, a former driver on the route to Libya.

The roads fork to Chad and especially to Mali, where there has recently been a notable increase in the population moving around the city, from 7,000 in 2017 to 100,000 in 2018, according to data from the Maison du Migrant.

This shows that the iron fist against migration in Niger “moves the problem to another country without solving it”, according to Sadio Soukouna, a researcher at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD).

There is, therefore, an exponential increase in informal trafficking and risks, whether aggression, robbery, rape or kidnapping by armed groups or bandits. “They are pushed into illegality”, Otero says.

“They intercept their vehicles and tell them they can earn some money if they follow them, and some do. Others, on the other hand, are hijacked against their will and their family must pay the ransom. Last year we freed 14 people”, says activist Eric Alain Kamden.

Civil society also considers that the reinforcement of borders with sophisticated biometric controls and the propagation of surveillance points on roads violates the ECOWAS protocol of free movement.

In Burkina Faso, for example, Moussa Ouédraogo, head of the NGO Grades, complains  that his country has become a “pre-frontier, in order to block the way to as many people as possible” before it arrives in Niger, and asserts that the spread of controls under the pretext of fighting terrorism does not hide the fact that the objective is “to intimidate migrants”.

The Government of Niger defends its respect for freedom of movement in the area and says that it only requires people to travel with documentation.

Some of the those expelled, repatriated or evacuated from Maghreb countries will remain in their country, but many others, like Ibrahim, a 22-year-old construction worker from Senegal, still plan to wait before attempting the trip again.

“I still want to go to Europe, because I didn’t want to go back to my country. As soon as I get back, I’ll try the Moroccan route again, I’ll try to jump the fences: enter or die,” said Ibrahim, who left Senegal in 2015.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox and Zoran Radosavljevic]

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