The European Union hopes to curb the influx of migrants and refugees to its shores by collaborating with governments in various countries of origin. This goes beyond the much-maligned Turkey deal and extends to countries such as Niger. EURACTIV’s partner El País – Planeta Futuro reports.
The image of the lifeless body of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy, on a Turkish beach 12 months ago shocked the world. But the Sahara desert is a mass grave for hundreds of Aylans and the international community has not even noticed.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates that about 90% of the people who have reached Libya this year passed through Niger from other countries to get there. The majority of them sought to make the often fatal crossing of the Mediterranean to get to Europe.
As a result, the country has taken on geostrategic importance in Europe’s quest to put the brakes on irregular migration and people trafficking. The EU’s ambassador to the country, Raul Mateus, said that Niger is the main beneficiary per capita of European aid worldwide.
The EU is the principle partner of a country that is considered by the UN to be one of the most vulnerable on the planet. Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, who acted as a de facto doorman for Europe, other governments have tried to fill his shoes and reap the financial rewards.
The Niger government claims it needs more than €1 billion to fight illegal migration and the EU already shelled out €1.15 billion last year in West Africa, primarily to combat clandestine movement. The end game of Europe, in the words of its ambassador, is to “provide alternatives to people so they can stay and not fall into the hands of extremists”.
Development and security guide the work of the EU, as it seeks to tackle regional instability and expansion of jihadist groups; attacks by Boko Haram are still a daily occurrence in the area and salafi ideology has quickly permeated the country.
The EU has renewed its civilian mission mandate in response and has stepped up its training of personnel to combat terrorist cells. It is also working with the IOM to promote and raise awareness of “regular” migration.
The joint international effort in Niger, as laid out by the European summit in Valletta in 2015, seeks to reduce migration through development, although this rationale is being rapidly disputed. In the nation’s capital of Niamey, a roundtable discussion attended by representatives of Nigerien civil society, defended the right to free movement and demanded that regional and international rules be respected. Others questioned the idea that more development means less migration.
The increase in refugee numbers over the last few years has grown exponentially in tandem with the dangers encountered during the journey and the worsening of treatment of migrants by the Algerian authorities, culminating in mass deportations under an agreement brokered between Niamey and Algiers last year.
The World Bank has estimated that 75% of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa emigrate to neighbouring countries, somewhat demystifying the idea of an African “invasion” of Europe.
“If the West wants to stop migration, then they need to create jobs, but not give the money to Niamey, because we won’t see it,” said a local man. The EU and IOM have launched a series of community integration programmes, but local people still claim that the illicit trade continues, with corruption and the police blamed as the main problems.
Another local man criticised Europe “for taking our wealth and then complaining when we come to your countries”. Niger is the world’s fourth largest exporter of uranium, primarily exploited by France, despite the West African country having huge problems with energy supply.