Nigerien migrants long for pre-war Libya

Kristalina Georgieva visits a relief centre in Niger. [DG ECHO/Flickr]

The Libyan crisis has not only forced Nigeriens to flee across the Mediterranean. Many have returned to their homeland, where they lament the passing of the Gaddafi era. EURACTIV’s partner El País – Planeta Futuro reports. 

“Libya was much better, there wasn’t a difference between rich and poor. Food was cheap and we could earn money. The West brought chaos. Especially Sarkozy, and now we are paying the consequences.” This kind of sentiment is common in the capital of Niger, Niamey, but it often falls upon deaf ears.

Broken dreams and dashed hopes are the constant companions of an estimated 300,000 people who have returned to Niger since the Libyan war, according to local and international NGOs. Beyond the unfortunate souls that die crossing the Mediterranean or end up on Lampedusa, this is the other face of the migration crisis. According to the World Bank, internal African migration is far larger than the movement toward Europe, with 75% of sub-Saharan immigrants heading toward neighbouring countries.

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The everyday life of young Nigerien men and the people who have come back from Libya, involves performing menial jobs for very little money, with the frustration of being unable to find real work clearly evident. They have no great love for their country and are torn about whether to stay or leave.

Libyan El Dorado

One resident, who lived in Libya for eight years, said that he earned six times more than he does in Niger. The people who went in search of better work and a better life, mostly aged between 20 and 40, mirrored the journey of their ancestors, the desert caravans of the Middle East and the Tuareg people. Their objective was never to reach Europe. It was always Libya.

“I never wanted to cross the Mediterranean, Libya was Europe for me, Libyans believe themselves to be Europeans,” said Laouli, another Nigerien returned to his homeland. The Human Development Index backs up the belief that Libya was a prosperous place for people to flock to, given its abundance of oil.

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For decades, tens of thousands of Africans made the journey there in order to work as unskilled workers, attracted by the significantly higher salaries that they could earn. “Most of us worked two jobs so that we could send more money back to our families. We worked almost non-stop and although we had to put up with their racism, we did so in order to support our loved ones,” said Aminu, a tailor by profession. “Everything was provided, food, electricity, fuel… Nobody went hungry,” Moussa reminisced, who came back to Niger a few weeks after the initial intervention by NATO.

The migration phenomenon was used as a bargaining chip by the Gaddafi regime, with the late dictator using the large amount of people arriving in his country as leverage in his diplomacy with the European Union. He enjoyed his self-appointed role as a ‘guardian of Europe’.

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Of the six million people in Libya in 2011, it was estimated that 2 million were immigrants. A large majority worked for local authorities or foreign companies, where they acquired training as electricians, plumbers or mechanics. “I used to repair televisions, gadgets, other kinds of gizmos. I earned a lot of money, but here, with power shortages and taxes, I don’t have a lot of benefits,” said another Nigerien, Yssiaka.

Across the dunes

Many arrived in Libya by crossing the desert and many died in the attempt. 92 women and children died in November 2013 and the death toll rises on a daily basis. “The desert is very difficult, you have to ration water and food, travel in crowded trucks. Some of the drivers abandon their passengers if they breakdown or have an accident. You see dead bodies all along the route,” said Ydrissa, who made both the outbound and inbound journey.

In all cases, people pass through the desert city of Agadez, which sprung up to facilitate trans-Saharan trade.

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Those lucky enough to survive the journey then settled in Libya’s major cities, finding work, a salary and a precarious stability, stained by xenophobia, the memory of which stays with many of the people who have returned to Niger. But once the war started, almost all tried to find a way out via the desert or by plane.

Forced return

Harassed as alleged accomplices of Gaddafi, more than a million sub-Saharans made their way back home. The traumas caused by the conflict still haunt many of the people who have come back. “I had nightmares for a long time and when I hear a plane, I still think about the bombs that were dropped,” said Hassan, whose hatred of the war is abundant.

Forced to leave the country, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), repatriated about 18,000 people by air via Tunisia and Egypt. Meanwhile, the rest took the desert route, crammed into vehicles and subjected to deplorable conditions. “They made a business out of the tragedy, with prices sky-rocketing. We had an accident, the truck overturned because too many people were in it. Two people died and I was injured. It was hell, but we got here,” said Bouba, another Nigerien forced to come back.

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Niger is a fragile country, considered in international rankings to be the most vulnerable on the planet, with a birth rate of more than seven children per woman. It is also under the thumb of its old colonial master, France, which is also its main creditor and beneficiary of its main valuable raw material: uranium.

A food crisis has been triggered by the large amounts of people returning to the country, as well as the periodic droughts that Niger is plagued by. International agencies have estimated that more than five million people are at risk of food safety, but have promised aid for those who have returned to the country.

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Now, thousands of people embark from Libyan with the hope of reaching Europe. Among them, there is an increasing number of Nigeriens. The European Union has identified Niger as a new frontline in terms of tackling the migrant crisis at source. Different missions work in the country in an attempt to curb the flow of Nigeriens. “Irregular migration is a huge concern for the EU, as 60% of those arriving in Lampedusa get there via Niger,” said Raul Mateus, the EU’s representative in the country.

Among the reported 80,000-120,000 African migrants that have crossed through the zone in 2015, there must be plenty who long for their days working in pre-war Libya.

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