When the Migrants Vanished from This Desert Outpost, so Did the Jobs

Photo for The Washington Post by Guy Peterson
Beat-up trucks sit on the edge of Agadez, Niger, with crowds of migrants waiting to make their way to the border with Libya, a three-day drive from the city.

AGADEZ, Niger – During the heyday of European-bound migration, this city built amid the sands of the Sahara Desert was booming, with shop owners who catered to the travelers making healthy profits and the men who drove busloads of them north earning a comfortable living.

But today, eight years after the government banned foreigners from traveling north from here, the development assistance that many believed would make up for the lost business has amounted to little more than a trickle, Agadez residents say.

“I was expecting suffering, and I was expecting aid,” said Abdou Salaam Abdou, whose taxi business dried up as the flow of African migrants in Agadez dwindled after the adoption of a law banning the northbound transit and criminalizing the work of those who helped them. “We received only suffering.”

Today, with undocumented immigration to Europe at the highest levels since 2016, officials in the European Union are debating strategies to curb migration.

Migration researchers and residents in Agadez say their experience here shows both the painful consequences of policies that effectively build a wall around Europe far beyond its actual borders and the limited impact of aid that is often promised to African countries that cooperate. Agreements for increased border control sometimes come with explicit pledges of funding, researchers note, and other times with more implicit offers of future support.

“No funding can replace migration,” said Ibrahim Rissa Ixa, a vice president of Agadez’s regional council. “Europe and our partners must do more for the region of Agadez, because we’re doing a job for Europe – we’re not doing it for ourselves.”

Promises of money

The adoption of Law 2015-036 resulted from a combination of factors, according to researchers and local officials in Niger. Within the West African nation, officials said in interviews they had feared that the deteriorating conditions in Libya posed increased danger for migrants heading north through that country.

At the same time, concern in Europe provoked by the arrival there of more than 1 million undocumented migrants in 2015 had prompted the E.U. to set up the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which provides more than $5 billion in funding for enhanced border security and seeks to address the root causes of migration.

Niger’s adoption of Law 36 was tied to European promises of funding but was not conditional on the promises being kept, said Alia Fakhry, a migration researcher for the German Council on Foreign Relations. Hundreds of millions of dollars of development aid was funneled from the E.U. to Niger following the law’s passage.

“It is an offer that you can’t refuse,” she said, adding, “Even if there isn’t anything explicit that says, ‘If you don’t do this, you won’t get development aid,’ it’s clear that it doesn’t look good for you to say no.”

A failing economy

Once the law began to be enforced, in about 2017, people in Agadez said they watched the local economy crater.

In Abdel Aziz Elhadj Afiloseydi’s modest bookstore, business these days, he said, is slow to nonexistent. “The entire economy was linked,” said Afiloseydi. “When they [smugglers] earned money, they spent it here.”

Illia Oumarou, a barber working out of a one-room shack, said many of his clients have disappeared in recent years and that those who remain have less money and come less often. “Before the law, the economy was working for almost everyone, and when it came, it brought things down for everybody,” he said.

“My kids need clothes for school – I can’t find a way to buy them,” said Souley Iddi, who makes a fraction of what he once did selling jerrycans, used to haul water. “Everything has been reduced, even food, what money I gave my family. It’s all more difficult now.”

Disappointment and despair

In a spartan concrete room at Agadez’s bus and car depot, a group of former smugglers sit around, with little else to do besides sip tea from a kettle brewing over open coals.

In 2015, this was the bustling office of the National Transport Union. Now, the men here say they hustle for odd jobs driving shorter, local routes, or moving luggage. They said some have also turned to smuggling drugs or other illegal items.

When Law 36 was passed, many said they were told that they would be eligible for small-business grants to replace their previous jobs, which previously had been perfectly legal. But few said they received the grant funds, and those who did said they only covered a fraction of what they had once made.

“I filled out an application, I did everything,” said Oumarou Katto, an ex-smuggler wearing a corduroy jacket and a white scarf who said he’d earned as much as $4,100 a month in the migration heyday. He’d been ready to give that up to run a corner store with the E.U. grant, he said, if the funds had ever arrived.

“It’s not like before, because there aren’t the travelers. I drive but it’s just in the country, between cities,” Katto said. “Even if I earn a little bit of money, if I break down, I can’t even afford to fix it.”

According to Mahaman Mansour Salissou, a government official whose office helped distribute the funds, about 1,000 of the 6,000 or so applications were funded. Some of the money was lost to fake applications, Salissou said, but there was also simply not enough money to go around. The grants topped out about $2,500, he said, a sum that big-time smugglers could earn in a week.

“When we heard European Union money was being given to Niger, to Agadez, we were content – because we saw it was millions,” said Abdrama Amma Abdou, who used to run a business transporting migrants from the houses where they stayed to the border. “But to our great surprise, that wasn’t the case. They betrayed us, seriously. . . . This money, it should have come to us.”

A spokesperson for the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa did not respond to requests for comment. Officials have consistently characterized the fund as intending to address “the root causes of instability, forced displacement and irregular migration and to contribute to better migration management.”

New routes

After Law 36 was adopted, the number of migrants passing through northern Niger decreased dramatically. But data from the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency, shows that recently, the number has been creeping back up.

But with once-legal travel now criminalized, northbound migrants now largely bypass Agadez or journey along its outskirts, opting for covert routes to avoid being caught by police, researchers and aid groups say.

That means, in part, more danger, with a report by the Clingendael Institute, a think tank in the Netherlands, finding that during the first 18 months after the law’s enforcement, an average of 38 migrants died in the desert per month, versus 11 per month in the previous 18 months.

It also means little help for the local economy. Ixa, the government official in Agadez, said it is hard to imagine re-creating the boom times. The economic slowdown, he said, “impacts the culture of the region, the community,” leading to more drugs and crime.

“There’s all that – facing us, the population of the region,” he said.